Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Two Easy Ways to Improve the Tone and Volume of Your Double Bass

I have been reading Chuck Traeger's books on the repair and setup of the double bass for optimum sound.  In his short addition, Coda, he explains two easy ways to improve the tone and volume of your double bass.  I am trying them out, and will report back here how they worked.

1. Put .005" teflon pads underneath the feet of your bridge.  Chuck says these pads allow the body of the bass to vibrate with less constraint from the pressure of the bridge.  The result is a noticeable increase in volume (more vibration = more volume).

My solution:  I ordered some from Metropolitan Music (metmusic.com), here's the link.  Price is $10 for enough teflon for three basses, plus shipping charges of $9, for a total of $19.  Installation instructions are provided.

UPDATE:  I installed the teflon pads under my bridge.  I am not sure if it increases the volume, but the sustain seems much improved.

2. Change your metal end pin to one made of wood.  Most bass end pins are made of steel or graphite.  End pins do more than just hold up your bass: they vibrate and add to the volume and tone of your instrument.  Steel end pins don't vibrate very well.  Graphite vibrates better, with an increase in volume, but the tone isn't optimum.  Traeger experimented with end pins made of different types of wood, and was amazed at the difference in sound -- he has concluded that the end pin is even more important to sound production than the sound post.  Various woods produce louder or softer volume, brighter or darker tone.  The ones you choose may depend on whether you play arco or pizzicato.  You should consult Traeger's book for a more comprehensive discussion of the various woods to learn which may be best for you.

Chuck found black oak to work best, but cautions that every bass is different.  The end pin wood has to match the impedance of your bass.  The wood end pin you choose will depend on several factors, e.g. the construction of the bass, the type of wood it is made of, whether it is carved or a laminate.  Even the type of strings you use can be a factor.  Therefore, some experimentation with different woods may be necessary.

The wooden end pin must be 5/8 inches in diameter for optimum sound; larger or smaller diameters don't work as well.  I searched the internet for wooden end pins, and those available from dealers are few and expensive ($80 to $150).  Too rich for my blood.

My solution:  After browsing several bass forum sites, I learned that common drumsticks can be used for end pins.  To get drumsticks that are 5/8 inches in diameter (.630 inches), order size 2b.  2B drumsticks are thicker than most drumsticks, and are used for heavy metal and other ear-busting music.  You can buy drumsticks in different types of wood, like rosewood and hickory, but oak is probably best in most cases.  However, I couldn't find any in black oak, so I ordered some in Japanese white oak (see link here).

You can get a rubber cap for the end pin at most hardware stores.

Drumsticks generally cost around $10 a pair, with another $5 - $8 for shipping.  Or, try your local music store.

UPDATE:  Unfortunately, the collar for most bass end pins is smaller than than 5/8 inches, so you would have to drill the collar to widen the hole.  Probably not worth the trouble.  I did note, in some bass forum, that a bassist used a 3/8 drumstick instead of the optimum 5/8 size, and still had good results.  Rather than drill out my end pin socket, I will try using a 3/8 size dowel.

MY SECOND ATTEMPT:  Regular end pins are only 10 mm, slightly larger than 3/8 inches.  10 mm = .393701 inches.  You can buy wood dowel rods off of Ebay; the closest fit would be 3/8 inches in diameter, or .375 inches.  So the wood dowel would be slightly smaller than 10 mm.  I think it should still fit okay; in any case, I ordered a walnut dowel that is 36 inches by 3/8 inches.  If it works, I will have enough for both of my basses with room to spare.  I ordered such a dowel off of Ebay for $10, which includes shipping.  We'll see if that works.

Note:  For more details on these topics, buy Chuck Traeger's book Coda.  It also has other tips for maximizing your sound.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Big Band Practice: My Progress on Double Bass Continues

Last night we held the first band practice with our new band leader, a young college student named Faris.  Faris is a senior at San Jose State University, majoring in jazz.  He plays piano and trombone.  But not at the same time, har har.

Faris proved to be an excellent band leader, and we the members got a lot of good out of this first session.  Unlike the former band leader, whom we much loved, Faris pays attention to the rhythm section.  He asked me to turn up my volume!  Omigod, I like this guy.  Then he asked me to play a few lines of the sheet music, and I did (thank goodness I have been learning sight reading of notes).  That went well.

