Getting to first bass.
October 21, 2011 11:33 AM   Subscribe

I've decided to buy my first upright bass to learn on (a used student bass). What to look for?

I found a seller who has a repaired bass (broken neck fixed by a luthier) he is selling for $200. I realize this is a price which is too good to be true, but I'm willing to look at it. I'd normally run away from something like this, but he's desperately trying to liquidate items from his late father's music business.

Information I've gotten so far: it doesn't have a popular name, was made in Indonesia on contract for the now defunct music shop (based on Kay M-1 templates), is a plywood/carved hybrid, and has an ebony fingerboard and stock steel strings.

What kinds of things can I test and look at when buying to make sure I'm not wasting $200 (beyond how it sounds). I've played bass guitar for 15 years, and I know how to buy lots of those, if that helps.
posted by hanoixan to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Would you consider an electric upright bass? I picked up an Ergo electric upright off of eBay a couple years ago. You can spend +/- $600 and get a solid, quality electric upright vs. spending the same on a shoddy acoustic upright. AND it's a million times easier to cart around. Might be a good avenue to explore if this is just for learning.
posted by gnutron at 11:47 AM on October 21, 2011

Is there a luthier or professional upright player near you who could inspect the instrument? That's your best bet.

If it helps, I paid around $800 for an 1963-built upright (no damage) in around 1995 or so (so a while ago). I paid under market for it because the guy who was selling it was a violins-only small-time dealer (more of an antiquer than a pro). (The bridge was a piece of shit but that was easy to replace.) I had it appraised around $6,000. The market in basses is so small that it is possible to get really good deals; people who don't know the market often can't find "comps" to help them set a price, so they either take the best offer they get or just unload it for whatever someone will pay. I expect with the internet around people make somewhat better pricing decisions, but I still see a very wide variance on upright bass prices for apparently similar instruments. Also basses are a bitch to store and take up a ton of room. You could stack violins in the closet but basses ... well, they'll take up the whole closet. It's possible someone liquidating a music business wants to move the large instruments fast and will look for more realistic deals on the smaller, easy to store ones.

Anyway, my point is, it IS possible it's an insane deal, but you'll need someone with an eye for these things to actually LOOK at it and tell you whether it's an insane deal or a piece of crap.

(If you're not aware, virtually all upright bassists play "3/4 size" basses. Just a good piece of information to have.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:00 PM on October 21, 2011

Like you, I played bass guitar for years before trying my hand at upright (and as gnutron suggested, I went with an electric upright -- a Clevinger, which I still adore).

$200 does indeed sound too good to be true, and there is a saying about things that sound too good to be true. A new set of strings for the Clevinger costs more than $200. Still, it might be a rare bargain. Viewed that way, at worst you are down only the price of a set of strings.

What kinds of things can I test and look at when buying to make sure I'm not wasting $200 (beyond how it sounds).

Obviously you will want to check the join where the repair was made and also verify that the fingerboard is not off-kilter now. And (as on preview, Eyebrows suggests,) having someone who has a wider knowledge of these instruments along might be good. When I have played rebuilt instruments, I have sometimes found the intonation off or the action set wrong, but this can be tough to judge when coming from bass guitar: the amount of finger strength required to fret an upright is noticeably higher, to the point where when I first got mine, I realized I would not be able to play an entire gig with it until I practiced for weeks first.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:09 PM on October 21, 2011

Both of my basses have had broken necks, and no problem with either of them on that end, but do check where it was joined. Additionally you'll want to make sure the arc of the bridge and finger boards match up (but that's fixable when\if you get it set up). If you can find out who the Luthier is and ask around about his work, that'll be a big help too.

Playing it's a big deal, and make sure you bring a friend. What you hear playing, and what somebody standing in front of it, are different things. Having a friend that knows what to look\listen for is also a good idea, but if one's not available, bring someone anyway.

Some things to remember:

Set up makes a big difference and $200 is a cheap enough that even with the cost of bringing it in to get set up, it's still a good deal. Something as simple as shifting the sound post or bridge 1/4 of an inch will do quite a bit.

Strings make a big difference. I've played the same bass for going on 11 years, including at college where I was playing the thing for 5-6 hours a day. The biggest changes to the sound of the instrument itself have been when I changed brands of strings. Find out what brand are on their, check out some reviews and take that into consideration.

Technique makes a big difference. If you haven't played upright before, you'll sound like it. Even on a really really nice bass. The good news is, that if it's from a music shop chances are the action is set up for a beginner, so you'll sound a little better.

Finally, $200 is a steal even on a not-so-great upright. My Kay that needed to be completely refinished, reset up, and needed a new bridge sold for $800 a couple of years ago. With an OLD case, and without a bow. If it comes with a case and a bow that's a quarter of the $200 right there. Playing upright is expensive.

If you're getting it to play a specific genre, find out what the players of that genre use. Rockabilly and some jazz players swear by Kay and Kay clones.

Feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:20 PM on October 21, 2011

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