Issue 3

Getting Your Bass Playing The Way You'd Like

The Set-Up
Part 1: Fingerboard

All modifications to the playability of a string bass fall under the category of Set- Up. Set-Up details are as varied as players of the instrument. Some bass players will need a set-up that allows them to get their fingers all the way under the strings for slap techniques, and others will want the strings as low as possible for silky, effortless playing into the upper registers. Some like to bow or pluck gently and allow the bass to resonate in a relaxed, tension-free manner, while others prefer to muscle the strings, and require a lot of resistance from the instrument. There are bass players who rely on amplification in all venues; and there are those who would not use an amplifier if there were a dozen drummers on the gig. And then there are orchestral bassists who need to be able to pull every possible bowed tone from their bass; from a whisper to a roar.

A good set-up begins with the fingerboard. The arch (side-to-side curvature) and camber (scoop, or relief) need to be just right for the type of playing the bass will be subject to. Once the fingerboard is correctly adjusted, then the other set-up details such as bridge, nut, etc., can be worked out to match it.

One of the first things I do when meeting with a set-up client is to inspect the fingerboard. Here are the questions I am asking myself:

1) Is it well-attached?
2) Is it substantial enough? Old double bass fingerboards which have been dressed (planed and smoothed) several times may be too thin to function properly.
3) Is it good quality wood? Ebony is preferable because of its stiffness and durability. Straight grain is most desirable.
4) Is the joint between the neck and fingerboard straight? Or is it bending in one direction or the other? (This can indicate neck warpage.)
5) Have the strings made grooves in the board?
6) Are the camber specs close to ideal?
7) Is the arch well-suited to the type of playing?

I will also have the owner play the instrument for me and show me any areas he/she is finding problematic. (Problems with fingerboards usually manifest as buzzes and rattles, but can include dead areas, and a feeling of “tightness” that comes with excessive camber. The arch of the fingerboard might also need to be optimized, as facile jazz players will often prefer a flatter arch than strong arco players, who need more curvature for clean bow crossings.) I will place a long straightedge on the fingerboard to assess the camber adjacent to all of the strings. I will often check the arch at both ends with templates I made for that purpose; but this is best done with the strings off. I will also check the fingerboard for high and low areas with different length rulers.

Once an assessment is made of the fingerboard, and I have taken some notes, I discuss with the player what can be done to correct or improve the bass’ playability via fingerboard corrections. If the existing fingerboard is tightly attached and viable, the correction may be a simple dressing. This consists of planing the fingerboard to remove high and low areas, setting the proper camber and arch, smoothing and then sealing the board. The planing must be done with a razor-sharp block plane with a small throat opening, otherwise the wood of the fingerboard is likely to tear out in little chunks. After planing, the small facets which the plane has made need to be rounded with scraper blades, then the surface sanded baby-bottom smooth with sanding blocks and progressively finer abrasives. After wetting the fingerboard to raise the grain, it is burnished with the finest steel or synthetic wool, then sealed with a light coat of drying oil. This oil can be Danish oil (such as Watco), Tung oil, Walnut oil, or Linseed oil. Some luthiers use wax, but I personally don’t like the feel of it.

Setting the nut height and spacing is an important part of any fingerboard job. If the fingerboard has been properly set-up, with no drop-off at the nut end, then the nut grooves can be set nearly down to the level of the fingerboard. Special files which are close to the diameter of the individual strings should be used for this task. I like to be able to just slide a business card under each string at the nut, when the bass is at full tension. Some players who like more tension may prefer the nut left a tad higher.

About the fingerboard camber: Under tension, the bass’ fingerboard should have just a bit more camber under the low strings than the high ones. About 1.5 to 2.5mm under the E, to about 1 to 2mm under the G. The lowest spot (Nadir) should be just about at the octave, or slightly lower.

In my next installment, I will discuss the set-up of the nut, bridge and soundpost.

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