I had a marvelous time attending the 2018 Double Bass Workshop hosted by the Violin Society of America (VSA) at Oberlin College. I first learned of this event when I interviewed bass luthier Arnold Schnitzer in 2016. Arnold invited me to come check it out in 2016, but it landed at the exact same time as when I was moving from Chicago to San Francisco, so it just wasn’t in the cards that summer.
Here’s a list of all the faculty and participants plus links to learn more about them:
- Jay VandeKopple, faculty and event organizer
- David Gage, faculty
- Arnold Schnitzer, faculty
- Robbie McIntosh, associate faculty
- Greg Smith
- Brian Gencarelli
- Joey Naeger
- Thomas Helton
- Vince Jesse
- Andrew Stolfa
- Elinore Morris
- Andrew Hassel
- Sony Negreros
- Ray Ramirez
- Jacob Bradford
- Randy Hunt
- Mitch Moehring
- Ralph Alcala
- Jack Hill
- Jeff Mueller
- Gabriel Golden
- Mark Leue
- Alejandro Zapata
- Dustin Woodward
Live Podcast Taping
Sunday evening, we did a live podcast taping with the entire crew of 26 faculty and participants. This was by far the largest number of guests that I’ve had on the podcast, and it was awesome!
Some of the topics we covered include:
- How working on basses differs from working on other string instruments
- Alternate woods that luthiers are using
- How to season/dry wood
- How they got into the luthier field
- The “new” trend toward removable necks, and how it’s actually not new at all!
- When to get a regular check-up for your bass
- What they wish bassists knew about caring for their instruments
- Old basses vs. new basses
- What makes a great bass (it’s not what you might expect!)
CBC: I emailed out to bass players, and I put it out on social media that, “I’m going to talk with all these luthiers, what do you want to know?” and I have way too many questions to cover. But, I thought maybe we could start with, actually let’s do this, let’s go around and just say who (because people aren’t going to see this) let’s just go around and give a quick introduction if you don’t mind.
JM: Hey I am Jeff Mueller, a longtime luthier first time builder, here to learn. This is a wonderful source of knowledge for me and I’m sharing whatever I can, but just taking it in.
GG: Gabriel Golden here from Los Angeles and Los Angeles bass Works. Repair/restorer.
MM: Mitch Moehring, Mitch Moehring Strings. Bass-maker/repairer.
JN: Joey Naeger, Houston, TX. Lyle Violin Shop. Maker/fixer/un-breaker.
BG: Brian Gencarelli, Greenville, SC.
RA: My name is Ralph Alcala from Los Angeles, CA. I have my own little shop, bass-maker and repairer.
JB: Jacob Bradford from Greenville, SC.
DW: Dustin Woodward from Golden, CO.
VJ: Hello this is Vince Jesse from Madison, WI with the Double Bass Workshop.
EM: I’m Elinore Morris from Sweden. I have a repair workshop in Sweden .
RR: Ray Ramirez from Puerto Rico. Humacao, Puerto Rico. Bass-maker, more in the electric upright bass but also learning the craft of the upright, the double bass.
RM: Robbie McIntosh from Cambridge, NY. Bass-maker/bass-restorer/bass-repairman.
DG: David Gage out of New York City. I’m here to learn, and share, and excited about it. We’re going to have a great week.
A.Sto: I’m Andrew Stolfa from Houston, TX. I work at Quantom Bass Center, repairing and restoring basses. Someday will build a bass, that’s what I’m here to learn about.
AH: Andrew Hassel, Chicago, Chicago Bass Works. Making, restoring, repairs, and setup.
RH: Randy Hunt from Nashville, TN. Hunt Double Bass. Repair, set-up, and finishing my first double bass.
A.Sch: Arnold Schnitzer, currently Las Cruces, NM. I read somewhere that I’m a world-renowned luthier.
ML: Mark Leue. I have a father/daughter-based business in Pioneer Valley, Ashfield, MA.
JV: Jay VandeKopple, I’m a luthier from northern New Jersey and I’m trying to be the director of this, and it works. Thanks!
CBC: Great, and since we got to Jay, maybe a good place to start at, Jay, Arnold, David, or anyone else feel free to chime in. What is this thing where we’re at? And what inspires all these people from around the world to come and learn? Tell us about this event.
JV: Well, the VSA, a number of years ago, had looked at what was available for luthiers for violin initially. [Vahakn Y.] Nigogosian was there at the time, and they said, “Well what we really need is a forum for all these top makers to get together,” and it never had happened before. You know violin makers have secrets. They said, “Well, that doesn’t happen here. Everybody learns and everybody shares.” They started this back in the ‘80s, and eventually it got to the point where they said, “Why don’t we have a bass workshop?” So, this is the VSA Oberlin Bass Workshop and basically, we invite people. It’s not a beginning class where you learn how to do stuff, it’s a matter of all these folks are working, either full-time or part-time, in a shop and it’s just a great way to get together with bassists. With bass luthiers the problem is, the violin makers often will have [the scenario of] if you need a tool you call up the company and also send it out, [but] you make your own as a bass luthier. Everybody comes up with a different idea and we share those ideas, which – I think – is great.
