Buying a Double Bass: The Ultimate Guide

Buying the right double bass can be challenging as quality varies drastically even within the same price range.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

It’s important to keep in mind that basses can vary significantly in quality even when they cost the same. In order to make sure that you get the best value for your money, you need to know what characteristics to look for in a bass.

If you’re brand new to the double bass, this post covering the parts of the instrument will get you up to speed with the terminology we use to talk about double basses.

Private teachers and knowledgeable bass dealers can provide valuable guidance on what characteristics to look for in a bass. Remember–you’re not alone in this quest for your perfect double bass!

Types of wood used in making double basses

One of the first things you should consider is the type of wood used to make the bass. Different types of wood can have a significant impact on the sound quality of the bass. For example, spruce is the standard wood for the top of a double bass, while maple is commonly used for the ribs and back of the double bass. Ebony is often used for the fingerboard, though there are several sustainable options for fingerboard materials that are being used by double bass makers.

There are three general categories of double basses: laminated, hybrid, and carved. Each of these types of building materials has certain advantages and drawbacks.

LAMINATED

This Eastman Strings VB80 Gamba pattern is an example of a laminate bass. The top, ribs, and back are all made of laminate material.

Laminated (plywood) basses are usually the cheapest. Plywood, as you might imagine, is not the ideal construction material for a resonant wooden instrument, so these basses tend to sound the worst. The wood of the instrument cannot vibrate as freely as that of a carved bass, so these basses tend to sound pinched, nasal and small. A bass made out of plywood will generally not develop a more mature tone as it gets older. There are exceptions, of course. Many Kay basses from 60-70 years ago do have a certain maturity to them. I have a Kay bass from the 1950s. It looks terrible but sounds great.

In many musical circumstances, however, a plywood bass is actually preferable over a carved bass. Rockabilly, bluegrass, and some (although not most) jazz musicians seek out plywood basses, especially older Kay basses. Having a plywood bass is also a good idea in an elementary or middle school or for outside gigs and rough playing situations.

1/2 and 1/4-size basses are usually plywood, so people who start young almost always start on one of these. High schools are also usually stocked with plywood basses, although this is changing as the price of starter carved basses drops. Plywood basses tend to fall apart. On my Kay, I have had problems with buzzing and warping of the bridge, rattling tuning mechanisms, a terrible fingerboard (that gives you slivers when you shift!), a cheap tailpiece that broke in half soon after I got it, and more. Still, it is nice to have that plywood bass when facing 95-degree humid summer playing gigs!

Unfortunately, cheap basses are just about as expensive to fix as quality basses. Bridges, fingerboards, tail guts, nuts, and tuning mechanisms all cost good money to repair or replace. I have often found that a student who buys a $1000 plywood bass has to put in another $1000 within the first year on such repairs or replacements. For the $2000 they end up spending, they could have gotten a much better instrument in the first place.

In The Handy Double Bassist, Arnold Schnitzer has an entire chapter on plywood basses, which is an invaluable resource if you end up with a laminate or hybrid bass.

HYBRID

The Eastman Strings VB95 Gamba pattern is an example of a hybrid model bass. In this model, the top is made with fully carved spruce, while the ribs and back are made of laminate maple. You can also see the shaded spirit varnish, which gives the bass a more striking look. Upgrades to varnish and other details are common once you enter the hybrid double bass category.

These unique instruments feature a carved top and laminated sides and back, which provides a level of resonance that is difficult to match with a traditional plywood bass. This added resonance can really make a difference, especially when it comes to playing with a bow. Other hybrid models feature carved tops and backs with laminate ribs. These double basses can sound quite close in tone quality to fully carved basses but with extra stability provided by the laminate ribs.

While hybrid basses can be a bit more expensive than plywood models, they are still quite reasonable for a starter bass, typically ranging in price from $2,500 to $7,500. This makes them a great option for students who are serious about improving their playing and want to invest in a quality instrument that will last for years to come and also for adults getting started on the double bass but are wary about putting down too much money on this new hobby.

