This is a post from contributor Bill Harrison. Bill owns and operates the play-along jazz tracks company playjazznow.com , and he maintains a blog called Jazz Underneath. You can read all doublebassblog.org contributions from Bill here.
Among the many fascinating questions I get asked while wheeling my bass to gigs or waiting for parking lot elevators is: “Hey, is that a full size cello?” I have a variety of responses, depending upon my mood. If I’m in curmudgeon mode or in a hurry I’ll simply nod enthusiastically and move on. But sometimes I will take the time to explain that the instrument I am lugging is, in fact, a bass, not a cello and that it is not, in fact, “full size”. The bass I normally play has a string length of about 41″, which I believe makes it a 3/4 size. I rarely get this far with my explanation, however, as the inquirer usually loses interest after the heartbreaking news that they can’t tell a bass from a cello.
Since there are so many variations in the size, shape, tuning and other esoterica about our wily instrument, I’m not sure I can even define “full size”. I think a double bass has to have a 44″ mensure to be considered a 4/4 size. During my career I have owned two basses that were around 43″, which I guess made them 7/8 size, but I’m far from certain. What I do know is that, no matter what you hear on the street, the size of your bass really does matter, baby.
First, an admission: I have a rather small hand. I probably shouldn’t be a bass player for that reason alone (no snickering from those of you who know my playing, please…). Years ago, a wise teacher admonished me that I would never be able to out-muscle the bass; I’d always have to out-think it. I have always been jealous of the pornstar-like paws of bassists like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius. But we make do with what we have, right?
So I have no idea what possessed me to own those two 43″ behemoths of the bass world, one a Juzek, the other a Gotz. I had the former for a few years around when I was a student at DePaul; the latter only lasted a few months. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why it was so difficult for me to navigate the Juzek, especially in the lowest couple of positions. More practice, I figured, would solve everything. It didn’t help that I was studying with a teacher at the time who was not exactly big on solving technical problems, so it never occurred to me that the bass was just too damn big for me. Looking back, the chronic pain in my left hand should probably have given me a clue.
It wasn’t until I acquired my “good bass” that I realized what a difference those couple of inches really make. Aside from the big leap in tone quality, my Amelot is SO much easier to play because of its smaller size. I don’t get so fatigued, I can play in tune (more or less) and the technical issues are now due to old age rather than being overmatched by my instrument. I bought this bass well over 20 years ago, so you would think I’d learned this “size” lesson by now. But no, apparently not.
Here’s another awfully difficult admission to make on the doublebassblog: I own and enjoy playing the bass guitar. For those of you who are still reading, let me tell the recent sad story of my 5 string electric bass:
In case you don’t know, we have a world class maker of electric basses here in Chicago. The company is called Lakland and they have a workshop on the near north side of the city. They became known especially for their 5 string basses with a low B string, mainly because they have been able to get a clearer, more focused sound in that range than most other bass guitar builders. The only problem is that, in order to get enough stiffness into the neck, Lakland had to make it an inch longer. Normal string length for bass guitars is 34″ and this 5 string is 35″. Silly little inch difference, you say? Remember that the ebass is played with one finger per fret (or half step). So down on the open string and first couple of frets it gets pretty stretchy for some of us. The 34″neck is about as wide a stance as I can manage; the 35″is, as I’m finally admitting to myself, just a bit too much to ask.
A few years ago I purchased a beautiful Lakland 55-94 with a natural wood finish and a rosewood fingerboard, Bartolini pickups and, unfortunately, a 35″neck. It’s a great looking and sounding bass. I’ve been wrestling with it ever since. My other Laklands are 4 stringers with manageable 34″ inch necks. So, not only have I had to adjust between the upright and electric string lengths, I’ve had to compensate for the extra inch plus the extra string on my lovely 5 string. This has made my bass playing life considerably more stressful and complicated than I presently feel it needs to be.
Finally, after mulling it over for the last year, I decided that I’ve had enough. This week I sold the Lakland (sniff) and purchased a 34″ 5 string bass made by master luthier Roger Sadowsky. I don’t think the B string on this bass is any less punchy than the Lakland, and I don’t have to put my left hand on the rack to play the thing. Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to remember that size really does matter in this bass world of ours. But I’m not counting on it.