CBC: Then just briefly, speaking about the beginner, this is not a place for people who are starting out and nobody here is starting out, but there is now a bass workshop for people that are starting out. Right? Aren’t you starting something this year?
JV: Up at [the University of New Hampshire]. They’ve had a program there for many years. Karl Roy, who was the head of the Mittenwald School of Violin Making, came to UNH to start a program. They started violin making and then violin repair, about set-up. Then this year they asked me to do a bass set-up class. It’s the first time that we’ve been involved with that. Other than that, it’s pretty much, you [have to] find a shop with somebody who’s nice enough and willing to show you some things and that’s the only real option, otherwise.
CBC: For the people that are here, is this anybody’s first time at this event? We have five hands or so go up. Second time? Third? More than three? Okay wow, so for anybody but maybe those people that have been multiple times: Why do you keep coming back? What do you learn taking time out, leaving your shop, and making the sacrifices to come out to an event like this? Why do you keep coming back and what’s the experience been like?
MM: I keep coming back. Every time I come, I’m around people with different techniques. I’ll think I have no way to do it and then there’s someone at the bench right next to me that, is just at a much higher level. Or I’m using the wrong tool, or there’s a better technique to using that tool. It just always propels my skills immediately. The next week I go back to my shop and everything’s at a much higher level.
AH: Hey Andrew Hassel. Kind of like you were saying earlier, there’s not really a lot of places to learn how to do this. When I first started, all I had was basically the Internet. I was looking at who’s doing what, people a lot of times ask, “How did you get into this?” Honestly it was just a lot of research, networking, and finding people who are willing to talk to me. So, when I saw that this program existed and all these people that I was checking out on the Internet were all going to be at one place for a week working on basses, I was like, “That sounds amazing!” The first time I came, the networking that happened, and just being around excellent people, makes you more excellent. It’s really inspiring to come and be around people who are at the top of their game, really.
RA: The reason I came back this year is, the first time the amount of enthusiasm for all the teachers and everybody to share, not just learn, but to share ideas. Everybody wants to teach, everyone, wants to share how they can do something better, improve, and just elevate our field. That’s pretty much the reason I come back.
CBC: I’ve got a whole bunch of questions and I thought it will probably lead to some really interesting conversations. Maybe we can kick it off with a question from Steve Rodby, you know Pat Metheny Group longtime bassist. He actually just moved to Seattle and is looking for luthier recommendations – just throwing that out there. Steve calls these obvious questions, but they’re probably good place to start. One thing Steve asks is, “How’s working on basses different than other string instruments?” I like big questions.
BG: Obviously the bass is so much bigger than the other string instruments. There [is] so much movement in the instrument with the seasons [when] compared to violin, viola, cello the techniques that we have to use and employ to stabilize flatbacks through seasons. Planing a fingerboard. Just the sheer volume of the work that we have to accomplish is so much more difficult and challenging because of the scope of the work. And different playing styles and setups that we would have to do.
RA: Ralph here. One big difference is the tools. The majority of the tools that we have, we have to make or have made for us. Earlier in the week somebody said, “For violin guys or cello guys, all of these tools, you can just order it from a catalog and it’s in your house a couple weeks later.” For us we either have to make it or have someone make it for us and it’s a big obstacle for a lot of projects.
One big difference working on the smaller instruments versus the bigger instruments. With the smaller instruments you can maneuver the instrument itself in whatever position or angle you need to work on it. You see a lot of violin guys, they have the violin in one hand and their tool in the other hand. Bass you can’t do that, you have to move yourself around the instrument as much as you can. So, you have to bring a lot more physicality to the to the job, I think that’s why you see a big divide in the types of luthiers.
A.Sch: There are lots of books, and methods, and materials for any budding violinmaker or violin restorer, to use as their guide. There is nothing reliable – yet – for bass. So, a bass luthier needs to be very creative figuring out how to do things, how to make, and how to restore, and how to fix things. It’s a whole different ball game.
CBC: You know, Arnold, it’s you who said something interesting when I talked to you that I’ve thought about a lot. I said some dumb question like, “What’s it like working with your hands all the time?” and you said, “It’s not your hands, you’re working with your mind.” Which is a great line by the way. Brian mentioned set-up and the second part of Steve Rodby’s question is, first of all: What percentage of your work roughly, anyone feel free to answer, is for classical players versus more non-classical players? And then, what are some of the general differences [between things] you might do in terms of setup for primarily jazz/primarily arco?
GG: Gabriel here from Los Angeles. I’d say at our shop, rough estimation, probably half-and-half jazz and classical. And it varies from students all the way to professionals. The differences in set-up mainly starts with the strings, I would say. Then whether or not you have a pickup on there. Then you can get into the intricacies of, you know, a flatter fingerboard. Fingerboard shape is probably a pretty big topic. I know you did a whole segment with Joey on that, so people should tune into that. But I would say strings, in our opinion, are probably the biggest [factor]. Also the action, but that’s a very personal thing for each player.
CBC: Is a good setup just a good setup or…?