Of course, not all hybrid basses are created equal, so it’s important to do your research and find a model that fits your specific needs and playing style. Some models may have a warmer, more mellow tone that’s perfect for jazz or blues, while others may have a brighter, punchier sound that’s better suited for rock or pop music.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to invest in a hybrid bass is up to you. But if you’re looking for an instrument that offers exceptional resonance and a high-quality sound at a reasonable price, a hybrid bass is definitely worth considering. So if you’re in the market for a new bass, be sure to give a hybrid model a chance – it just might be the perfect fit for you!

FULLY CARVED

The Eastman Strings VB830 Quenoil pattern is an example of a fully carved double bass. This particular bass features a spruce top with poplar back and ribs. This bass has also been antiqued, giving it a “played in” look that players find desirable.

Fully carved basses range in price from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Professional players (with the exception of a few styles of music) play on carved basses. These instruments will continue to mature as they get older and develop rich, complex sounds.

If a student can afford a carved bass, it is always a good idea to get one since these basses will almost always produce superior results. Don’t think about a carved bass until a student is ready for a 3/4 size bass (usually around the end of middle school). 1/2 size basses and below are perfect for rentals, and no parent wants to be saddled down with a 1/4 or 1/2 size double bass after their child has grown out of it.

Zachary Martin inspecting the bridge alignment on a fully carved bass during his residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2023.

Double Bass Sizing

When shopping for a double bass, it is important to consider the size of the instrument. For fully-grown players, the most common sizes are 3/4, 7/8, and 5/8. The 3/4 size is the most common and is suitable for most players. It is the standard size for orchestral and jazz music. The 7/8 size is a slightly larger option that is popular among orchestral players. Finally, the 5/8 size is the smallest option and is suitable for smaller adults and people for whom 3/4 basses re a big too large.

It is important to note that these sizes are not standardized, which means that the actual size of the bass can vary between manufacturers and even between individual instruments. Therefore, it is important to try out different sizes and models to find the one that feels the most comfortable to play.

In addition to the size of the bass, the size of the strings also plays a role in the instrument’s playability. Basses with larger sizes typically require thicker strings, while smaller basses require thinner strings. It is important to choose the appropriate string size for your bass, as using the wrong size can negatively affect the sound quality and playability of the instrument.

Double Bass Patterns

When it comes to double basses, there are a bunch of different patterns. The Gamba pattern has plain corners but still pumps out good volume and is easy to play. Violin Corner patterns add corners like those on a violin, so it looks and sounds different. And if you’re into French basses, you might wanna go for one modeled after Charles Quenoil’s instruments, which have a more tapered upper bout for easier access to the high notes.

Nowadays, more and more people are getting into 5/8 size double basses, especially if they’re on the smaller side. These basses are just more comfortable to play for those who struggle with the full-size ones. They used to be pretty rare, but now you can find them all over the place since the demand has gone up. Lots of manufacturers have started making them in different sizes so everyone can get in on the bass action.

Some people still prefer the vintage double basses from the 18th and 19th centuries. They think those instruments have a way richer and more complex sound than the modern ones, and they’re willing to spend some serious cash to get ’em.

Now, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to double basses, but most orchestral bassists use 7/8 size basses. They can be a bit tough to handle because of their size, but they’re worth it for the big, booming sound. Plus, 7/8 size basses tend to have longer strings, which makes them easier to play in tune. Of course, some folks might find them too bulky and go for a smaller size instead. It’s all about what feels right to you, man.

How to shop for a double bass

There are four main methods used to find a double bass.

1. eBay and other “internet marketplaces”

While a truly great resource for musicians, eBay is not recommended for novice bass buyers. There are some spectacularly bad basses advertised on eBay for very low prices. This is tempting to an instrument buyer on a budget, but there are a lot of hidden costs to this transaction. Under very few circumstances should you buy a bass for less than $1000. I often see basses advertised for around $500 on eBay. I would be very suspicious about buying a cheap bass at all on eBay (eBay is actually better for more expensive instruments) unless you are looking for a restoration project or you really know what you are doing.

