The Lowdown with Dr. D.: Reader Questions

I constantly receive questions in my email box from aspiring bassists. Unfortunately sometimes these pile up and I can’t always get to everyone’s question in a timely manner, or even send a personal response. So for a few installments, I thought I would take some time here on The Lowdown and answer a few of the more common questions that I get.

I often boil my electric bass strings to extend their life and save a few dollars. Can I boil my upright bass strings to make them sound new again? – Shawna B.

In a word, NO. Upright Strings are constructed differently from electric strings. Usually boiling upright strings ruins them completely and immediately. Things change quickly, but I don’t know of any Upright Strings that benefit from boiling them. Despite the cost of a new set of Upright Strings, it is better to buy a new set. I would never boil my upright bass strings.

I am a moving to a new town after living, and playing, in my current city for 15 years. Do you have any suggestions for getting work in a new town? I play Upright and Electric, jazz, classical, bluegrass…pretty much everything I can get. – Woody K.

Well the good news is that you are a broad bassist and musician who is ready to work! Getting set up in a new town can be a challenge and it usually takes a bit of time. However, but there are a number of ways that you can speed along the process.

If you know any musicians in the area, contact them and let them know you will be living there and looking for work. If you are willing to travel, let them know that as well. If you know someone who knows someone in the area, get them to introduce you, in person, by phone or by email. Word of mouth reference from one musician to another can be a good way to find gigs. Do this before you actually move if you can, especially if you rely on your playing for income. You can use social networking sites and Craigslist as well. Regarding Craigslist: I have noticed that answering someone else’s ad seems to work a little better than advertising your own availability, but you should probably do both.

Once you get to your new town, go and see as much live music as possible and “sit in” if you can. Have business cards ready to pass out. Talk to the musicians, and ask about local sessions, active music clubs, etc. You can find both gigs and sub work this way. Don’t be obnoxious about it, and be sure to play well, but let people know you are new in the area and looking to work. Get your face and your playing in front of the musicians who are playing in your area.

For some types of work, you will need a one-page resumé and will be dealing with contractors. Ask around and find the person who contracts the local Pit Orchestras for musicals, etc. and send them your info. You mention that you play classical music, so find out who personnel managers for the local “per service” orchestras are. Most of these smaller orchestras have formal auditions on a regular basis. You might get lucky and be able to audition for a contracted position and get some steady work. If they don’t have any openings for contracted positions, you can sometimes get on a sub list without an audition, or with an informal audition. If you have a good reference and a resumé that shows appropriate experience you can at least get in the door and on the list. Spend some time on the internet and you can find a listing of Symphony Orchestras in the United States. There are many smaller orchestras that perform one or two concerts a month. Contact them and get on the sub list, and find out about auditions.

Union laws vary from state to state, but if you are a member of the musician’s union (American Federation of Musicians), you can get a copy of the Local book of members. It will have a listing of contractors, with contact information and the type of music they contract. Send these people a letter with your resumé, and follow up.

These are just some ideas, but they have worked for my students, my colleagues and me fairly well. A short period of high-energy gig searching can pay dividends for a long time. Of course, getting the gig different from keeping the gig, but that’s another column.

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

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  1. To help the above player with the String issue.Boiling your strings will rust the core.I`ve had a set of string on my bass for over a year.Not because I`m cheap,but where I live,it`s really hard to get my gauge and sets[6-String].A better alternative is to soak your string for at least one hour in Methyl-Hydrate alcohol!You can find it at any hardware store,it`s really cheap and 1 litre will last you for almost two years!Just put it in a tupperware container and when you clean your basses.Roll-up your string and let them soak!For more tips please contact me by e-mail!

  2. Thanks for your response Tony. Just to be clear, we are talking Upright Bass strings. Many upright bass strings do not have a core that can rust. In fact, many are nylon, perlon, or other synthetic, non-metal, material. Boiling them will, in fact, ruin them. If you soak your URB strings in Methyl-Hydrate alcohol, you will greatly weaken them, and likely ruin them. For URB, you really just need to by a new set.

    Yours in bass,