GG: Well, every shop has kind of their own ideas, but we’re all here at this workshop to share those ideas and learn from each other. But I think a player knows when they play on a good set-up, and we also know when we see one.
Even in the jazz players, you have the jazz players who like to the low set-up with the growl on the fingerboard. Then you have the folks who like the set-up with the gut strings and, “Set it up way high, ‘cause I can really thump on that thing.” So, it depends even on the player, not just the type of music they play.
CBC: I remember talking to Joey, he had a good line about fingerboards being the interface between player and instrument. Am I getting that right? Is that your invention, or did you lift that from someone? Not to put you on the spot, I guess I am putting on the spot.
JN: I don’t know if I invented that idea, or if I just discovered it or observed that idea, but it’s the truth; that’s where you’re meeting the instrument. Kind of back to your original point of setting-up for different players, I’ve found that a good standard set-up will make most people happy. They may want different strings, they want to bump the bridge a little higher/a little lower, but a good setup is a good setup in my opinion. Then for the picky people, you just give them what they want
I’m in a small East Texas town and it seems like everybody plays all styles. So, I don’t really have like a jazz set-up or a classical set-up, just a set-up.
RA: The shop I came from, one of the best lines that my boss ever told me was, “A good set-up starts with a relationship with a bass player.” It’s knowing your bass player, and it’s an evolving thing. Seeing how they play, how they change through time, whether they had an injury one year and they can’t handle that high action, or they can’t do this. Your set-up for that person evolves throughout the years. It’s a lot of information you have to memorize and keep track of.
CBC: As a non-luthier right here, [as are] probably most people listening now, what can we do to be more helpful in communicating what we really want?
I guess, agreeing on vocabulary usage. Sometimes I think players and luthiers use different vocabulary. So, we’re shooting for different things. What they’re trying to express, isn’t what we might be hearing.
CBC: What’s an example of vocabulary you wanna hear?
Like, the “growl” thing. They want to hear “growl” and sometimes that comes out, and then other people might think of that as being fingerboard buzz. “I want my strings as low as possible,” well, how low is, “as low as possible?”
JN: One thing I’ve observed is that, from the player’s perspective, the experience of playing an instrument encompasses the sound and the feel. Often when they’re describing what they’re wanting, they really can’t differentiate from those two variables. They may say they don’t like the way it sounds but really, they don’t like the way it’s responding, it actually sounds fine. Or vice versa. That can be really difficult to work through for both parties in that situation. Just something to think about.
I find that in a number of cases, particularly younger folks in the student level but even some professionals, they don’t know necessarily what a good set-up is. They’ll come in with something like, “Oh, I got a buzz on my fingerboard,” not realizing it’s more than that. It’s a matter of, if you want a good response, do something with the post. That’s not critical of other luthiers, ‘cause very often, it got set-up in a violin shop and this is their axe, and this is how it behaves. A good set-up does help a lot.
It’s important that players know that there are no miracles. Your bass has a horrible wolf tone? Okay we can ameliorate it a little bit, we can tone it down, [but] we can’t totally get rid of it, it’s going to go somewhere else. You want low action on your fingerboard, but you want to play really aggressively and pluck hard. Well, that’s not really gonna work. So be realistic, don’t expect miracles, but we can probably compromise and make you reasonably happy.
CBC: Another question, this is from Lloyd Goldstein who is a certified music practitioner. He plays for cancer patients down in Tampa. It dovetails really nicely with something I was seeing earlier today here, his question is, “Many instruments are made out of high-quality European spruce and maple combinations. Some contemporary luthiers are using other woods that are perhaps more available or less expensive,” a timely question, “are the sonic results supporting these choices in fine instruments?” And Mark Kindig asked add similar question, “How do you determine what’s a good wood for a bass?” Anybody wanna speak to wood choices?
A.Sch: How many hours do we have?
CBC: 30, uhh 30…slightly under 39
A.Sch: That should do it! The traditional woods are in short supply. They’re in short supply because of over foresting. They’re in short supply because the Asian and Eastern European companies have bought up most of the world’s fine tonewoods, and no one’s planting any tonewood plantations. We as bass players need to work more with what we have. We’re tired of only getting the picked over stuff from Europe. It’s very important for us, from both an ecological and from a financial standpoint [as well as] tonally, to investigate other woods that are available. For example: walnuts, poplars, mahoganies, now these woods have been used for hundreds of years by Italian and Spanish luthiers with fantastic results. Now, the results are different than typical maple and European spruce, but they’re often excellent. I think most of the guys in this room have had some experience with alternative tonewoods. I personally have used about 12 different types of woods in my instruments, Robbie has used quite a few, with excellent results if you have a good grasp of both the science and the intuition of building.
CBC: What are a few examples of those woods?
RM: Robbie McIntosh here. Cotton wood is a good tonewood. Elm, even though elm is now a disappearing species because of Dutch Elm Disease [DED]. Black walnut, cherry, butternut, yellow birch, white pine instead of spruce, and [there’s] a lot of precedent for using white pine in the old Yankee basses. The different aspins, willow, they all work. They all have their different qualities, and you can combine the qualities of the different top woods with the qualities of the different back woods. I get a whole range of results.
