The 3rd H: Handling
Several articles back I was going to discuss the 3rd H, Handling, but decided instead to discuss the oft-requested subject of setup. But if the bass doesnt get there intact, setup is superfluous.
The first rule is: Unless absolutely necessary never let anyone "help" you carry your bass. At best its awkward and it could be like the fly ball that falls in the gap between the left and center fielders. You may be saying,"Ive got it" when paying the repair bill.
The string bass is big and fragile. Its impossible to carry it around and not hit it on something once and awhile. The body is like a large blown egg; it pushes the parameters of construction and shape. The string pressure already demands much from this efficient shell but the design is not intended to resist forceful impact from other sources. So what is the most fragile part of the string bass?
Its the top on which sits the bridge, in which are the f-holes. The f-holes may look like convenient handles but theyre extremely fragile. Never pickup a bass by the f-holes. The neck makes for a good handle, as does the upper corner of the c-bout at the back. A good handle and leverage point at the opposite end from the neck is the tailpiece. When standing in a crowded place, such as a subway car, keep the bridge in toward your body so that the guy with the briefcase wont smack your bridge and perhaps crack that top.
There are three basic positions while handling a string bass: carrying on a level plane, carrying up and down stairs and once in awhile picking it up to place up on something (for example a couch or a bed). If the handles on your cover are secure then you can rely on those to hold the bass while walking on a level plane. Watch for fraying or weakening of the cover. An always sure holding place while walking on a level plane with or without the cover on is the upper corner of the G-side c-bout. You know you have the instrument at a midpoint, well balanced spot. Hold the bass so that you can see the bridge as you walk. The neck should be lying on your shoulder and the body against your hip and abdomen. (See diagram A.) This same technique can be used when going down stairs. Going up is totally different. It was Charles Mingus in 1974 who showed me how to do it right. I had loaned him my bass through Max Roach for a date at Amherst College. When going up the stage stairs he simply slung the bass over his hip and onto his right side of his butt with his arm wrapped over the fingerboard and top, grabbing the upper corner of the c-bout at the top. If your arms are not long enough, grab the end of the fingerboard closest to the bridge.
Before this time I was doing what many novices do: lifting the bass up high in front of me while trying to peer around it to see the stairs and other obstacles. If the bass is lying on its back, do not pick it up by the fingerboard as this can pull the fingerboard away from the neck.
When choosing a cover make sure that it fits snugly so that the instrument does not swim inside it. In order to accurately move the bass it is necessary to have the bass move as the case moves. Make sure the handles are well sewn and double stitched. Padded covers really do protect against those little insidious knocks that can cause large cracks. A cover that is too bulky can catch on things and be difficult to negotiate in tight spots. These bulky covers also may cause the instrument to roll over on the bridge when the bass is laid on its side.
Leaving your bass behind in a room or on stage should be done thoughtfully. In general, try to find a place that is out of the way of traffic. Propping a bass up in a corner is good provided there is a rubber stopper on the endpin to keep the bass from slipping down the wall. If a corner is not available, its best to lay the bass on its side with the scroll in plain view and not hidden in the shadows where a waiter will step on it while trying to get another chair. Sometimes we install bumpers on the G-string ribs as resting pads while the bass is lying down. The closer a bass is to the ground, the less it can fall. Dont prop it in a chair unless you play in the New York Philharmonic where only pros are on stage walking around it. Dont lean it against that door that hasnt been opened for 20 years in the recording studio, even for a second, because thatll be the time its opened from the other side.
When traveling by car the most important thing to remember is to not lay the bass so that weight of the instrument is on the neck. Bouncing due to bad road conditions may open an already cracked neck or loosen the fingerboard or neck joint. Usually the best place to put a bass in a sedan is on the front seat with the seat back tilted all the way back. This usually will cradle the body in the seat while suspending the neck in air or lightly touching the back seat. Weight distribution is the key. In a van or station wagon we recommend suspending the neck completely by laying the bass on its back and placing padding under the body at the top of the back where the neck meets the body. Done properly the neck will come in contact with nothing and the body will safely bounce (within reason) on the padding.
This subject is more than I can handle in one article. In my next column, I will cover travel with the acoustic bass by air, sea and train. If you have any travel stories youd like to share, please contact me at email@example.com.