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Upright Bass Set Up for Playability and Sound

I thought I would address a question left on No Treble’s Facebook page regarding string action on upright and volume discrepancies between different strings by talking a bit about set up on the upright bass.

When someone talks about getting the upright bass set up, they are referring to a number of things, from bridge height to curve of the fingerboard and more. In the next two installments, we will discuss a few of the items that can affect an instrument’s ease of playability and sound. Here are some things to get you thinking about your own bass set up.

Playability

While string height, or “action,” on an upright bass can vary quite a bit from bass to bass and player to player, it is safe to say that it will be higher than on an electric bass. It is equally safe to say that unless you or a previous owner have had your instrument professionally set up by a qualified luthier, the string height could probably be lower than it is now. Furthermore, if your instrument hasn’t been set up to suit you, then you almost certainly could enhance its playability by having it better adapted to your playing style.

Finding your preferred set up is an individual process involving both the instrument and the player. Ultimately only you can figure out what you like, want and works best. Rest assured, however, that if you work together with a luthier who specializes in bass and you can likely improve the playability of your instrument. The main components affecting an instrument’s ease of playability are: the bridge height/tension on the bass, the arc of the bridge, the arc or the fingerboard, and the scoop of the fingerboard.

Bridge Height

Sometimes an upright will not seem “user friendly” for the left hand because the strings are simply too far away from the fingerboard. Or perhaps the strings have an uncomfortably high tension to them. The tension can be adjusted in a number of ways, (including trying a different brand of strings), but the simplest is to lower your bridge.

If you have an adjustable bridge, just make a few turns to shorten the bridge height. Lowering the bridge will reduce the distance between the strings and the fingerboard, thereby making the action lower. If you don’t have an adjustable bridge then you will need to cut your bridge down, or possibly get an entirely different bridge. Don’t do it yourself. If you believe you will be experimenting with bridge height for a while, then I suggest getting a bridge with adjusters so you can do so easily.

While lowering the strings and decreasing their tension can be beneficial, it can also make any imperfections in the fingerboard audible. If the scoop of the fingerboard isn’t well done then you may find that lowering the bridge causes certain notes to lose sustain or buzz.

Fingerboard Scoop

The scoop of the fingerboard refers to the arc of the fingerboard from the nut (1st fret) to the bridge (infinite fret!). Without going into great detail, simply notice the strings are closer to the fingerboard at the nut than they are as you progress further down the fingerboard. This fingerboard angle is shaved using a wood plane but the end result is not straight line/angle. Rather it is in a more rounded shape, or “scoop.” Some folks like more (deeper) scoop, some folks like a flatter board with less scoop. It’s determined primarily by your playing style and personal preferences. Play a few basses and see what you like. If you can do so in a luthier’s shop then you can also ask questions and get relevant answers as well.

Whatever the degree of your scoop, it needs to be smooth, controlled and regular. You want to avoid hills and valleys in your fingerboard as they will cause you trouble. You will hear these hills and valleys in the fingerboard in the form of buzzes and dead-notes. The closer your strings are to the fingerboard the more refined and accurate the scoop must be. It takes an extremely skilled hand, a good piece of ebony and a sharp plane, to put a smooth and controlled scoop in a three foot long fingerboard. The lower the strings, the greater the challenge is for the luthier.

There is, of course, a point at which the strings are so low that it is no longer possible to improve the refinement of the scoop to avoid string buzzes or dead-notes. If you and your luthier reach this point, then raise your bridge. You might be surprised, however, at just how low you can put your strings when a highly skilled luthier takes their plane to your fingerboard.

Bridge and Fingerboard Arc

The arc of the bridge (i.e. the curve of the top of the bridge from E-side to G-side) and the arc of the fingerboard (i.e. the similar curve of the fingerboard) must compliment each other. In a particularly refined set up, changing the curve on one means making an adjustment to the curve of the other. The point is that the two arcs (fingerboard and bridge) should be related. Not exact copies, but related. For example, you don’t want a highly curved fingerboard and a flat bridge. This would make some strings significantly closer to the fingerboard than others.

You will determine the amount of curve you want based on your style of play and whether or not you will be using a bow. More curve makes it easier on the bow. If you aren’t sure, play on a few basses in a luthier’s shop and see what you like. They usually have templates for you to see and will talk you through it. They might also have a few basses on hand, set up in various ways, for you to compare.

Some other things that can affect ease of play include the height of the nut, the width/circumference of the neck and the spacing of the strings at the nut. Smaller is better, to a point. In some cases these things can be adjusted, in others it cannot. Your luthier can look at your instrument and tell you whether they think it is possible and advisable.

Next time, we’ll talk about a few ways your set up can impact your sound.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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