CBC: Another question Lloyd Goldstein asked that ties into that is, just approach –oh I’m sorry not Lloyd, Mark Kindig. Talk to us about seasoning wood, what’s your approach for seasoning wood?
SOMEONE: Salt & Pepper
In general, bass wood should be drier than the conditions in which the instrument is going to live before you build the instrument, that will help to make it more stable. Robbie could talk for about an hour about that.
CBC: Another question asked multiple times, first by Grace Lewis who says, “First say, ‘Hi,’ to Andrew Stolfa.”
A.Sto: Hi Grace!
CBC: She asked, “So curious how these craftsman became involved in their field,” and David Parrot also asked, “How did you get into this? Were you always mechanically inclined?” Again, we could take 3-6 hours to go through that, but if a couple people want to share their journey to where they’re at?
RH: I started as a bass player, went to college. I had high school wood shop, I was more interested in that than math and all that stuff. I always just thought it’d be cool to build a bass someday and bought that Harry Wake book on bass building, read through it, and was just totally baffled. Then years later, I needed a job and I got a job at Zeta, that place that made electric violins and upright basses in Oakland, CA. That kind of got me started on my journey. Then, of course, as bass players, oftentimes – specially 20 years ago – you had to work on your own bass ‘cause it’s hard to find a bass luthier. The first time I set my sound post I used a pair of scissors and a butter knife. I didn’t have any tools and I had no one to set it for me.
BG: I am still a current public school orchestra teacher, and one of the reasons I got started is because I had no budget for repairs in my school. Kids would have broken instruments, we would have blown seams. So, I just got some hide-glue, some clamps, started reading and researching, then eventually found my way here. This is definitely the career path that I want to be on. As Randy was saying, just to piggyback on that, [compared to] the world that a bassist [such as] the 18- to 25-year-old guys [are used to]. Randy and I are in our mid 40s and especially me being from the South, to get to a bass luthier meant driving 12-hours. To get to a luthier in general, maybe even a violinmaker or something like that, could be a long distance. It was really a necessity to learn some basic set-up things and start doing that. There’s so much more opportunity for good work to be done in most areas of the country and a lot [of that is] because of programs like this.
RA: I actually, very similar to Brian, but on the other end. 8th grade, my middle school teacher in inner-city L.A. [had] no budget for repairs and did a lot of that stuff for herself. I was that kid, I just hung out in the orchestra room, a little too much, and just asked a lot of questions to the point where she just said, “You know what, screw it, you do it!” Every time a seam would pop or crack she’d say, “Well here, figure it out. I’ll guide you as much as I can.” I did a lot of seam repairs for several years, until I got to high school and found a violin maker that helped me learn a little bit more, and I progressed.
RM: I was a cabinet maker for 20 years before I started working on basses. It was when my daughter, who was 14 at the time, wished she could play the bass and I couldn’t afford one. A friend of ours gave us one that was, just a wreck, and with the generous help of violinmaker friend Geoffrey Ovington and Lou DiLeone down in Orange, CT. That’s how I got started in the trade. I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Lou DiLeone because he taught Arnold, David Gage, myself, and several other guys. His generosity was just unbelievable, and I consider my presence here, in addition to being rewarding because everybody who is here brings something to it – everybody has something unique that they bring to this sharing experience – but I feel obliged to kind of repay Lou by being here and sharing what I know.
CBC: I’ve got another question. This is from Kristin Zoernig, who is a wonderful, primarily baroque player in the Bay Area. She plays in Philharmonia Baroque and all sorts of other [ensembles]. I’ll read her full question because it’s really well written, but the short question is [about] removable necks and trends you’re seeing. She says, “When he speaks to the luthiers, I’d be interested to hear how they feel about the new removable neck trend and their different theories about how it’s best accomplished? Also, curious about their thoughts on how it affects the sound/vibration/response?” and then, “How do you feel about ‘ravaging’ the fine instruments to do this?”
BG: I shipped a bass to New Mexico on Thursday and when it arrived it had a removable neck. This is why I think removable necks are really great for traveling. If you’re primarily a player who stays in one place, maybe it’s not necessary, but for someone who’s going to be on a flight I would highly recommend it.
This new trend of removable necks started approximately 200 years ago.
Yeah, there are pictures in the Elgar books of 200-year-old basses with removable necks, so they could travel on stagecoaches, or whatever.
CBC: There’s nothing new under the sun.
And in my opinion, having done a whole bunch of them – I was skeptical at first – I don’t hear a tonal difference.
One of the basses in the Elgar book, it’s a cornerless bass, was originally made with a removable neck. It’s a big dovetail, then he had it restored and had that taken out. Ironically, he’s having me make a copy of that bass with a removable neck.
CBC: Another question Kristin had was about endpins. Adjustable metal end pen versus wooden end pen tonal differences or other materials that I know are being used. Thoughts on the subject? Observations? Oh, here we go!
