This is an essay by jazz bassist and Contrabass Conversations guest Eric Hochberg documenting his experiences with his new double bass and how many small factors can add up to cause a very difficult situation. Click here to read all of Eric’s bass blog contributions (or select him from the contributors menu in the blog sidebar), and visit him online at www.erichochberg.com.
This New Bass (A Painful Journey)
By Eric Hochberg
There is nothing more exciting for us as musicians than getting a new instrument that we hope will take our music to a higher level. I offer this account of my recent experience so that it might help others avoid some of the problems I have had in switching to a new bass.
Some background: I have been a professional double bassist and bass guitarist for 35 years and for the last thirty have played exclusively on a 1955 Juzek labeled bass. It has taken me throughout my career in jazz and popular music and while it is a good instrument and has served me well, after so many years, I was ready for something different, I longed for a new bass!
I began my bass search the summer of 2004 which took me to shops in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Iowa City, Grand Rapids, the ISB convention in Kalamazoo, and locally in the Chicago area. I played countless instruments priced into the $25,000 range. Although I hoped to keep the budget somewhat lower than that, I wanted to get a feel for the market and what to expect up to that level, at least from the professional shops.
I had been making frequent stops at one of the string shops in Chicago and in April of 2006 I came upon the bass that I decided to buy. It was an approximately 100 year old Bohemian labeled bass and in need of a major set up and other work, but I could tell it had a wonderful, full and even sound, and for the asking price, I felt I could have the work it needed done and come out ok on the deal financially.
Setting up the bass was an ongoing process. It needed regluing and dressing of the fingerboard, recut nut, recut bridge and realigned adjusters, new sound post and tail wire, seam gluing, raised saddle and an extensive finish touchup. After all of these things were done, the bass still needed tweaking to get it to a comfortable playing level. What I didn’t consider was that my body was used to playing my Juzek and switching “cold turkey” to another instrument might have a profound effect on me physically, I was so excited about this instrument, I dove right in, taking it to all of my gigs (except when it was back in the shop for further adjustment). I just loved the way it sounded and couldn’t wait to play it every day! By July, I was experiencing pain in both wrists that would not go away.
One thing I should mention is that at that time I was putting in more double bass playing time than I had for a while, five to seven gigs per week for seven months or so. Three to five hour jazz gigs can be extremely grueling and I have always been an aggressive player, putting out a lot of energy. While this increased performing load, without sufficient recovery time, may have had a debilitating effect on me, I am convinced that the switch to the new bass was what really took me over the edge physically. I had never before in 35 years of playing had this type of chronic issue, only temporary aches and pains.
While my new bass is very similar in many respects to my old bass in terms of size and shape, I believe it was the small differences that contributed to my physical problems. Before starting my bass search I decided to look for an instrument of approximately the same or even smaller dimensions as my old bass. At 53 years of age I knew I didn’t want to work harder by dealing with significantly larger bouts and longer string lengths. I even considered some 5/8 size instruments which were very comfortable to play, but just didn’t have the sound that I was after.
Some of my problems might have been avoided if my luthier and I had addressed and completed all of the details of the setup before I started working intensely with the new bass, and it is my suggestion that whenever one is changing to a new instrument to have the set-up parameters as close as possible on both (or all) instruments to ease the transition. Distance between strings both at the nut and at the bridge should be the same. For jazz pizz playing, the angle and position of the plucking hand should be the same from instrument to instrument. We discovered that on the new bass my plucking hand was not as open while playing as it was on the old bass and this altered playing position eventually caused thumb and wrist pain to develop. The fix was to add an ebony shim to the underside of the fingerboard where my thumb rests. This opened up my hand to the position I was used to on the old bass. The new bass also seemed to have a “tighter” feel which seemed to cause more stress on my plucking hand. We addressed this with lighter strings and a raised saddle.
Another difference between my two instruments was the geometry of the neck to body and the lower bridge of the new bass (5.5” as compared to 6.25”). Getting to the higher positions was more difficult for me because of this and I had to change my technique to accommodate the difference. This put new and different stresses on my hands, wrists and arms and contributed to more physical distress. A neck reset to a higher overstand and taller bridge as on the Juzek might solve this problem.
By late December 2006 I could feel that things were getting worse, more pain and intermittent tingling in my arms, and in January 2007, after a gig that I could barely finish because of pain and weakness, I decided to take a break and get some physical therapy which included deep massage, ultrasound, accupuncture and stretching exercizes. I stopped playing completely for three weeks and then started up again on bass guitar only, taking at least a day off for every two that I played. In March, I began playing five days and resting two, and things were going pretty well. I also eased into playing upright at home with some light practicing.
I began to start gigging again on upright in April (with the Juzek), but only on select jobs. In June, I decided to give the Rabbath/Laborie style endpin a try and found that with the new playing angle and position the endpin puts the bass in, some of the stress is taken off of my left hand and thumb position is more accessible on the new instrument. I don’t think a neck reset will now be necessary. I still feel some pain and stiffness, but it has been manageable and I have been able to continue working, to my great relief! I feel my symptoms slowly improving.
Throughout my recovery time I have been constantly striving to play with more ease and less tension. I feel that this has improved my overall technique and is one definite plus coming out of a quite negative experience.
I now know that one should take time to get adjusted to a new instrument, especially one as challenging and physically demanding as the double bass. It is extremely important to pay close attention to your body, and when things don’t feel “right”, don’t ignore the symptoms and blow through it, stop and analyze what is happening and make corrections, either to the instrument or to your technique, so that you don’t create chronic physical issues. As musicians, we love playing too much to put ourselves at risk in this way!