How to Get the Best Jazz Sound Out of Your Double Bass

by Christopher Vance

The double bass has the unique ability to be used in a huge variety of musical styles without having to drastically alter its nature. It is feasible to take the very same instrument to a symphony gig, a jazz gig and a bluegrass gig all in the same night without having to change a thing as far as the instrument set-up. But if your focus is pizzicato type playing, referred to here as jazz playing (although it includes bluegrass, rock, folk, etc.), there are modifications you can employ that will improve your sound and ease of playing.

 

Set-Up

As far as the actual physical set-up of the instruments, the changes are subtle. Basically, the instrument should be set-up to sound its best regardless of what it is being used for. The soundpost and bassbar should be properly placed and fitted to maximize the instruments tone — all cracks and seams should be closed, the neck angle should be correct, etc.

The set-up changes involve the string placement. In most cases, it is easier to pluck the instrument if:

  • the bridge is lower (reducing the string height and tension)
  • the arc of the bridge crown is flatter (the arc of the bridge allows the bow to contact each string individually, but if you are primarily plucking the string, it is easier to move across a flatter plane)
  • and the concavity of the fingerboard from nut end to bridge end is less extreme (making the string height in the middle of the fingerboard lower).

Some jazz players also prefer a closer string placement. Note: these things can slightly alter the proper placement of the soundpost. Consult a qualified repair technician.

Strings

There are many different kinds of strings out there, and what string sounds best for what kind of music is not a black and white issue. The preference will vary from player to player. Some of the most common jazz strings for double bass include Thomastik Spirocore, different kinds of D’addario strings, and the newer strings by Velvet, their Compass 360 in particular. Using gut strings is also an option, of which there are many different kinds.

Pick-ups

Most jazz players now have to amplify their basses to achieve balance in the ensemble. The pick-up is a transducer attached to the bass. The pick-up most in vogue currently is the Realist by David Gage and Ned Steinberger. It mounts under the bass bar side bridge foot and sounds very natural; it seems to not alter the natural sound of the bass acoustically, and is the least prone to feedback. Other pick-ups include the Underwood which mounts in the wing slots of the bridge and has a slightly darker sound amplified (mounting this way mutes the bridge, but the pick-up is easily removed for acoustic playing; you will also have to make sure the pick-up will fit into the wing slots) the Fishman, which mounts to the face of the bridge between the strings with special clips and has a much brighter sound (this pick-up also mutes the bridge and is also easily removable). Barcus-berry and Polytone also make very good pick-ups that are easily removable. Wilson makes an excellent sounding pick-up but it mounts permanently.

Amplifiers

Once you have a pick-up on your bass, it will work in any bass amplifier. The most common bass guitar amplifiers used for the double bass are made by Gallien-Krueger. It is important to find the right amp that will faithfully reproduce the natural resonance of the instrument, and most bass guitar amps add a lot of bottom end to the sound which can cause a very boomy and feedback-ridden tone. Class D amplifiers seem to work exceedingly well because they are so natural and clean. Walter Woods, Acoustic Image and Euphonic Audio all make class D amps that seem to cater to the needs of a Double Bassist.