GG: Well, let’s see. I think it again it’s so specific to each player, what they’re playing, and where they’re playing. But I did (I guess it was two workshops ago, yeah four years ago) an experiment with a luthier who’s no longer – well, isn’t here this year. Didn’t come out right. John Hay I think out of Michigan. He made 20-something different endpin rods out of 20-something different species of wood. We basically cranked through all of them throughout a couple days, pizzing it, bowing it, and recording it. There is definitely a difference between all the different woods. There’s a difference between wood, there’s a difference in carbon fiber, there’s a difference with steel. I’m of the opinion, and I think our shop is of the opinion that, [on] no bass can you have a perfect formula [that] will work for all basses. Each bass is going to be different, which I know is extremely frustrating, but that’s what we deal with.
CBC: So, no broad trends like, “Wow it’s different but…”
GG: I see a bit of a trend, I think at least in Los Angeles, people going more towards – or starting to maybe shift a little bit towards wooden endpins. A lot of people are going towards the Laborie and then they have wooden pegs made. Certainly, the carbon fiber is seeming to replace a lot of the steel, I think that’s for shipping, it lightens the bass. Also, the tonal differences with carbon fiber, I think the weight properties, and maybe the resonance, can someone simulate wood versus steel. But I can’t say that there’s one general thing that’ll cure your woes.
CBC: Cellists geek-out about their endpins too, don’t they? Don’t they use different [materials] because of the length? Doesn’t that have a pretty significant acoustical effect?
GG: Yeah, and with bassists you see all different lengths. What can be crazy with the bass is when you get it really far out it can vibrate like mad. I think the main thing is that you have a really well-made endpin that’s not going to collapse on you and not going to break. That can ruin your whole gig. A well fitted endpin that has a long enough screw and can interface with your wheel, if you’re using a wheel.
CBC: Sara Nelson, who’s a bass teacher in the Chicago area. Andrew Hassel knows her, I know Sara too. Sara asks, “What do you all wish bassists knew about caring for their instruments?” What would you like to tell bass–Oh, I see some passionate looks!
JB: Clean your rosin off after the gig, please.
That’s all I was going to say too.
JH: This is one of my pet peeves and I’m always telling this to my students. Don’t slide your bass on the floor. If you want to slide your bass in the floor, I can give you some sandpaper and it’ll do the job a lot better.
CBC: In terms of cleaning off the rosin, anything will do? Can I just grab my kitchen towel? Anything better or worse?
GG: I can’t say one thing that would be better or worse but, two rags! One rag to wipe down your bass. Well, one rag first to wipe down your strings, and that only wipes down your strings, and a separate rag to wipe the top your bass, and they only get used for those two purposes. And wash them somewhat frequently, because otherwise they just build up and then they’re not cleaning.
Touching the strings, there are some strings that do stretch out enough to where sweat and old hand oils get into the strings, and as soon as you take the tension off you can literally see all that gunk squeeze out of the strings. I’m not gonna say the string brand, but it’s a very common string and [when] people just don’t take care of their strings they die faster, they wear out faster, and if you don’t wipe them down, you’re wasting a $300/$400 set of strings very quickly.
CBC: And just wiping them down with a cloth, not using rubbing alcohol, not boiling your strings which I’ve heard is…
I don’t recommend boiling your strings. Every day after you play just wipe it down. That’s usually enough. If you do that every day, you don’t have to use alcohol, you don’t have to really do that.
AH: I got one, when you’re first starting to learn how to drive you’re supposed to walk around in your car and do an inspection. Make sure all those tires are inflated, there’s nothing missing. It’s really helpful as a bassist to do that once a week. Check your seams, are there any new cracks that you didn’t notice there before? Is your bridge looking like it’s about to pop off (‘cause that’s a really big thing)? I take a lot of time to teach each of my customers how to relocate the bridge, where it should go. I even make them a little template to help them do it themselves. But just doing a visual inspection [can be very helpful]. Because sometimes, if you let a seam that’s on the treble side – that you don’t normally look at – stay open for six months, it can become a really expensive repair. The ribs start to warp, and it takes a lot of work to get that back into place.
RH: Being from Nashville, if you’re going to stand on your bass just budget extra money for that each year.
Buy a humidity gauge for your room. They’re cheap, they’re like $10 on Amazon for an electronic one, and they tend to work really well. I have four, two in the shop and two in the house, just to see the differences. They’re cheap, they’re easy to read, you know when it starts getting dry, and it helps you kinda predict if you’re gonna pop a seam, or crack, or something. It’s not it’s not gonna blindside you.
The other destroyer of basses, besides low humidity, is gravity! There are really ways to avoid your bass falling over that help. I hear the same stories again and again, “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. I leave the bass up in the corner of the grand piano, in the case, and the cat runs up it and launches off.” Actually heard that three times so far! You have to think about the height of the thing, and the potential for gravity/carnage.
On the same subject, don’t drive around in your car with the bass on its back, resting on the scroll. One bad pothole and you’ve got a broken neck.
CBC: The topic of humidity, I know, is a big topic. I moved to San Francisco, so I enjoy the humidity level very much. Gone are the winter-post days, but I used to live in Chicago and it’s a different ballgame. Best practices? What should players be looking out for? What’s a good range? Summer/Winter, any thoughts or advice?