The hidden costs of cheap eBay double basses add up quickly:

  • Initial cost: $500 + $200 shipping
  • TOTAL: $700

This seems like a good deal at first. The bass arrives, and it is (hopefully) in one piece. It seems to be playable, and you take it to your teacher. He looks at it stone-faced and advises you to get new strings, bridge, end pin, and fingerboard. You bring it into the shop:

  • $150 for good strings
  • $300 for a new bridge plus adjusters
  • $120 for a new end pin
  • $800 for a new fingerboard
  • TOTAL: $2070

The initial price has now almost tripled after these repairs. $2070 is still not a bad price for a bass, but you have now spent what it would have likely cost for the same bass at a local shop. Then, six months later, you hear a bang and notice that the back seam has split open two feet. This is happening because the top is sinking. Your local shop glues the seam for $100:

  • $100 for glued seam
  • TOTAL: $2170

Then, three months later, the seam opens again. This time, however, the top also cracks by the F hole. You have both cracks repaired plus a shorter sound post carved (because the top is sinking):

  • $150 for cracks
  • $50 for sound post
  • TOTAL: $2370

Three months after that, you are playing one day and hear a big bang. Your back seam has opened down the middle, and you have a new, bigger crack on the top. You notice that the top has continued to sink to the point where it is actually becoming convex. This time your local luthier has a little talk with you about whether this bass is worth saving.

I’m not saying don’t ever buy a bass off of eBay. Just keep these points in mind when you see that shiny new $500 (plus bow and case!) bass advertised on eBay. I have seen cheap basses implode many times. Even higher-quality basses are not 100% safe.

I saw the top sink as I described on a Jakstadt once (a very good instrument maker–I play one!), so even more expensive bases aren’t completely risk-free, but they are much more so than the eBay exploding specials. Buying from a local store or double bass dealer also gives you a lace where you can bring all your problems. If they are reputable, they will fix these problems. You are not going to get this kind of service from an eBay purchase.

2. Local Music Store

General music stores (the kind that sell trumpets, drums, clarinets, sheet music etc) are typically not the best places to shop for an instrument.

There are exceptions, of course. Some local shops have a really excellent string luthier working there who takes extra care in setting up each individual bass. These shops, unfortunately, are the exception rather than the rule.

Often, a local instrument shop will have the “eBay” type basses described earlier. One advantage to buying at a local music store over eBay is that you can take it back for repairs when it starts to fall apart (assuming the shop stands behind their product).

3. Specialized Bass Luthier/Retailer

Now we’re talking! Double basses are a non-standardized, peculiar, subjective thing, and it almost always pays to go to a specialized bass luthier/dealer when buying instruments. This is true even for entry-level instruments. You will save money in the long run and have a much better experience if you simply go to a specialized shop.

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Resources for finding specialty double bass shops

We’ve put together this map of many of the best-known double bass specialty shops in the United States.

Feel free to suggest a shop for us to add, and Europeans should also check out the website of Jonas Lohse, who maintains a wonderful directory of specialty double bass shops, with extensive European listings.

There are some truly outstanding double bass shops in Australia as well, and I did a deep-dive post about my experiences visiting them.

Finally, we did a deep-dive conversation with 26 top double bass luthiers, so check that out for more perspectives from the people who actually make and service double basses. These folks are very friendly and easy to contact, and they genuinely want to help the bass community at large, so they’re an excellent resource for you, even if they’re not in your area.

Next Steps

Accessories such as extensions, strings, and other accessories are available in endless varieties, but the most important item is the bass. You can add an extension later if needed and experiment endlessly with strings.

In conclusion, buying a double bass is a big investment, both in terms of money and time. It’s important to take the time to research and understand the factors that contribute to the quality and playability of a double bass before making a purchase. Consider the type of wood used, the size and pattern of the bass, and the seller you’re purchasing from. By following the tips and advice laid out in this guide, you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect double bass for your needs.

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