Double Bass Diaries #1

February 20, 2013
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Ever since I picked up electric bass in high school, I’ve always wanted to get into playing double bass.  I rented a double bass for a month in my 20s and tried to play it but really didn’t have the technique or knowledge to play it properly.  All I remember is that both my hands really hurt afterwards.  Skip ahead to 2013 – shortly after we moved to Vancouver Island, I stumbled across a really nice 3/4 size double bass for sale at a local music store.  It was made in China and had many obvious setup problems but I’m told the body and neck were constructed very well.  The store was having a closing out sale and the bass was going for a significant discount.  Here was my chance to get into double bass – so I bought it.  Unfortunately, after playing it for a while and almost destroying my hands, I realized it needed new strings, a proper setup, and some neck and bridge work to lower the string action and make it performance ready.  Fortunately, a Luthier in Sidney was recommended to me by the store, to modify my bass. He sanded and shaped the fingerboard and nut, fitted a new bridge, replaced the soundpost and tailpiece, and installed a new set of Thomastic Spirocore mittel guage strings.  It’s definitely a more comfortable bass to play now.

Ask any bass player what it’s like to switch from electric to double bass and they will tell you stories of struggle and pain.  I can relate to these stories now.  It’s really a totally different animal in many ways.  Learning to play it was almost like starting all over again.  For starters, playing it is so much more physically demanding than electric bass.  The note spacing on the fingerboard is much greater which requires learning a new fingering system based on three fingers and incorporating the thumb at higher positions.  Dealing with hand pain was a daily ritual.  My fingers hurt like hell at first!  I also had to deal with proper posture and arm position.  Get it wrong and you risk back and arm injury in a very short time.  Plucking the strings took a while to get right.  With 42″ steel strings having over 100 pounds of tension per string, you need to pull the string back with the side of your fingers and the weight of your arm.  Then there’s bowing the strings which is totally foreign to me.

To learn how to play the double bass beast properly, I needed to take some lessons from an instructor.  Luckily there’s an excellent music academy down the street.  I took a few lessons from the academy which helped with basic technique and gave me a good foundation for playing jazz.  My goal of course is to eventually get good enough to play double bass in a performing ensemble.  Recently, I played my first double bass gig with the Pacific Geoscience Centre Christmas band. That was a fun experience and helped build my performance confidence with double bass (see pic below).  There’s so many new aspects to learn with this instrument. It’s a bit overwhelming but I love it and it keeps me out of trouble.  I started experimenting with double bass pickup technology.  There’s so many choices! At some point in the future I’ll experiment with different types of strings such as synthetics and guts.  I find steel strings very high in tension and hard on my fingers.  Sure it’s good to play them to strengthen my hands but they get pretty sore after playing an entire gig.  More on my ongoing double bass adventures in future posts!

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