Upright Bass Buyer's Guide (Especially for first-time buyers)
Buying an upright bass can be pretty stressful. It's not a small investment, even at the so-called "budget" end of the spectrum, and whether you're buying for yourself or for your child, there's a lot to know. Gollihur Music has a LOAD of tips, guides, FAQs, and other information, but it can be a little overwhelming if you're not sure where to begin.
Well, right here might be an ideal place to begin! I'd hate to think that I wrote all this down for nothing.
I've broken up this buyer's guide into several sub-topics, since there's a lot to consume here. On this guide, I've simplified the descriptions and am making general suggestions for which way you might like to go, based on your needs/budget/other factors. Many of the sub-topics link to a more detailed article in our collection so you can do a "deeper dive" if you'd like.
Most of the suggestions I'm making here are just that - suggestions. You're free (and encouraged, really) to consider alternate points; please don't take anything I say as "gospel." I've been having these conversations on the phone and by email for decades, so I'm well aware that there are no "one size fits all" answers. But I'm humble enough to know that I don't know all the answers.
All of that said, I hope you'll find this information helpful!
Carved? Laminated? Plywood? Solid? Hybrid?
Basses are generally available in three different construction types. (Here's our full FAQ on the subject)
- LAMINATED basses are also sometimes referred to as "plywood" basses. Of course, basses are not built of the same grade of stuff you see at your local home improvement warehouse! Rather, high-quality, thin maple laminates are pressed and glued for the back and sides. The top and back are pressed over a form to create the desired shape.
- FULLY CARVED describes a bass which is a solid wood instrument with no laminated surfaces. Both the top and back are carved (sometimes the back might be a solid wood flatback), and the side ribs are made of solid pieces of wood. Those basses that are considered the finest in the world are usually fully carved.
- HYBRID basses (usually) combine a fully carved top with a laminated body and sides. Using solid wood for the top, which is one of the most tonally important parts of the instrument, can often provide many of the tonal benefits of a carved bass -- while having a price point and maintenance level that is more like those of a laminated one.
So, which one do you choose? That depends.
If you're looking to buy your very first instrument as a rank beginner (or upgrading from a beat-up rental), I will strongly suggest that you consider a laminated bass, for a couple of reasons. For starters, they're almost always considerably cheaper, assuming that all other qualities are equal (build quality, manufacturer, origin, etc.) Also, they are usually considerably more durable than their fully carved counterparts. So, for a younger student who maybe isn't as careful as s/he should be, or for a gigging musician who's banging the bass around in the car/subway often, it can be more up to the rigors of less "gentle" handling.
It's also less susceptible to issues related to temperature and humidity changes - meaning, there's less "care and feeding" of a laminated bass, because it's more stable when those climate-related changes occur. Fully carved basses can (and usually do) develop cracks at times during their lives. Due to seasonal or environmental changes in humidity, the large pieces of wood in a bass can shrink (low humidity) or swell (very high humidity), resulting in cracks or seam openings that will require repair.
That said, many people own carved and hybrid basses in very variable climates. It’s not hard to overstate the effects, but you shouldn’t underestimate them either. I find that the biggest issues are:
- Extremes (VERY cold, VERY dry, VERY hot, VERY humid, direct sunlight, in a hot car)
- Quick transitions (pulling a bass out of a cold car and immediately taking it out of the bag in a warm nightclub, and vice-versa)
If you’re cognizant of those things, most modern uprights of all construction types are usually up to the task and rather durably constructed. But a laminated bass will usually be the most "worry-free" and for that reason, my bottom line is that I often recommend a laminated bass as a first instrument.
But don't I want the best possible tone? Well, sure, yeah. And yes - again, all else being equal - a fully carved bass should have a "more complex" timbre than a laminated bass; after all, it is made of what was once a single piece of wood. And it stands to reason that its vibration should be more "organic" and full than a bunch of thin laminates squeezed together with some glue. And that's the compromise, but for most beginning/intermediate players, it's a rather inconsequential one. Because a well-made, properly set up laminated instrument can still sound really good. That fully carved option might give you that extra 10%, tonally, but it can carry more than twice the maintenance concerns.
Another way to think of it is this - let's say you opt for a laminated bass for your first instrument. As you continue to play and progress, and really get good, you're probably going to be in a position where you want to upgrade to a carved bass in a few years or so. But when that happens, you might still want to hang onto that laminated bass, and keep it as your "beater" bass - meaning: it's great to have that fine carved bass for playing Carnegie Hall, but what if you want to play a pick-up Bluegrass gig in the middle of a campground sometime? You're not going to want to subject your high-end carved bass to that sort of environment, but that laminate bass will be perfect for that sort of thing.
Of course, if you're an advancing student who's been playing for several years, and you're looking for a bass to take with you to school as you major in bass performance - or perhaps looking to seriously pursue opportunities in orchestral or high-level jazz performance and recording situations, you're probably going to be better served by a fully carved instrument.