40% is pretty safe. Below 40% you’re asking for trouble, if it’s a sustained amount of time. You’ll see a lot of published figures of 50% or 60% and that’s very nice, but it’s not really practical in a lot of places. The great news is hygrometers are notoriously inaccurate, they drift, but they do have digital ones now with a recalibration nob. You really only have to [recalibrate it] once at the beginning of the season. It’s worth doing, they’re inexpensive, and 40% is a pretty safe number.
CBC: In terms of keeping the room humid, a is a room humidifier enough? Dampits® or any device like that, that keeps the bass humid, I’ve heard it’ll drip and open all sorts of things up. Experiences or thoughts on that?
The issue I find with Dampits® is that you’re really just humidifying just the inside the instrument. You’re not actually humidifying the whole instrument, or even getting out to the neck, or anything else like that. An instrument’s always happiest in its case at night, but if you’re leaving it out in the stand or in a room, just pick one room to be humidified and keep that as your humidification room. Keep all your instruments and everything else in one room.
JH: I recommend getting the biggest humidifier you can afford. Because if you get a small one, then you’re not apt to keep it filled, and then you’re just gonna run into problems. I don’t [like] Dampits®, I don’t think they should be used at all. I usually find that they’re used incorrectly, that they’re over soaked, stuck into the instrument where they drip into the bass and then cause warping of the wood, and opening of seams that are very difficult to repair.
I’ve never met a bass luthier that doesn’t prefer room humidification. We really don’t like Dampits®. We see them drip down on the seams or down to the end-block and cause their own damage.
They give you a false sense of security.
The day you forget to wet the sponge might be the day that [the humidity] drops below, and then it has the worst change.
If your room is not huge, it’s really not too hard to humidify the room. To Jack’s point about, a big [humidifier] is less maintenance because people forget to do things. But if the room is not huge, it doesn’t take a giant one.
Also, the Dampits®, the humidifiers, they don’t last that long. Maybe it’ll be humid inside the bass for a few hours, but that’s about the limit. We’re talking about, it needs it for longer a term than that.
That’s the false security sense. You get it wet, and you think you’re okay, but then you don’t look at it and it dries out.
CBC: Any problems going the other direction? Like if you’re in South Florida or something like that? Or where Mitch lives in the Louisiana/Texas border?
Yeah, I have a dehumidifier in my shop. I do. There’s days that it’ll be halfway filled with moisture in the air. But I aim for the same numbers that Mark was saying. The 40% to 50% range, but [with] the dehumidifier.
Instruments can acclimate to low humidity, but its rapid changes that cause breakage, cracks, seams to pop open. It’s also important that luthiers glue tops on with very weak glue, because that’s your safety valve. You would rather have a popped seam then have your instrument crack.
CBC: Very broad question, this is from Dan Carson who’s the new assistant principal bassist in the Lyric Opera in Chicago. He asks, “What makes a great bass?” Again, broad. Quality materials? Set-up? age of wood?
CBC: Yes, yes, yes, okay. Just in general, what makes a great bass?
A great bass player.
CBC: A great bass player!
I’ve noticed that people always want to see great quality woods on basses. Amazing flame and perfect spruce, [but] if you look at really old instruments. I’ve seen some instruments in the local orchestra in L.A. – the L.A. Phil – there are some amazing instruments with knots the size of my fist. Or three-piece tops, four-piece tops, that nobody would ever pass up on just because it’s a four-piece top. I think the luthier, the maker, has a lot to do with knowing how to make that instrument. Knowing his materials and knowing how to make it work. So really, it’s the luthier. Trust your luthier.
CBC: I got a few questions from people about carbon fiber soundposts. John Beilman, [asked about your] experiences. Are you using them? What are the tonal differences? Why might you use them or not use them?
DG: I’ve had experience with the Anima Nova soundpost, and have had very good experience with them. I’ve had various players try them, I’ve installed them, and I found them to be not only a great diagnostic tool, but also to work in the field really well. People who have tried them have generally come back and bought a second one. We’ve learned a lot already, I’ve learned a lot already, Kyle’s learned a lot already from them. One of the things I’ve learned is that the location is important, but maybe not as important as we thought. Maybe, perhaps, the amount of pressure the soundpost is exerting to the top, is more important. In instances where you have just increased the pressure slightly, the E-string has just come right out, blossomed – literally – and everyone heard it. When you’re trying out the Anima Nova, the better the player, the more of an effect it’s going to have.
Getting back to what it takes to make a good instrument, all I know is I saw Ray Brown come into my shop and every bass he played sounded a lot like Ray Brown.
But the Anima Nova is very, very interesting, it’s very fine tuned, it’s really well thought out. [But] I don’t think it’s necessarily [that it’s made from] carbon fiber that makes it great, I think it’s more the adaptability to the instrument. There’s a lot of future there. Also, the other important thing when putting in a new soundpost, there’s always the danger of when you’re putting a new soundpost in, that it is going to be a larger post (if they’re going to a summer post) you’re pretty much guesstimating right away when you first put it in. You can’t fit it immediately the first time, so by definition the post can be little too long because you need that extra length to make them fit. That puts us up against the wall, perhaps doing some damage. There’s some tricks I do to avoid that, which is to prop it up underneath the bridge foot, but on the other hand, with the Anima Nova and any adjustable soundpost like that (I’m not advertising Anima Nova) you can actually [adjust it] without any effective scraping on top or any kind of damage, or any threat of damage, ‘cause it’s a very fine [adjustment]. You have to really crank it to do any damage – you can just place it in there put it up in its spot and it’s very, very gentle to the instrument. Which is great because I’ve seen a soundposts damage tops. I mean, it’s terrible to repair those.
