Thursday, 29 September 2011

The King of the Bass in strings crisis

My contrabass
Four strings are definitely good, but where does that leave three-stringed instruments, like this monster contrabass, my bass of choice in the Russian balalaika orchestra I play in?

This magnificent beast is three feet (one metre) wide at the base, with an extendable metal spike in the left hand corner, which you balance the bass on as you play it.

Learning Russian songs, reading from a score and balancing an unwieldy triangular bass on a metal spike all at the same time takes some concentration, I can tell you.

But a strings crisis has overtaken me. The strings on this bass are the size of double bass strings and the bass is so big you can't hold the string in place at one end while turning the peg on the neck to tighten it.

On Saturday our children's orchestra Kalinka was appearing at a concert for the Didsbury Arts Festival in Manchester. I've played this contrabass with jazzy flatwound strings since I bought it two years ago.

As we played through our first number I noticed a strange notch on the top string - D - and felt the winding sliding imperceptibly up and down the string. Then as we played more numbers I felt the notch get bigger and the sliding get more and more pronounced. Which is quite off-putting when you're trying to concentrate on playing.

When the interval came I had a look at the string and found the very light wire winding had snapped and was gathering in bunches along the string - right where your fingers go on the second fret to play an E.. and there were a lot of Es in the second half.
Knackered third string

I was glad to get the gig finished. Though the wire was light, it was chewing my finger up. Double bass strings can cost £100 a set and I was wondering whether to replace the flatwounds or get some others when the orchestra leader Brian offered me a set of proper contrabass strings he'd bought on a trip to Russia.

The contrabass is the king of the bass. They don't really make instruments any bigger, and mine isn't even the biggest. The biggest is another size up from mine, and the strings Brian gave me were made for one of them: I can cut the strings down to length, but the strings alone are on an elephantine scale. I'll be taking about a foot (0.3m) out.

Russian strings

This is the packet of strings, direct from Moscow, with the price tag still on: 500 roubles. Believe me, that's nowhere near £100.. I'll be getting my strings from Moscow in future.

The bottom E string is like a trawler cable. It's as thick as something you'd tow a caravan with or waterski with.

And these babies are made with typical Russian ruggedness. They are double-wound, so round wound outer over a steel string core.. no doubt to survive the temperature-plummeting depths of a Russian winter, as burly bass players swing their contrabass into the back of a Lada Riva with two metres of snow on the ground in -30 degrees.

Trawler cables for strings
Doublewound for strength
Whatever, these strings are built to last. I reckon the only way one of these is going to snap is if I connect it up to an ice-breaker leaving Helsinki harbour and chain the bass to a lamp post.

Actually changing these strings is a job in itself, somewhat reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. That's the subject of my next post. But the next destination for connoisseurs of bass is Warsaw, where the Inca Babies are appearing in concert on Saturday night.

Next stop Luton airport for premier travel courtesy of...  WizzAir.

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