SELECTING AN ELECTRIC BASS IS A FAIRLY CUT-AND
deal—listen to recordings, learn what your favorite bassists
are playing, read reviews, and pull out your credit card. New
basses from the same manufacturer and of the same model are
likely going to sound pretty darn close.
Not so with acoustics; you hear huge differences from one
bass to the next simply because you’re now dealing with a massive,
predominantly organic creature with a sound that may
continue to develop and improve for decades, maybe centuries,
after you’re gone.
For sure, shopping for an acoustic bass can be a daunting—
even scary—prospect. But, by setting aside some time and having
a plan, you can turn the process into a fun little treasure hunt
for yourself. With suggestions from top dealers and other bassists,
here’s how I recently went about buying my second upright.
None of the shops I visited knew I’d be writing a story about
buying a bass, so I know the attention I was getting is typical of
what anyone off the street could expect.
MAKING THE UPGRADE
When should the second-time buyer of an acoustic bass move
up in quality? My Chinese-made Christopher
plywood had served me well for nine
years of continuous use playing straightahead
jazz, East European folk music, a
little bluegrass, and recording several CDs.
Other players and bass techs still comment
that it’s one of the best plywood instruments
they’ve heard. But I wanted something with
a little more character and warmth, plus
good cutting power.
Where to start? First, set a budget
to determine if what you’re looking for
is within your reach. For me it was the
$3,000 range. I wanted to move up to
a new solid-wood bass, and they start
Once you know what kind of animal
you’re after, it’s time to go into the jungle
and track it down. To find a good bass shop,
talk to fellow bass players or a teacher. Go
to a club or concert and talk to busy bassists,
most of whom will be happy to give
unbiased input. Or, hire a bass instructor to
teach you about (and maybe even accompany
you to) the best shops in your area!
ON THE HUNT
If you already own an acoustic, bring it
along to provide a familiar baseline for evaluating
tone and playability of prospective
instruments. If possible, bring along your
teacher or a fellow bass player and listen to
each other play the same instrument. Test
at varying dynamic levels and with every
playing method you’d normally use, including
pizz, slap, and arco.
I’d already had several good experiences
with Greg Smithson, my super bass
tech at Best Instrument Repair in Oakland,
California. I’d played some very nice solid
wood basses there, so Best was my first stop.
Among the two or three basses I tested at
Best, I really liked a $2,800, e-size orchestra
model Chen Zuhua (or just “Chen”) solid
wood, carved back, with violin corners.
Compared to my plywood, it had more
character and a more consistent response
across the strings. I was about ready to buy
it, but my bass buddy Ravi insisted that I
visit more than one shop. “Basses are all so
different!” Ravi said. “You may hear something
you like even better!”
The next day I loaded up the Christopher
and was off to Ifshin Violins, up the road
in El Cerrito. There, I played four or five
instruments, but the only bass that seemed
to come close to Best’s Chen was a $6,200
solid wood. To help me keep straight all the
basses I’d been playing and would play, I
brought along a small digital recorder to not
only record the basses, but also my comments
about them. As I’d play, I’d have a
running commentary along the lines of, “This
is the e German at Ifshin. Very warm but
not a particularly strong E string.”
Next, I was off to South San Francisco
and the Acoustic Bass Shop, where I bought
my Christopher plywood in ’02. I tried two
or three instruments there, but still preferred
My final stop was Steve Swan Guitars
in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco.
Steve has a wall of guitars, but what really
got my attention was a sea of more than 60
acoustic basses, each on a stand and organized
by type. Before I arrived, Steve had
picked out 20 instruments he thought I’d
like, each of which I plucked on a couple
times. Steve helped me keep track of my four
favorites, then after an hour of playing I whittled
those down to a single u-size Chen SB
200 flatback with willow sides—a used but
drop-dead gorgeous instrument for $3,500.
I meekly asked Steve how he’d feel about
me taking the u home to spend more time with
it. “Sure!” he happily replied. If a shop senses
that you’re a serious customer and you’ve demonstrated
that you can handle acoustic basses
without banging them into doorframes (or each
other), it’s possible you’ll be rewarded with a
two- or three-day trial period.
In this case, now you can really get serious
about testing! I called over every musician
whom I thought would lend an ear. I
played piano duets, and even rounded up
a jazz trio to accompany me. I cranked up
recordings to stage level and played along
with them. I installed my David Gage
Realist pickup and checked out the sound
through an amp. I even video-taped myself,
which was extremely helpful. The u had
good midrange and tons of cutting power,
but it was too big for my stubby little fingers,
it lacked some warmth on the D and
G strings, and I was back again to Greg’s
Chen, my very first pick.
But Steve was still confident he could
top it. Based on my input on his u bass, he
had an even better picture of what I was
looking for and was insistent, “I promise
we’ll find something for you here. You’ve
gotta come back anyway to return the u. So,
check out just three more I have for you.”
