The importance of a good double bass setup

Many of the bad habits bass players develop come from trying to muscle out sound on a poorly set up bass.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

This might sound strange, but if I were forced to pick, I’d play a cheaper bass that was set up well any day over a bass with high action and a warped fingerboard.  Sadly, I see bad set-ups on so many student basses, especially in school settings.

The Pain of a Bad Set-Up

Many of the bad habits bass players develop come from trying to muscle out sound on a poorly set-up bass.  First of all, the strings are too high off of the fingerboard.  Also, the fingerboard scoop could be all out of whack.  Finally, the strings might be from the Nixon administration.

But taking in your bass and having a good luthier optimize the set-up is one of the best things you can do. You’ll be happier and healthier as a result!

Learning More About Set-Up

I’ve interviewed several luthiers for my podcast Contrabass Conversations, and we’ve gone into great detail about set-up issues.  

Here are some set-up and gear-related topics we covered:

You’ll love learning about set-up from these experts!

What I’ve Learned About Set-Up

Here are a few things I’ve learned about double bass set-up in my own musical journey.

Neck

You’d be amazed just how much variety there is neck shape.  They can vary wildly, and each shape feels a little different under the hand.  Finding a shape that fits a player is an art as much as a science. It may be tapered in a V shape or more of a gently sloped parabola.  In addition, some necks feel skinny, and some feel overly thick.  There’s no “perfect” neck shape out there for everyone, so experiment with different basses to understand what you like.

For me, it feels like I’ve forgotten how to play the bass when I play an instrument with a radically fatter, thinner, or wider neck.  Everything feels different as a result, and it take quite a bit of practicing on my part to feel like myself on this new instrument.

Fingerboard

A lot of fingerboard set-up has to do with the style of music you’ll be playing.  Arnold Schnitzer has a great series of articles on his website covering set-up.  This should be required reading for any bassist interested in learning more about the set-up.  My podcast interview with him was pretty sweet as well!

Over time, a fingerboard will often require to be “dressed,” which is kind of like doing a “hard reset” on the board.

String Height / Action

As with fingerboard set-up, your ideal string height will vary depending on your instrument and the style of music that you play.

String Height for Classical Players

If you’re primarily a classical player, think about how you’ll typically use your bow.  If you’re spending time playing orchestral repertoire on the low strings, you’re probably using a lot of vertical motion.  You’ll probably want more clearance between the strings and the fingerboard to prevent buzzing and noise.  On the other hand, if you spend your time mostly in the upper register playing connected legato passages, a lower string height is likely to make more sense.

String Height for Jazz Players

If you spend most of your time playing jazz, you’ll think about how things feel with pizzicato.  Jazz players using steel strings and moderate amplification will likely go for a lower string height.  Jazz players using gut strings and little or no amplification will probably want a higher set-up to accommodate the wider string vibration that results from stronger right-hand pulling.

How Your Ideal String Height Feels

Ultimately, most people want their strings as low as possible to play the style of music they play without getting unwanted string noise.  Remember, nobody is giving you a medal for suffering with excessively high action!

Be good to your body and your long-term prospects as a bassist.  If you’re unhappy with how your instrument is playing, take it to a reputable shop and get your string height set up correctly.

Bridge Shaping

Does the shape of your fingerboard match the curvature of your bridge? Maybe, but maybe not.

My current bridge/fingerboard setup is decent, but I know I could improve it.  When I play on a bass with a well-matched fingerboard and bridge, I’m amazed at how easy some basses with really well-matched bridge and fingerboard shapes play.  I know I’m playing on a well-matched bass when I can use plenty of right arm weight and verticality on fairly low action without fear of buzzing.

Soundpost Adjustment

Adjusting the soundpost can make the bass sound looser, tighter, darker, or brighter.  There are a ton of variables involved.  While you can adjust your own soundpost, you can also mess things up if you don’t know what you’re doing!  

Fingerboard and Tailpiece

Now, we venture into the more esoteric!  Did you know that your tailpiece and fingerboard also contribute to your sound?  Think about it.  Look at all that wood.

Bow your tailpiece.  Do you hear a pitch?  Do the same for your fingerboard.

The pitch of your tailpiece and fingerboard will have an effect on the tone of your instrument.  The specific pitch that complements your bass varies for each instrument, but it can have a noticeable effect on your sound.

I’m a real novice on how the fingerboard and tailpiece contribute to your sound, but I was having a conversation with a bassist about this phenomenon recently, and he demonstrated the physics of how the tailpiece resonated.  I found this demonstration fascinating, and it made an obvious impact on the sound.

Wolf Tones

We can’t eliminate wolf tones.  We can only move them around or try to find ways to mitigate them.

You’re just not going to be able to build a bass that doesn’t have some wolfiness.  Most luthiers aim for G# with the wolf.  If you’re having problems with a particularly nasty wolf tone, visit a luthier and get some advice for your specific bass.

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