Why do I need to get my bass set up? What’s the big deal?
Well, if you’re like a lot of beginners to the Upright Bass, you found your instrument in the band room closet of your high school. Or maybe you found one in your friend’s neighbor’s grandpa’s closet. SCORE! There was even a bow in that smelly, old, naugahyde case! You knocked some cobwebs off, tuned her up and you’re ready to go, right? Not quite, I’m sorry to say. How about that $500 bass you bought on ebay? Case and bow included!? What a bargain! Please, please, PLEASE do yourself a favor and have the bass looked at by a qualified luthier. You’ll be saving yourself a lot of frustration in the long run. Having the instrument properly set up for the type of music you are intending to play is so important. Chances are that old bass has been sitting around for a while in not so accommodating conditions. Remember, double basses are hollow bodied, wooden instruments. Even new plywood basses are sensitive to environmental, temperature, and pressure changes. Taking the necessary steps to get your bass playable is not only extending the life of the instrument, it’s also making your experience as a new player WAY EASIER. Your local luthier can make adjustments that will not only make the instrument feel better, it will make it sound a lot better too. Think about it. If you’re new to the Upright Bass and bow, you’re going to be doing a lot of sawing away for a while. This is often not so nice on the ears but, with a proper set up, it can make the experience a lot more enjoyable for you and for your neighbors.
Now, before I get all technical on you about what exactly a set up entails, let me introduce you to the different parts of the bass hence FAQ #4…
What the heck is tailgut? What are all these parts called?
I don’t want you to sound like a dummy when you log in to those bass chat rooms so let’s get to know the lingo.
First, the body of the bass. The top is most often referred to as the top or the table and is made of solid spruce. The back is simply called the back and is made from solid maple. Violin family instruments are always made of spruce and maple unless the bass is plywood in which the entire body is made of pressed ¼” plywood. The sides are called the ribs or the bouts and are also made from a thin maple veneer most often cut from the same piece of maple that the back is cut from. The bouts closest to the floor are called the lower bouts and the ones closest to the neck are called the upper bouts. The middle bouts are called the C bouts. Together they form the rib structure and are joined together inside the instrument by spruce blocks called respectively the end block, the neck block and the corner blocks. The neck is obviously called the neck and is a solid chunk of maple glued into the spruce neck block in a mortise and tenon type fashion. Perched on top of the neck is what is called the scroll (don’t call it the headstock). The little curly q’s on the sides of the scroll are called volutes or more commonly, the ears. The hollowed out center of the scroll is called the pegbox though wooden pegs like used on the smaller violin family instruments can not be used on the bass due to the size of the bass strings and the massive amount of tension. Instead we use metal machines or tuners. These are most often made out of brass, steel, or nickel. Moving back down the bass, we have the nut which is where the strings sit as they come out of the pegbox. Below the nut is the fingerboard (remember, not a fretboard). Both the nut and the fingerboard are most commonly made of solid ebony. Ebony is an extremely dense, African hardwood and is the ideal choice for instrument fittings. Due to its availability and high cost, rosewood or walnut is sometimes substituted. Other times, “ebonized” wood is used though it is really not the best alternative. “Ebonized wood” refers to crappy wood painted black. Anyway, moving along we come to the bridge, which is made of solid maple. Then comes the tailpiece, which is the piece where the strings are mounted. Tailpieces are, again, usually made of ebony though the same wood alternatives that we see with the nut and fingerboard can be used. Attached to the tailpiece is the tailgut. This is a small piece of cable that attaches the tailpiece to the endpin, which is the telescoping contraption at the very bottom of the bass. The endpin lets you adjust the height at which the bass stands. The tailgut is so called because back in the day it was actually made from the intestines, or guts, of an animal, hence the name “cat gut”. Strings were also, and some still are, made from the same gut material. Contrary to what the name “cat gut” might imply, they never used the intestines of cats, only kittens. Just kidding!, Usually the intestinal material comes from sheep, goats or cows. Today the “gut” for the tailgut has been replaced by flexible and strong aircraft cable. This cable attaches to the bottom of the the tailpiece and curls over a small piece of black ebony at the bottom of the table called the saddle. It then loops around the plug of the endpin to secure the tension on the instrument. Inside the instrument we have two very crucial parts: One being the soundpost and the other being the bass bar. The bass bar is a long, slender, bar of spruce that is specifically fit and glued on the inside of the bass on the bass side (meaning the side of the instrument below the E and A strings). This is there both for structural and sound purposes. The sound post is a spruce dowel that is tension fit on the inside of the instrument that is maneuvered into a certain position to adjust for sound. If you were one of the fortunate people who found an old, dusty bass in the closet, take a peek into the interior of the bass through the f hole or sound hole to check and see that the sound post is present and standing firmly inside the bass. Don’t go trying to tune that thing up if the soundpost has fallen or is missing as this can be very detrimental to the instrument.
Now that we’re familiar with the lingo, we can move onto what all these parts do and what is involved in a set up…. Hang tight, that’s coming in the next article. For now, enjoy my attempt at drawing a diagram.