Building and maintaining double basses: insights from the experts

Join us as we unveil the secrets behind expertly crafting and nurturing these extraordinary instruments, and witness how this collaborative approach is revolutionizing the future of the bass building industry.

With Arnold Schnitzer · Las Cruces, NM

Have you ever wondered why some professions thrive on secrecy while others embrace openness and collaboration? The world of double bass building and maintenance is a prime example of the latter. In an industry notorious for guarding its “secrets,” the Oberlin Double Bass Workshop hosted by the Violin Society of America (VSA) stands apart by fostering a spirit of sharing and growth for the collective benefit of all.

During a recent event, I couldn’t help but marvel at the genuine camaraderie and enthusiasm among the participants. It was a refreshing sight to witness these creative minds coming together to learn, teach, and inspire one another. As a mere observer, I felt privileged to be a “fly on the wall” in this exceptional gathering of bass builders.

In this interview featuring 26 double bass luthiers, Jason dives into the fascinating world of double bass building and maintenance. We will explore the techniques, insights, and invaluable experiences shared by these remarkable makers. Join us as we uncover the secrets behind crafting and caring for these magnificent instruments, and discover how this collaborative approach shapes the future of the bass-building profession.

A huge thanks to double bassist Seth Honig for his transcription and editing.

Let’s go around and have everyone give a quick introduction.

  • Jeff Mueller, a longtime luthier and first-time builder, is here to learn. This is a wonderful source of knowledge for me, and I’m sharing whatever I can, but just taking it in. 
  • Gabriel Golden here from Los Angeles and Los Angeles bass Works. Repair/restorer. 
  • Mitch Moehring, Mitch Moehring Strings. Bass-maker/repairer. 
  • Joey Naeger, Houston, TX. Lyle Violin Shop. Maker/fixer/un-breaker. 
  • Brian Gencarelli, Greenville, SC. 
  • Ralph Alcala from Los Angeles, CA. I have my own little shop, bass-maker and repairer.
  • Jacob Bradford from Greenville, SC. 
  • Dustin Woodward from Golden, CO. 
  • Vince Jesse from Madison, WI, with the Double Bass Workshop. 
  • Jack Hill from New Jersey.
  • Elinore Morris from Sweden. I have a repair workshop in Sweden.
  • 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. 
  • Robbie McIntosh from Cambridge, NY. Bass-maker/bass-restorer/bass-repairman.
  • David Gage is based in New York City. I’m here to learn and share, and I’m excited about it. We’re going to have a great week.
  • Andrew Stolfa from Houston, TX. I work at Quantum Bass Center, repairing and restoring basses. Someday will build a bass. That’s what I’m here to learn about.
  • Andrew Hassel, Chicago, Chicago Bass Works. Making, restoring, repairs, and set-up. 
  • Randy Hunt from Nashville, TN. Hunt Double Bass. Repair, set-up, and finishing my first double bass. 
  • Mark Leue. I have a father/daughter-based business in Pioneer Valley, Ashfield, MA. 
  • Jay VandeKopple, I’m a luthier from northern New Jersey, and I’m trying to be the director of this, and it works. Thanks!
  • Arnold Schnitzer, is currently in Las Cruces, NM. I read somewhere that I’m a world-renowned luthier.

Check out The Handy Double Bassist – Maintenance, Adjustments, and Minor Repairs for the non-luthier by Arnold Schnitzer in our store

Tell us about this event. 

Jay: Well, the VSA, a number of years ago, had looked at what was available for luthiers for violin initially. [Vahakn Y.] Nigogosian was there, and they said, “Well, what we really need is a forum for all these top makers to get together,” and it never 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 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. 

Why do you keep returning to this event, and what has the experience been like? 

Mitch: 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 who is just at a much higher level. Or I’m using the wrong tool, or there’s a better technique for using that tool. It just always propels my skills immediately. The next week I returned to my shop, and everything was at a much higher level.

Andrew: 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 made you more excellent. It’s really inspiring to come and be around people who are at the top of their game, really.

Ralph: The reason I came back this year is, for 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. 

Steve Rodby, Pat Metheny’s longtime bassist, has a question for you all: “How is working on basses different than other string instruments?”

Brian: 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.

Ralph: 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 of 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 job, which is why you see a big divide in the types of luthiers. 

Arnold: There are lots of books, 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 in figuring out how to do things, how to make, how to restore, and how to fix things. It’s a whole different ball game.

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What percentage of your work is from classical players versus more non-classical players? What are some of the general differences you might make in terms of setup for primarily jazz/primarily arco? 

Gabriel: Gabriel, 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 start 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.

Matthew Tucker‘s innovative flat-back bracing system was on display throughout the event.

Is a good setup just a good setup?

Gabriel: Well, every shop has kind of its 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. 

I remember talking to Joey about fingerboards being the interface between the player and the instrument.

Joey: 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, or 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. 

Ralph: In 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. 

What can we players do to be more helpful in communicating what we really want? 

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. 

What’s an example of vocabulary you want to 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?” 

Joey: 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 want, they really can’t differentiate between 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 at the student level but even some professionals, they don’t necessarily know 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 because, 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. Does your bass have 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.

How do you determine what’s a good wood for a bass?

Arnold: How many hours do we have? 

[Laughter]

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, and 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. 

What are a few examples of those woods? 

Robbie: Cottonwood 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 aspens and willows 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. 

What’s your approach for seasoning wood?

unknown voice: Salt & Pepper!

[LAUGHTER]

Robbie: In general, bass wood should be drier than the conditions in which the instrument is going to live before you build it, which will help to make it more stable. Robbie could talk for about an hour about that. 

Could a couple of you share your journey into the field of luthiery?