I’m so glad Steve was insistent. One of
those three, a new Xuechang Sun model
120 e carved-back with a Russian spruce
top, for $3,400, is now mine. It’s warm,
cuts through in a mix, and has a very even
response, and although the body is large
and lighter than some, I can crank it up to
earplug-mandatory level and still not get
I’ll admit I’m a bit obsessive about
all this; over a one-week period I played
more than 30 basses. I know my new Sun
120 isn’t perfect—it isn’t quite as amazing
as the 60-year old, $10,000 German bass
that Steve let me play at his shop—but I do
think it’s entirely possible I tracked down
the best-sounding acoustic bass for under
$6,000 in my area.
• Your friends may not be able to spend a lot of time helping you test basses, but if
you have a decent audio recorder, or a video camera with a high-quality mic—even a
laptop with a built in video camera and mic—you can do a fairly thorough job comparing
basses on your own.
• Record one bass at a time, and make sure the relative position of the mic and bass
stays exactly the same for each bass. Moving the mic or changing its angle to the
bass can completely change the recorded sound. I came up with a half-dozen short
music passages highlighting different qualities I wanted to compare in the basses,
including response and sustain in different registers, response during fast passages,
and warmth. Then I played the same passages on each bass. To get a different sonic
perspective, I went to another location at home and recorded all the basses again.
Then another location. The basses sounded entirely different each time I moved, and
this helped confirm my choices.
• Using the iMovie video editing app on my MacBook I was able to create a different
video file for each bass. The thumbnails and file names allowed me to identify the bass
seen in that file. Then, by looking at the audio waveform (in iMovie), I could instantly
mouse from a specific passage on one bass to the same passage on another bass.
• In this way, I really started to hear the differences in the instruments, and they were dramatic.
For example, even with the MacBook’s built-in mic, I could easily hear how much
more low-end punch the Sun 120 delivered than any other bass I tested.
SHOPPING TIPS WITH STEVE SWAN
AS OWNER OF ONE OF THE LARGEST AND
most-highly respected acoustic bass shops
on the West Coast, bassist Steve Swan knows
his stuff. We talked to Steve at his showroom
to learn more about acoustics, finding a shop,
and selecting an instrument.
Can you recommend other shops outside
of the Bay Area that have a big inventory?
Here on the West Coast, some big shops
are the World of Strings [Long Beach], Los
Angeles Bass Works, and Lemur Music [San
Juan Capistrano]. Nationwide, there are
maybe 30 shops with a broad inventory; this
allows the dealer to focus more narrowly on
your specific requirements. It’s also important
to find a shop that has a close relationship
with qualified bass setup techs, either
on- or off-site.
On the subject of setup, what’s involved
Chinese basses, for example, are often
shipped here without a bridge, sound post,
end pin, or even strings. So, expert setup using
quality components is very important.
That’s why it wouldn’t be very practical for
the consumer to buy direct from China.
How would you compare the sound
and quality of new Chinese basses to
At the top level, they are indistinguishable.
But there are more bad Chinese basses
floating around because many of them come
in at a very low price point.
Why is it so important to have another
set of ears when you’re testing a bass?
The worst place to judge the sound of a
bass is from the player’s perspective. You’re
off to the side of the instrument, and the low
frequencies develop more in front of the instrument,
15–20 feet away. So, it’s very important
to have a critical and objective listener
to help. Another way to hear what’s going
on is to play into a corner and get the sound
to bounce back to you.
What kinds of changes can be expected
as a new bass breaks in? And
what is the time frame?
If the bass is played every day, typically
six months to a year for either plywood, hybrid,
or solid wood. But the changes with
solid wood are much more dramatic. As the
fibers loosen and the top becomes less stiff,
the tone broadens at every range, but most
noticeably in the lower range, where the
bass becomes more balanced. Very light instruments
can become bass heavy and lose
sustain; that was the case with some of the
1920s and ’30s German basses. But that’s not
an issue with basses made today.
Then what does affect sustain on today’s
That’s often more a function of an overly
stiff top, and/or string type and tension. Strings
make a tremendous difference on basses, and
top dealers usually outfit their display basses
with new strings that emphasize the best qualities
of each bass.
Is a bass that sounds great acoustically
likely to also sound good amplified?
Not necessarily. If you’ll be playing loud
music with an amp and want to avoid feedback,
you’d want a bass with a stiffer top or
even a plywood top, and these probably won’t
sound as good unamplified. Kay plywoods are
common, but I prefer the King and American
Standard plywoods from H.N. White.
What sort of basses should be avoided?
Plenty! Anything under $1,000 will likely
have problems; $1,500 is about the bare
minimum. Look out for cracked neck joints
and scrolls, plus loose tops and backs. These
things can be repaired, but the underlying
issue could be bad wood or glue used in
How do you feel about rent-to-buy options?
This is most common with inexpensive
beginning-level instruments and, for a serious
player, those should be avoided, too.
What if the potential buyer doesn’t
live near a big city? How about buying a
bass sight-unseen and having it shipped
There are so many variables in instruments,
it’s best to play the exact instrument you’re
planning to buy. So, be prepared to do some
How about buying from a private seller?
Again, bring someone along and ask for a
How much dealing typically goes on
between the shop and customer?
You shouldn’t expect that. New electric
guitars, for example, have a pretty wide profit
margin. But not so with acoustic basses; setup
and service is often built into the deal and the
shop has to absorb that cost. And some basses
are on consignment and there may be no
room for negotiation.