What Size Bass Should I Buy? 3/4? 1/2? "Full" Size?
Like people, basses come in several sizes. It's a peculiarity of Double Basses that the commonly accepted FULL SIZE bass is called a 3/4 size bass. It's a bit of a weird misnomer, but I won't get into the hows and whys here. Yes, 4/4 size basses exist, but you probably don't want one. (They're large, unwieldy, and often have far fewer options for strings and accessories.)
Most adult (and growing youth) players play a 3/4 size bass. If you're at least 5'4" or so, that's probably what you should generally be looking at. (If you have a child that you're buying for, I will always defer to the child's instructor on this particular matter.)
If you're particularly small of stature, you might opt for a 1/2 size bass, which will be a little smaller with a smaller scale (playing length.) However, for the purposes of portability, a 1/2 size is not THAT much less of a chore to handle, so I don't usually suggest getting a 1/2 size bass for "it'll be easier to lug around" reasons. And, like the 4/4 bass I mentioned above, a 1/2 size bass comes with downsides: there are FAR fewer string choices, and far fewer accessories (like bass bags). Plus, half-size basses usually have a notably diminished level of volume and tonal depth due to their smaller body cavity.
If you're seeking a 1/2 size (or smaller) bass for a student - hopefully under the advice of their instructor - I usually suggest making that bass a laminate bass, unless they are a very advanced player already. Why? Because that student will likely outgrow that bass in a couple of years. When that time comes, you'll be shopping for a 3/4 bass -- and probably looking to sell the 1/2 size. It will be a lot easier to "move" a less-expensive laminate "small" bass than a more costly carved one. And at that size, the tonal quality differences are even less apparent, in my experience.
Now, if you're the aforementioned small-statured adult, and a 1/2 sized bass is a "keeper" bass for you, the upgrade to a carved instrument may well be worth the upgrade costs; you'll likely benefit from the improved sound quality and volume, and are less concerned with resale value a couple years down the road.
How Much Should I Budget For?
At Gollhur Music, we sell "affordable" basses only - you won't see fancy $10,000 basses among our choices. That's by design. We're an online store, and most folks are buying our basses based almost entirely on our reputation and suggestions - they're not getting the chance to come to our shop here in Southern New Jersey and putting their hands on the instrument before they buy. Rather, we're shipping them out to the customers' homes. We've developed a stellar reputation for quality and service doing that, but we know our limitations.
If you're in the market for a bass that's worth over $8k or so, you probably shouldn't be shopping for it online. Yes, I can get that kind of bass, but at that level, you're probably a more advanced player and should really be auditioning basses in person for that kind of scratch. If you're looking for the next level, I strongly suggest working directly with a luthier or high-end bricks-and-mortar string shop where you can audition those $10k-15k (and on up) basses, and really get to know your next bass before you get out your wallet. Meanwhile, we specialize in instruments that are aimed at discriminating young and intermediate players, semi-professionals, and the like. Our basses are well-vetted, consistent, and a great value.
There is a practical minimum of affordability, though - on the market, you'll soon discover that there are a fair number of cheap offerings what my Dad likes to call "BSOs" - Bass-Shaped Objects - which seem like a great deal, but they just completely fail to provide appropriate value or quality. Often, these come in from China or India, and are mass-produced by factories that you wouldn't necessarily consider to be a "musical instrument maker." You'll generally find these basses for sale on eBay or similar venues, and for bargain basement prices like $400-600 or so, sometimes even including shipping. Stay away - these basses are very rarely bargains, and they instead end up being money pits, where the costs required to bring them to the bare minimum levels of playability and tone make them far more expensive in the long run. And even if you get it to a modicum of playability, you're still left owning a "cheap" bass with little to no resale value. I've encountered few, if any, options under $1,000 that are worth buying, and even that's pushing it - most quality instruments (laminated) begin around $1350 and up, not including shipping. That price may or not include setup (see below) but our prices do.
Should I Avoid a Bass That's Made in China?
So I mentioned China in the last bit. That wasn't to disparage instruments made there - my thoughts on the matter are quite the opposite, in fact. Most of our upright basses are made in China, and that's okay. The quality of a particular product has everything to do with the expertise and hands of the craftsman (or woman) and not so much with the dirt that he or she happened to be standing on when it was made. The trick is knowing who you're buying from. In our case, our basses are crafted in the same facilities as other, well-known and established Chinese brands you've likely heard of. They are crafted by true musical instrument manufacturers, not one among the scores of "you spec it, we mass-produce it" factories in Asia (BTW, those are the kind of places where those $400 eBay basses come from).
Plus, our basses are fully inspected and set up by luthiers in America before they are shipped to you.
But... you really prefer Made in America? I get it. Yes, I fully understand the urge to "Buy American" wherever possible. But, unfortunately, there are very few truly American-made basses anymore, especially since some "Made in America" instruments still source many finished parts like their necks, fingerboards, body pieces from elsewhere, and are mostly just assembled here in the USA. Regardless, the "US-Made" ones you find will be, as expected, considerably more expensive than their Asian counterparts.
