A question I get asked a lot is whether one should go for a new double bass or a used one.
The fact remains that double basses are not cheap.
The same amount of wood that is used to construct the double bass could be used to create 4 violins which will probably be off the shelves much faster than a bass because of market demand.
Prior to getting a new/used double bass, do take note of the sizing information as well:
1/8, 1/4 - For kids around 9-11 years of age (rare to find this size on the market, usually have to pre-order from retailers)
1/2 - For kids around 10-14 years of age (common but a pre-order might be necessary depending on available stock)
3/4 - For students 12 years and above (most common hence easy to find)
7/8 - For intermediate students with bigger arm and finger span (uncommon in the market)
Check with the shop/seller if you are unsure what is the size of the double bass.
Getting a wrong sized bass (especially one that is too big) might be problematic because it will be difficult for the kids/students to handle properly.
Hybrid or Fully Carved?
Hybrid basses are those with a carved top, laminated sides and back. They are affordable (range from S$1400-S$4000) for beginners to intermediate students. This is usually the option to go with for sizes before 3/4.
Fully Carved basses are considered the best option (dependent on the manufacturing process as well) to get if it can fit into your budget (range from S$3000 and above) as the sound gets better over time (with constant playing and good maintenance habits).
New Double Bass
If you are looking for a new double bass that is between S$2500 - S$3500, I do recommend the following:
Remember to give them a call before making your way down so that they could setup the instrument properly for you to test.
The good thing about getting a new bass from reputable shops is that you can always go back to them for fixes if you encounter any problems.
Accessories like bass bag, bow, rosin, stopper are also bundled with the double bass sale (check the type and quality of what they are giving you prior to committing the purchase).
Usually, the staff at the shop will be able to tell you more about the type of wood that is used to make the double bass, where the wood is from, where the bass is made, the drying process of the wood, whether it's hybrid or fully carved etc.
If you find that getting a new bass isn't an option for now, you can always consider getting a used double bass.
Used Double Bass
There are people who are letting go of their pre-loved basses on Carousell.
In Consumer-to-Consumer (C2C) sales, they might only be able to tell you where they bought it from, what has the bass been used for, how old is it etc. They might not be able to answer the more technical questions.
Remember to check whether they sell the bow, bass bag along with the double bass if you need them. It might be "bass-only".
Consider whether the seller has been maintaining the bass well - which means
1) changing strings before they fray or get rusty
2) ensuring due care when swapping out old strings and installing new ones to make sure that the bridge feet is still standing properly on the bass (to prevent warping)
3) keeping the bass out of drastic changes or extremes in humidity and temperature
4) ensuring that it is in a "playable" state
Getting an old bass back into a "playable" state might end up costing more than purchasing a new worry-free bass, why?
Strings cost - New decent set of double bass strings cost between $180 - S$250
Bridge cost - A good bridge costs between S$350-S$500 depending on their brand and type.
Miscellaneous cost - If this is your first bass purchase, you will need to get a decent bow, a stopper, a bass bag and rosin, should these not be included in the bundle offered by the seller.
Repair cost - Open seams or cracks on the bass, stuck endpin, faulty tuning machine heads etc requires repair, estimated cost S$100-S$900. If the seam stays closed after fixing that's good, what if it opens up again?
Re-setup cost - If the action of the bass is too high (difficult to press the strings down), depending on the cause of issue (fingerboard sunk, fingerboard scoop, bridge too high), it might set you back several hundreds as well.
Even after reading all these, if you are still willing to set aside additional money (at least S$1000-S$1800, check the pricing of the new-same-model bass to ensure that you don't pay more than a new one after the fixes and miscellaneous stuff, otherwise isn't it better to get a new one instead?) to "repair and revamp" the used instrument, there are pros to getting a used double bass -
1) It is already "seasoned" and you can easily get the idea of the full range of timbre the bass is able to achieve.
2) It might be cheaper than the new ones of the same model (or more expensive depending on what upgrades has been done)
Go through the following checklist when auditioning a used bass.
Some parts might also be applicable to testing a new double bass.
A) Pre-Playing Check
1) Cracks, Open Seams
Before even touching or playing the bass, always remember to visually inspect it for any cracks (not scratches) or open seams from top to base.
Do not be shy to whip out your mobile phone flashlight if the lighting for inspection is dim.
Highlight to the seller straightaway if you spot the presence of these cracks or open seams.
Open seams are very common in the violin family of instruments and can be rectified easily by a professional luthier. Cracks might be a little more complicated.
Even though these are "fixable" issues, it can add on to the initial cost and overrun your budget, so the question here is will the additional cost be borne by the seller or you (the buyer)?
If you feel really uncomfortable with handling a cracked or open seam instrument, thank the seller for his/her time and walk away.
Do not feel obliged to play/test the instrument if the cracks bother you.
Is the bridge warped?
Warped bridges like the one below can either be swapped out by replacing it with a new one, or it can be bent back with heat if the warping is only slight (get help from a luthier).
Quite often, it represents a lack of knowledge on the seller's part in maintenance,
ie. old strings not being changed for a long time but constantly being tuned to get up to pitch,
or replacement of strings wasn't done with due care.
Are the strings rusty, any greenish colour? Are they fraying?
Before you try out the bass, take note of where the string is fraying at because it might cut your fingers if you try shifting positions over that area.
Are the strings able to get up to pitch and stay there (Not applicable to new strings that have just been installed on the bass)?
Does it stay consistent in pitch as you draw your bow across?
Is the harmonic producing the same pitch as the open string?
If the answer to any of the three above points is no, it is a sign that the strings are old and needs to be replaced.
4) Endpin (If you need to use it)
Are you able to draw out the endpin easily or is it stuck?
B) Playing Check
Is the action (low or high) okay?
Is it fairly easy to press the strings down onto the fingerboard?
If it does not go down easily, is it caused by the nut height, the bridge height or the scoop of the fingerboard?
Try the range of notes from low to high, like maybe a 2-octave E or G major scale since that's the commonly used range for the double bass.
Are there any buzzing tones?
Are we able to locate the source of the buzzing tone?
Does it come from the
a) endpin (change the endpin height to change the fundamental frequency),
b) the belly of the double bass (get the seller or a friend to press gently against the belly of the bass while you play the note to see if it stops)
c) string buzzing against the fingerboard when you press a certain note,
d) or is it caused by the furniture around around you?
If the buzzing is from the bass, is it something which can be fixed rather easily with a wolf eliminator,
a proper re-setup (the buzz will go away after some time),
or a planing of the fingerboard?
Or is it something more serious like a bass bar problem which only an experienced luthier will be able to tell and fix? In this case the bass has to be opened up to re-glue the bass bar, a major operation.
If you can't identify the source of the buzzing, it is risky to commit the purchase because you do not know the extent of work needed to fix the buzzing. It is recommended that you come back to the seller again with a more experienced bassist.
When getting a used instrument, these are the considerations that we have to keep in mind.
Are we ready to deal with the risks that comes with a second-hand instrument?
That being said, gems do pop up once in a while in the second-hand double bass market however, if you wait long enough (must wait quite long I assure you).
Hope this helps to address the pre-purchase concerns while buying a double bass, regardless of new or used. Let me know if I missed out anything in the comments below.
Good luck and remember that it is "All about that Bass"!