Unless you are exceptionally tall, you’re going to want a 3/4 size bass. Most basses are 3/4 size basses and pretty much every professional bassist ranging from major symphony players to the best jazz bassist use a 3/4 or an even smaller 5/8 bass. Full size basses are extremely rare and almost no one makes them. The problem with full size basses is that they require a larger than average hand span on the left hand to play. I’m 5′8″ and had the opportunity to play a full size bass before. The bass itself sounded very boomy and deep on the low notes, but I had to shift my hands even when they were playing adjacent notes and it was nearly impossible to play fast. If can see a 4/4 working great if you play bluegrass I & V’s with a club grip, but otherwise it’s not a practical instrument unless you had the average hand the size of a guy that is 6′8″. A 3/4 is fine for anyone down to 5′2″ tall unless you have smaller than average hands for someone of that height. If you are, it’s not that bad for you since I’ve come across many great sounding 5/8 size basses, although you selection is significantly smaller. Once you get down to a 1/2 bass, they start sounding shallow.
Carved Vs. Plywood (Laminate)
One of the biggest differentiators between basses is whether they are carved or plywood (laminate). Carved basses are made from wood boards and the luthier carved and shaped the different parts of the bass. Plywood basses are made from plywood which are formed to produce the different parts of the bass. Because of the labor and expertise required to carve wood, properly carved basses cost much more than plywood basses. Plywood basses have the advantage that they can be more consistently made because plywood is more consistent than natural wood boards and can be shaped and molded using templates. Plywood basses also are much more durable because of they can handle impact and extreme weather better than solid wood. A properly carved basses generally sounds more complex in tone than a plywood bass which is what makes them generally more desirable.
Not all carved basses are better than plywood basses. If a bass is not carved right, a plywood bass can play and and sound better than a poorly made carved bass. There is also a newer type of bass called solid wood (not carved) that’s a ticking time bomb. Basically they take a solid wood board, wet it and form it. Solid wood basses (not carved) should absolutely be avoided. Some people are happy with plywood basses for their whole careers, so it shouldn’t be assumed that plywood basses are beginner basses. Also if you decide to step towards a carved bass, make sure that it is a good carved bass, because as I said before, not all carved basses are better than plywood basses, they’re only good if the person carving them does it well.
There is also the hybrid bass which uses a plywood back, usually ribs are plywood too, but has a carved top. Since the top of the bass makes the most significant difference in sound, the hybrid bass gives a lot of the carved sound without the cost of a fully carved bass.
Buying a Bass
How Much You’ll Need to Save
You’ll need to save least $1500 to buy a starter bass. Forget any of those shoddy basses that are available on Ebay. Many have been tempted to buy them only to regret it. They are so poorly made that you’ll end up dumping so much money making them playable and fixing them, that you’d end up spending as much as it would have cost buying a good bass in the first place. You’ll never recoup that money back when it’s time to upgrade because potential buyers will prefer to buy the better make an/or accuse you of ripping them off for trying to sell the same bass they saw on Ebay for more than twice the price.
Hear it Before You Buy It
It is common practice to have the shop play the bass for you. A bass sounds different close up vs out 5 feet away. I even have this done in my process of evaluating a bass in addition to playing it myself because it may sound good up close, but maybe not for a distance which is what your audience will hear. Since you are a beginner, you definitely need someone to play a bass for you. Listen for the tone, buzzes, and also if the person struggles on the higher or lower register because that may reveal issues with the instrument. If a shop is knowledgeable and experienced in the upright bass, they should be able to play the thing competently after all. Have them play it arco and pizz. Up and down the fingerboard. You definitely don’t want to buy a bass that you’ve never heard nor do you want to be stuck with a bass that you don’t like the sound of. For mail order shops, ask them to play it for you over the phone before they ship it. Every bass sounds different even if they look and are built alike. Shipping, repackaging and return shipping usually will be at least $700, which the buyer will incur if they send back a bass. With the hassles and risks of shipping a bass, its something of a must to at least hear a bass before buying it. I like the fact that Upton Bass puts video clips of their basses online and more stores should do the same.