CBC: How it is a top damaged by a soundpost? It’s too tight and the top cracks?
DG: People kick it. I’ve seen people move soundposts in full tension. Again, we won’t name any names, but good teachers who would take the student’s bass and then whack the soundpost during a lesson. You know, the soundpost, it’s a post! The end grain is very strong and it’s not going to chip out, so [a bass] gets damaged either by people who don’t know what they’re doing, or people have good intentions and they’re just trying to fit it in there and the wood’s soft. It’s easy to do, easy to damage, you have to be careful to not damage it. And that’s what we are, we’re careful.
JV: When fitting a post, luthiers are careful to, when you fit the top [of the post] you don’t leave it with really sharp edges, you just take a slight bit of sandpaper just cut those edges a little bit. Call it a micro-chamfer, is what is often called. Otherwise, you can pretty well screw that up or chip off pieces off the soundpost as well.
CBC: A lot of you working in climates like New York, or Chicago, or other places where – I know back when I lived in Chicago I had a winter-post and a summer-post. Talk to me about that, do you use that? Is that a very common or just on a case by case basis? When do you switch them out? How does the player know it’s time to switch it out? Talk about winter and summer posts if that’s part of your experience.
I don’t want to say too much, but definitely South Chicago and New York are the same. Nick Lloyd will say he has a New York City bass now, because he makes it differently for people who buy it in New York City, because things do have a lot of stress put on them. I was [also] gonna say, going back to the humidifier and all that, Arnold’s absolutely right it’s [not so much] the changing humidity but it’s a rapid change in humidity [that can be problematic]. People don’t keep their basses in their apartments all day, they travel all over the place. So having a humidifier in your apartment’s only minimal [insurance] too. But, if you really humidify a lot and then go to Siberia, it’ll crack because you don’t want to humidify too much ether in the wintertime. You want to be careful not to over humidify. You definitely need two soundposts, generally speaking and it’s on the player–
Especially on the flatbacks.
Exactly! Flatbacks more so, they actually become concave and push up. But, some basses don’t and some players have had the same soundpost and have not moved it for 20 years, and they’re great players and had great careers – and I’m down with that, that’s for sure! But soundposts are a whole other book, you know, you can go to the psychology/psychoacoustics, but I’m not going there. It’s definitely something that needs to be done, especially in weather change like New York, Chicago, or Montreal, [etc…]
JN: All I want to say is, if you’re deciding whether you yourself need a different soundpost for the seasons, one indicator might be if you’re noticing your string action changing with the seasons. That might be a good tell, that your instrument’s moving enough to necessitate a different soundpost, but not a guarantee.
RA: About two years ago I moved from L.A., where the weather is pretty consistent almost year-round (there’s very, very little swing) to Cleveland. I moved my shop there, and I had a crash-course on having two soundposts. Never really had to deal with it until I got there. Pretty much what I feel is, if you’re having to you either turn on your air conditioner or heater, it’s probably time to get your bass checked out. If you’re feeling the seasonal change, your bass is probably feeling it too. A quick trip to your luthier, just to check your instrument, is a lot less costly than a soundpost repair.
To piggyback on that, out in Colorado (because it’s so dry out there) I usually recommend our customers get their basses checked up once before winter and once after winter, when the seasons are going to change the most. At the very least, [to] get your bass checked up twice a year is a good practice to have.
CBC: I think I know the answer to this question, but I will ask it anyway. From Alden [F.] Cohen, another Bay Area bassist, “What type of glue is best to seal an open seam?
[AH jokingly suggests gorilla glue, everyone laughs. CBC: Haha, we’ll cut that one.]
Hot hide glue.
CBC: Period. Done. The answer I thought. Okay, good moving on. A very short question on a big topic, Brian Crain asks, “Buying a bass, old versus new?”
CBC: Say the luthiers!
JN: When you’re buying an old bass, you’re not only buying that bass, but you’re also buying all the repair work that that bass has inside of it that you probably don’t know about yet. Just keep that in mind, you might be surprised in an unpleasant sort of way, if you buy an old bass. New bass, should have a clean slate.
GG: I’m just gonna piggyback on that and say, I’m all for supporting new making. I think it’s amazing, people here are doing amazing things, and I think the level is only elevating. [A. Stradivari] was a new maker once too. But, there are also benefits you get with an older instrument, you get it’s character that’s already developed over decades and decades, or centuries of use. But the price tag on those – obviously – will be usually significantly higher.
RM: I get a lot of high school kids coming in and they often ask, should they get a new bass if they were renting up until that point. I say, “Look for an old bass, because an old a bass that has survived a few winters in our climate is something of great value. With a new bass, you don’t know if it’s going to survive.”
