This post contains thoughts and observations about playing Gary Karr’s former double bass. Read the first part of my “Amati” bass story here.
When I first picked up the Amati bass from Aaron Reilly at the Guarneri House, I couldn’t wait to get it home and start working on my recital program. I pulled it out of the case and got a chill up my spine when I saw the distinctive sunflower-embossed tailpiece. It had a new set of Pirastro Permanent solo strings on it (which happen to be my favorite brand of string), so I knew that I was ready to go.
This famous bass is extremely small. It actually doesn’t feel like a bass at all, but more like some strange bass/cello amalgamation. I play a large 7/8 Jakstadt as my main bass, so transitioning to this tiny solo bass was quite challenging. Usually I stand when I practice and play solos, and I am used to the feeling of a lot of mass resting against my side when I play. It felt very strange to have such a light instrument against my side—it actually was difficult for me to keep it balanced. Everything about this bass is small—the bridge, fingerboard, neck, scroll, and string length. The above photo is a side-by-side comparison of my Jakstadt bass and the “Amati” bass. Notice the vast difference in size.
My two weeks with the “Amati” were filled with orchestra rehearsals and performances in Chicago, and this was hard on both my nerves and my chops. Switching between big and small, heavy and light, orchestra tuning and solo tuning, and extension playing and upper register playing was very stressful. I am sure that many bassists are comfortable switching between vastly different set ups, but for me it takes a few days to really feel at home on a bass, and I unfortunately ever got to really get a practicing groove going just with the “Amati” bass.
The sound I pulled at first on this bass was very sweet but fairly small and unfocused. The tone of this bass got richer and fuller the higher I played, and it got smaller and less resonant the lower I played. This is not a knock against the bass. Quite simply, this is an incredibly special and specialized instrument, and I had not learned the skills to fully activate its potential. This instrument sounds (under my hands, at least) fantastic from the G octave to the edge of the fingerboard and beyond, decent on the D string and lower G string, and downright strange on the E and A strings.
This bass responds best when the bow is right up against the bridge and is pulled very slowly with a lot of weight. If I bowed the strings any farther away than that the instrument sounded kind of like a violone or other such early instrument. Only when the bow is near the bridge with a great deal of weight in the right arm did that famous “Gary Karr sound” emerge. While playing like this, one also has to remain very free and flexible in the right arm. Too much weight will crush the sound, however. Playing this bass with the correct right arm technique is like herding cats—very challenging and often frustrating, but strangely fun.
You can hear me perform this recital in its entirety on this episode of Contrabass Conversations.