Some Popular Deals
As for recommendations, I’ve come across every beginner bass available through students and for the money, Thompson Basses are a fantastic deal. Christopher basses and Samuel Shen Basses are also spoken highly of in the community and are found in many bass specific shops as their entry level offering. If you have the ability to spend more, Upton Basses are a solid deal. These are my list of basses because they are consistently good and reliable, and I trust the shops that sell them. Don’t just take my word for it, Google Thompson basses or Upton Basses for owner’s opinions on it. Steve Koscica runs String Emporium that sells the Thompson basses and he is a highly seasoned, professional bassist who evaluates these basses prior to selling them. He brings a lot of perspective from a performing musician’s point of view, and will play on a prospective bass for you over the telephone if you ask him to so that you get an idea of how the individual bass will sound. Upton bass offers basses that they make and set in their own shop from an award winning luthier. You can hear their basses online at their website. If you’re going to buy something locally, Engelhardts are the most widely available basses and are consistently good instruments in the beginner range. Any music store can order these for you.
“You Sound Like a Used Car Sales Guy”
A little warning. I’ve always said that if someone is offering advice on products which financially benefits themselves, they are called salesmen. I don’t let salespeople tell me what to buy and you should be suspicious if they try to do the same to you. There are people who try to come off as a bass authority (it’s easy for anyone to claim to be anything that they want to be online), but I’ve been around long enough to see the lineage of people who trained in the trade versus someone who is just Internet educated and regurgitating what they read online and one day just decided to start selling bass products. “The proof is in the pudding”, if they are that knowledgeable and straightforward about their recommendation, they will accommodate requests such as playing an instrument for you.
Say No To Drop Shipping
A reputable shop will have a luthier inspect each bass. Do not get drop shipped basses. For those unfamiliar with terminology, “drop shipping” is where a dealer pretty much brokers the sale of a product. Instead of a dealer getting the product in their store first, they have the manufacturer ship the item directly to the customer. With the costs and difficulty associated with returning a bass I had mentioned before, do not get a drop shipped bass. If they drop ship basses, then they are just adding profit to their bottom line without providing you with anything for that added expense.
The purpose of being a bass dealer is to offer service which includes inspecting, adjusting and evaluating each individual bass, inside and out, to spot trouble signs or defects. If you get a bass drop shipped to you and it is defective, you now have to deal with the time, hassle and expense of shipping it back. Experienced shops can spot problems that would not be apparent to bassists, especially beginners. Ask the dealer if they will have a luthier inspect the bass you are purchasing. Again if they don’t have a bass inspected and setup, they are just adding profit to their bottom line without providing you with anything for that money.
Country of Origin of a Bass
I would take caution in buying basses coming out of Bulgaria, Yugoslavia or Romania, especially carved, because of the inconsistent nature of their instruments and there have been a lot of cases that the wood is too fresh which leads to warping over time. As I mentioned earlier, carving is a skill, and just because they market it as carved doesn’t mean that it’s better than a plywood bass. Americans make assumptions that since it’s a string instrument from Europe, it has some heritage. Europeans view the quality of products from those Eastern European countries the way Americans view products from Mexico. Until you have enough experience with upright basses to spot trouble, you’re more far more likely to get a money pit than a gem. In general, basses from those countries have been wildly inconsistent and if you’re considering purchasing a bass from that region, the bass should be properly setup up for you to try. Do not buy a bass from that region unless a luthier has set it up and you can try it in person.
Renting an Upright Bass
If you do not have the money, then the next best option is to rent from a local string shop, if there happens to be a upright bass shop within driving distance, that’s idea. Shops that focus on band instruments I haven’t seen good rental basses at so beware. Most stores have a rent to own option where you can bank the money paid to rentals toward a purchase of a new instrument later. Ask for them to give you pricing on the new prospective bass to make sure that they will give you a fair deal on the new bass.
There are several advantages of renting an upright bass. If you end up deciding that an upright bass isn’t for you, you won’t have your money locked up into something that’s slow to sell. It takes quite a while to sell a bass since it’s not a commonly sought item. It’s not uncommon for a bass to take over a year to sell. For rental instruments, string shops are responsible for maintaining and adjusting the bass so you’ll save on that. If you hear buzzing, bring it in, because it is their responsible for fixing things that sometimes
happen on basses such as seam splits and cracks (unless you damaged it from lack of care). Different shops have different opinions on strings. If you are responsible for replacing broke strings during the course of a rental, then it would be reasonable that the shop should install new ones when you first get the bass.
When it’s time to trade in your rental for your very own bass you may be limited to what the dealer can get through their channels. Shens and Englehardts are fairly easy for any dealer to get. Shens are very highly regarded and both are consistently good. If you’re renting from a bass shop, they probably will have a much better selection than a string shop or music store so try them all out.