CBC: Something that comes up a lot when I talk to people in education, or any aspect of the bass world, is how radically transformed the bass is. Many of you might agree. Maybe for the people who’ve been in this business for a while, or people who are newer to it, talk about what things were like 30-years ago, versus 20-years ago, versus right now in terms of the state of bass making. Another big topic, but I think it could be interesting to hear people’s perspectives.
At the risk of sounding self-serving, I think we’re in the heyday of bass making, of all time. Seriously. Because there’s never been such a dissemination of information, there’s never been anything like the VSA [The Violin Society of America] Oberlin Bass Workshop. There’s never been so many people that are hell-bent on creating the best bass that they can. Unfortunately, we’re also at a stage where we don’t have all the great old-growth wood, so we have to make up for that in other ways. But I think we’re in a heyday right now, personally.
You asked the question, how it’s changed in 30-years. Greatly, tremendously, in every way. But the players have gotten so much better, that’s dictated a lot of things. I look at it that way, the players have gotten so much better, they’re asking more of the instrument, and [luthiers] are delivering more. I think that’s one key thing that is happening. I think it’s [also] strings, there are better strings now. In the ‘60s you had really terrible strings, gut strings, people were using metal strings because they were so tired of gut strings. You talked to anybody who played gut strings, Red Mitchell, Ray Brown, those guys, nobody wanted to play gut strings after they got back to metal strings. Even though the metal strings were pretty new and pretty crude, in some ways, compared to what we have now. Now you have the new plastic core strings, which are fantastic. All this innovation! These guys are making these C-extensions now that are just, unto themselves, a work of art. It used to be functionality was it, and now it’s functionality plus style, grace, and artistry. As far as [the C-extension] goes, [it’s now] more sculptural. That’s all changed, greatly. The soul of the music was the same then as it is now, that hasn’t changed. The essence hasn’t changed, but the great playing back then wasn’t– there’s so many great players right now. Back then there were great players too, but it’s a different kind of playing, it’s really different.
One thing I’d like to add is that, in the last – I’d say – two decades we’ve had a surge of acceptance of new basses. Whereas, when I was growing up as bass player, new basses were junk. They sounded green, they were terrible, but now there’s a great acceptance of new makers and that’s really a great thing.
And the players are, again, calling for that as it turns out. Since the playing styles are changing overtime. If you think back to [Giovanni] Bottesini, [Domenico] Dragonetti, [Serge] Koussevitzky, and then Gary Karr but now, past that, when you look at how many spectacular players are, they need basses who are set up to be able to play at their level, [basses] that they can play. I think that has a big impact on what we do. They need instruments. Now there are certainly situations where an orchestra may demand that it’s got to be an old bass. They’re looking at the look, they’re looking for the sound, but even then there are cases where the players who just said, “Well listen to this!” they could make their case.
CBC: Thanks so much for letting me crash this event and chat. I know people are gonna eat this up! One of the things people ask me for more and more of, is hearing from luthiers. To hear from all of you is fantastic! I never have any scripted questions, I guess I kind of did today with these here, but I usually ask some sort of advice you might give your younger self or someone who’s 18/20/25 right now, [and is] excited about the idea of doing something like what you’re doing. What advice might you have to offer them? Or go back in time and give yourself a little bit of advice. I’ll open it up to the crowd.
MM: I would give myself advice saying that, this is actually a career. This is something that people do. I never really thought that there were luthiers. I played a terrible bass in high school and that’s kind of how I got into it. I just did some work on my instrument, and I had no idea that there are people that did this full time. So, I’d tell myself, “You don’t have to wait until you’re 30 or in your mid-20s to do this. You can go into instead of college.”
Bring back shop classes.
To the young musician, practice. Make sure you go to the shed and keep practicing, like everyone here tries to do/is doing. And going back to what these guys are saying, bring your instrument in to a good luthier, and trust them. Bring it in so people can really look at it as the seasons change. I’ve seen people coming over with instruments that’ve been suffering for years. What have you been doing? “My bass doesn’t play, it hasn’t played for–” You bring it in, do a few changes, it’s great. It’s important to keep these things maintained.
CBC: You know, somebody asked me a question I somehow skipped, but they said, “If I think of it like getting an oil change for the car, is there a regular interval at which I should bring in a bass?”
Twice a year, for sure.
CBC: Twice a year! Okay, I see nods all around the table. Okay, good. I need to get to the luthier more. One other question, would someone please move to the Bay Area now that Gaël McKeon is gone. Rent’s only $12,000 for a 500-square foot place, that’s it. I know a guy so…
Personally, I remember basses, before customers. Chances are if I see a bass out being played or if it’s been sold to someone else, I’ll remember it – the history, what repairs I’ve done, more than I know the person. Chances are your luthier remembers your instrument very well, what repairs have been done, and they recognize their work. They know your instrument’s history, maybe a little bit better than you can. So, take it in as often as you can.
Well, I know you’ve got a room filled with projects, so I’m honored you took the time to chat. I’ve got everybody’s name and I’ll make sure to link up to everybody’s shop site, what have you. Great!