There are four main methods used to find a double bass. In this post, we cover all four methods and their benefits and drawbacks. These are my opinions based on my own bass searches and those of my students. I welcome any feedback and comments on any of these methods. You can read Part I in this series here.
While a truly great resource for musicians, eBay is not recommended for novice bass buyers. There are some spectacularly bad basses advertised on eBay for very low prices. This is tempting to an instrument buyer on a budget, but there are a lot off hidden costs to this transaction. Under very few circumstances should you buy a bass for less than $1000. I often see basses advertised for around $500 on eBay. I would be very suspicious about buying a cheap bass at all on eBay (eBay is actually better for more expensive instruments), unless you are looking for a restoration project or you really know what you are doing.
The hidden costs of cheap eBay double basses:
Initial cost: $500 + $200 shipping
This seems like a good deal at first. The bass arrives and it is (hopefully) in one piece. It seems to be playable, and you take it to your teacher. He looks at it stone faced and advises you to get new strings, bridge, end pin and fingerboard. You bring it into the shop:
$150 for good strings
$300 for a new bridge plus adjusters
$120 for new end pin
$800 for new fingerboard
The initial price has now almost tripled after these repairs. $2070 is still not a bad price for a bass, but you have now spent what it would have likely cost for the same bass at a local shop. Then, six months later, you hear a bang and notice that the back seam has split open two feet. This is happening because the top is sinking. Your local shop glues the seam for $100:
$100 for glued seam
Then, three months later, the seam opens again. This time, however, the top also cracks by the F hole. You have both cracks repaired plus a shorter sound post carved (because the top is sinking):
$150 for cracks
$50 for sound post
Three months after that you are playing one day and hear a big bang. Your back seam has opened down the middle and you have a new, bigger crack on the top. You notice that the top has continued to sink to the point were it is actually becoming convex. This time your local luthier has a little talk with you about whether this bass is worth saving.
I’m not saying don’t ever buy a bass off of eBay. Just keep these points in mind when you see that shiny new $500 (plus bow and case!) bass advertised on eBay. I have seen cheap basses implode many times. Even higher quality basses are not 100% safe. I saw the top sink as I described on a Jakstadt once (a very good instrument maker–I play one!), so even more expensive bases aren’t completely risk-free, but they are much more so than the eBay exploding specials. Buying from a local store or bass luther/dealer also gives you a lace where you can bring all your problems. If they are reputable, they wil fix these problems. You are not going to get this kind of service from an eBay purchase.
2. Local Music Store
General music stores (the kind that sell trumpets, drums, clarinets, sheet music etc) are also not wise places to shop for an instrument. There are exceptions, of course. Some local shops have a really excellent string luthier working there who takes extra care in setting up each individual bass. These shops, unfortunately, are the exception rather than the rule. Often a local instrument shop will have the “eBay” type basses described earlier. One advantage to buying at a local music store over eBay is that you can take it back for repairs when it starts to fall apart (assuming the shop stands behind their product).
3. Specialized Bass Luthier/Retailer
Now we’re talking! Double basses are a non standardized, peculiar, subjective thing, and it almost always pays to go to a specialized bass luthier/dealer when buying instruments. This is true even for entry-level instruments. You will save money in the long run and have a much better experience if you simply go to a specialized shop. There aren’t that many truly outstanding places to buy basses in the country. I frequently have students interested in a professional-quality instrument go to Albuquerque, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids before finding an instrument that suits their needs.
4. Private Sellers
Word of mouth and private sleuthing will often yield the best basses. Many professionals would rather sell their old basses themselves and avoid the commissions taken by bass shops. During your search it is a good idea to spread the word that you’re looking and ask your teacher, orchestra director, and fellow students to keep their eyes open. It is a good idea to take whatever you find in to a luthier for an evaluation. Ask the luthier about the integrity of the instrument, its general value, and any visible flaws or drawbacks. Find a trusted, independent luthier that will give you an honest opinion.
As I mentioned in part one of this series, we talk about buying a bass in great detail on the Contrabass Conversations podcast, particularly in some of our luthier interview episodes like those featuring Nick Lloyd and George Martin. You can learn a great deal about what to look for in a double bass bow in our interview with Sue Lipkins.