Randy: I started as a bass player and 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 – especially 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. 

Brian: I am still a current public school orchestra teacher, and one of the reasons I got started is that 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, and 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. 

Ralph: 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 many questions to the point where she just said, “You know what, screw it, you do it!” Whenever 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 who helped me learn a little bit more, and I progressed. 

Robbie: I was a cabinet maker for 20 years before I started working on basses. It was when my daughter, who was 14 then, wished she could play the bass, and I couldn’t afford one. Our friend gave us one that was just a wreck and with the generous help of violinmaker friends 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, 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. 

Kristin Zoernig asks, “How do you feel about the new removable neck trend and how it’s best accomplished?”

Brian: 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 unnecessary, but for someone who’s going to be on a flight, I would highly recommend it. 

Arnold: This new trend of removable necks started approximately 200 years ago.  There are pictures in the Elgar books of 200-year-old basses with removable necks, so they could travel on stagecoaches or whatever. 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. 

Many folks asked about thoughts on different endpin materials.

Gabriel: Well, let’s see. Again, I think 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 of 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 will be different, which I know is extremely frustrating, but that’s what we deal with. 

So, no broad trends?

Gabriel: 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. Many people are going towards the Laborie, and then they have wooden pegs made. Certainly, the carbon fiber seems to replace a lot of the steel, which is 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. 

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?

Gabriel: 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. 

Sara Nelson asks, “What do you all wish bassists knew about caring for their instruments?”

Jacob: Clean your rosin off after the gig, please. 

Jeff: 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 across the floor, I can give you some sandpaper, and it’ll do the job a lot better.

In terms of cleaning off the rosin, anything will do? Can I just grab my kitchen towel? Is anything better or worse?

Gabriel: 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 of 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. 

And just wiping them down with a cloth, not using rubbing alcohol, not boiling your strings which I’ve heard is… 

Arnold: I don’t recommend boiling your strings. Every day after you play, just wipe it down. That’s usually enough. If you do that daily, you don’t have to use alcohol. You don’t have to really do that. 

Andrew: 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 and where it should go. I even made 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 getting them back into place takes a lot of work.

Randy: Being from Nashville, if you’ll stand on your bass, just budget extra money for that each year. 

Jack: Buy a humidity gauge for your room. They’re cheap; they’re like $10 on Amazon for an electronic one (Double Bass HQ recommends the ERAY Temperature and Humidity Reader Meter), 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, easy to read, you know, when it starts getting dry, and it helps you 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 repeatedly hear the same stories, “Yeah, I’ve heard that one. 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. 

The topic of humidity, I know, is a big topic. Best practices? What should players be looking out for? What’s a good range?

Arnold: 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 practical in many places. The great news is hygrometers are notoriously inaccurate; they drift, but they now have digital ones 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.

In terms of keeping the room humid, 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. Any experiences or thoughts on that? 

Jack: The issue I find with Dampits® is that you’re really just humidifying the inside of 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. 

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 who 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 when [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, 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, 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. 

Are any problems going in the other direction? Like if you’re in South Florida or something like that? Or where Mitch lives on the Louisiana/Texas border? 

Mitch: Yeah, I have a dehumidifier in my shop. I do. There are 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 their rapid changes cause breakage, cracks, and 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 than have your instrument crack. 

Dan Carson asks, “What makes a great bass?” Quality materials? Set-up? age of wood? 

ALL: YES!

Gabriel: 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 much 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. 

I got a few questions from people about carbon fiber soundposts. Why might you use them or not use them?

David:  I’ve had experience with the Anima Nova soundpost and have had a 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, and 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 will 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, and 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 a little too long because you need that extra length to make it fit. That puts us up against the wall, perhaps doing some damage. There are some tricks I do to avoid that, which is propping 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. This is great because I’ve seen soundposts damage tops. I mean, it’s terrible to repair those. 

How is it a top damaged by a soundpost? It’s too tight, and the top cracks? 

David: 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 and easy to damage. You have to be careful not to damage it. And that’s what we are. We’re careful. 

Jay: 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. 

When I lived in Chicago, I had a winter-post and a summer-post. How does the player know it’s time to switch it out?

Jay: 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 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–

Arnold: Especially on the flatbacks. 

Jay: Exactly! Flatbacks, more so, 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 changes like New York, Chicago, or Montreal, [etc…] 

Joey: All I want to say is, if you’re deciding whether you 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.

Ralph: 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. I never really had to deal with it until I got there. Pretty much what I feel is, if you’re having to 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 will change the most. At the very least, [to] get your bass checked up twice a year is a good practice to have. 

Alden Cohen asks, “What type of glue is best to seal an open seam? 

Arnold: Hot hide glue. 

Period. 

Brian Crain asks, “Buying a bass, old versus new?” 

ALL: New! 

Joey: When you’re buying an old bass, you’re not only buying that bass, but you’re also buying all the repair work 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. 

Gabriel: 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 usually be significantly higher. 

Robbie: I get a lot of high school kids coming in, and they often ask if they should get a new bass if they were renting up until that point. I say, “Look for an old bass because an old 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 will survive.” 

What’s the state of double bass making at the moment?

Arnold: 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 have never been so many people who 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 must 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 are 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 a 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 over time. 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. 

A big thanks to these 26 luthiers for being a part of this podcast!

What advice might you have to offer to your younger self?

Mitch: 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 some people 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.” 

Arnold: 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 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 have 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, and it’s great. It’s important to keep these things maintained. 

Find these luthiers and other great bass shops in the United States here:

We’ve also got a map of Australian double bass shops, and if you’re looking for a specialty double bass shop in Europe, check out Jonas Lohse’s wonderful guide here.

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