Just know (and trust) who you're buying from, like I said.
What is a Setup, and Do I Need One?
As supplied by an instrument manufacturer, a bass may be "playable" - but it has not been optimized for playability and sound. Bridge and nut heights are high, and those components, and the fingerboard, may require some work to make the bass truly playable for a particular bassist (you). Also, optimal sizing and placement of the sound post (a movable post inside the bass) can have a profound effect on the tone and volume of the bass. Addressing these factors - cutting down the bridge height, adjusting the sound post, ensuring that the fingerboard profile allows for comfortable play, smoothing the nut slots, play-testing for tone and playability - all of that work is called a "setup."
Some bass sellers sell the instruments as provided by the manufacturers - meaning, all of those finer aspects of "dialing in" an instrument have not been done. If this is not done by the shop you purchase your bass from, you should budget several hundred dollars for the costs of having a luthier in your area do it for you. It's a very worthwhile process, as a "non-set-up" bass will usually be difficult and uncomfortable to play.
Basses bought at some other shops claim to come with a "factory set up", which simply means that the strings and bridge have been installed, but those basses have not really been optimized for the player. Make sure you clarify whether the basses you're considering have been TRULY set up, or if they are basically as provided by the manufacturer - playable, but far from optimal.
Our basses all come fully set up by a luthier, with comfortable action; your bass is ready to play as soon as it arrives, and the fingerboard, nut, bridge and sound post have all been properly shaped and adjusted. If you're shopping around, be aware of those extra hidden costs if the bass has not been set up by a competent luthier.
Will I Save Money with a "Bass Package?" Do I Need Any Accessories?
What else do you need with your bass? We have most everything you might want - gig bags, bows and rosin, pickups and amps, books, and so on. But I won't sell you anything you don't need. Many retailers offer packages where you get a case, a bow, a stand, and various other nifty "add-ons" - but find out the specifics of the items they're including in those packages. It's common for a shop to package their cheapest bow, their thinnest, flimsiest bag, and so on, just to "fluff out" the package. That's not always the case, but it's worth asking which stuff you're really getting. We don't have too many packages, but the ones we have give you the same 1st quality stuff we sell separately on the site. And we're always happy to put together custom packages, with discounting, so you only get the stuff you need or want (if you're getting the bass to play bluegrass, what good does a "free" bow do you?)
Oh yeah - and you probably DON'T want a "hard case" - they are expensive, huge, heavy beasts that are entirely impractical for use for local back and forth. You only need one if you're traveling by air, tour bus, etc. and need superior protection. Trust me, if you think you want one for your kid to take the bass back and forth to school, please don't. You'll thank me later.
Should I Upgrade the Strings?
Many basses come with inexpensive, no-name, all-purpose (aka"hybrid") strings installed. A lot of basses may come with lower-cost brand-name strings, too - D'Addario's Prelude and Helicore Orchestra sets are very common choices.
If you're a new bassist, I'd advise you to try the "stock" strings that come with your new bass first -- and here's why: since you are new to the instrument, you don't really KNOW what sound you're going to prefer, so you would be "guessing" at what strings you might like to "upgrade" to. At $120-$250 a set, on average, that's an expensive gamble. So spend a little time with the stock strings, since they're included in the price of the bass; you can then come back to the seller in a couple months, and say, "I like how they feel, but I wish they were brighter/darker/more sustain-y/thumpier/etc." Or, "I like the tone, but they're a little too heavy/light/thick/thin/stiff/etc." In our case, we are quite familiar with how the stock strings play and sound, and with the common ground of a string we're both familiar with, we can then move forward and make a more informed decision together about what string you might like better.
That said, if you are an experienced player and have a favorite string, during its setup we can install, at no cost, any strings that we carry (you just pay for the strings). Most other sellers should be able to do the same, I'd think. But you should ask!
What Do I Need to Know About Shipping?
Basses are too large for regular UPS and FedEx delivery services, so they are usually shipped by freight truck. If you have a freight shipping account, the costs for shipping a bass in the continental USA usually range between $250-350, depending on location. If you just walk in off the street, they'll usually charge you $600-800 or more. So it's a costly enterprise. Be aware of those costs if you're comparison shopping between two shops; if one offers free shipping, and the other does not, find out what the "to your door" costs will be so you can have a fair comparison.
I hope you found this information helpful. Be aware that we are here to answer your questions as best we can.
That said, you should know that one of the few bass-related subjects I'm not very knowledgeable about is identifying/evaluating/valuing pre-owned or vintage basses; since we deal exclusively with new instruments, my finger isn't exactly "on the pulse" of the used market.
But other than that small caveat, I'm happy to provide you with the information to make a more educated bass purchase - just drop me a line or give me a call during business hours.