Faris told me to be bold, to hit those notes with vigor, not timidly, as the band, and especially the soloists, need a strong rhythm section to keep them on course during solos.  He also implied that we need not follow the notes perfectly literally, that it is okay to throw in some flourishes that are not in the sheet music.  Jazz is about improvisation, after all.

In other words, "once again, with feeling."

I was into it last night.  My sight reading is the best it has ever been, though it is not as good as I want it to be, yet.  I will renew my practice with increased vigor.

The new practice site is in the band room of a junior high school, and it is crowded with chairs and equipment.  I didn't have time to bring in my stool, so I stood for the whole hour and a half of practice.  To my surprise, I didn't tire, my legs didn't hurt, and my arthritic right shoulder didn't ache. Also, I didn't get lost!  I must be getting in shape, but I think the intense focus also was a factor.  By god, I am going to be a double bass player!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Zen and the Art of Playing Bass; and Introducing "The Abe Train" Jazz Quartet

My Big Band music class starts up again tomorrow.  This morning I began practicing the songs (on my string bass) that I learned in the last session.  I noticed how much easier it is to read notes this time around.  What once was torture is now an achievable task.  You do something many times over and it becomes easier to do.  Funny how that works.  I am not "there" yet, but I am further down the road.

Before I started this class, my two string basses sat in their stands, untouched, gathering dust.  No more.  Now they both get handled a lot, played, tuned, adjusted and repaired.   I am forever tweaking the setup of each one, always seeking the best playability (the "action") and sound possible.  I even ordered a well known book to teach me better how to do that:  Chuck Traeger's book, Setup And Repair of the Double Bass for Optimum Sound: A Manual for Players, Makers, And Repairers.

Mastering an instrument is similar to learning a new language.  It requires immersion, study, practice, contemplation and great patience.  Zen might help too, except that it is difficult to play bass while holding the full lotus position.  

Stick with it long enough and you may come up with something like "The Abe Train" (see video below).  The Abe Train is a jazz quartet of young musicians in their twenties.  They are from the San Francisco Bay Area and damn good.  The bass player really grooves.  Use headphones so you can hear every note of their rendition of "Autumn Leaves."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Spirit Varnish Repairs for a Double Bass

Repair of Spirit Varnish Blemishes; Upon Turning a Simple Scratch Into a Major Disaster

Last week, when  I picked up my carved bass to practice, metal on my belt bit into the upper bout of my bass, leaving a visible scratch.  What I should have done, was use my "Cherry" furniture repair pen to hide the scratch.  Instead, I painted on some red/brown spirit varnish, tried to wipe it off, which marred the surrounding area.  Before I knew it, I had changed a very simple repair into a major disaster.  Now the small scratch had grown to a big ugly blotch.  I had violated an important principle of bass repair:  be patient, be careful.

I slopped on more red/brown spirit varnish, painting with the grain, then against the grain.  After several coats, the blemish was mostly covered satisfactorily, but had developed a very dark border of accumulated varnish.  It didn't look too bad, to a guy riding by on horseback at midnight. Since I don't own a horse, changes would have to be made.

First off, the color was also too red, and I realized that, though Calin Wultur Panormo basses are supposed to be finished with red/brown varnish, the upper bouts had been finished with golden brown varnish.  The golden brown segues into red/brown further down the bass.  It became clear that I needed some golden brown spirit varnish.  I ordered some immediately.

I carefully (for a change) removed my application of red/brown spirit varnish, using an alcohol-dampened rag (spirit varnish dissolves in alcohol).  I got it down to the bare wood, carefully removing the ugly thick borders.  I will wet sand it smooth with fine sandpaper, and when I get my golden brown varnish, I'll try again.

I'm fairly confident that I will be able to repair the varnish satisfactorily.  I will use this as a learning experience.  I am beginning to realize that double bass players almost have to be luthiers in their own right.  These basses are fragile and complicated.  I ordered a copy of  Chuck Traeger's book, Setup And Repair of the Double Bass for Optimum Sound: A Manual for Players, Makers, And Repairers.  I also ordered the "Coda," a smaller followup volume offering additional setup and repair tips.

My Big Band class begins again next week.  Fortunately, I have another double bass I can use until I repair the Calin Wultur Panormo.

UPDATE:  I applied the Golden Brown spirit varnish and greatly improved the appearance of the damaged area.  Does it look as good as it did originally?  No, but it isn't half bad.  I may try and improve it sometime later, with more coats of varnish.