Words/The 3 string double bass and me

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© Peter Morgan 2020


The 3 string double bass and me 

I’ve always been fascinated by them, it’s difficult to say since when or why, maybe it’s because of the wonderful photos of Bottesini and his Testore and the marvellous daguerreotype of Dragonetti at the Edinburgh festival. Whatever it was that originally piqued my interest, these days I’m even more interested and fascinated. I think seeing the amazing giant 3 string bass in the V and A museum might have had something to do with it. I have two, the first is an original and unrestored Bohemian blockless wonder 3 string, the second is a small Czech bass from the early 1900’s converted to 3 strings from a 4 stringer.

My first experience of playing a 3 string was in the 1990’s, when on an unstoppable whim I converted my main 4 string bass to a 3-er simply by removing my E string and tuner and fitting a new nut. I just took it out to work without really practising on it or telling anyone. What amazed me was that nobody seemed to notice! Not one musician I was working with even mentioned it. A few audience members came up to me and asked me about it, but that was it.

I was pleased that nobody noticed because it meant that the music hadn't been adversely affected. I loved it, I had got rid of my troublesome E string and my A string in particular sounded better. Best of all, the bowing was so much easier and the bass was louder and easier to play. Not easier to walk, I suppose because I was so used to walking down low, using my now unavailable low notes, but easier to make my individual note choices speak. I didn't really miss the low notes, but for a while I missed the familiarity of 4 strings and would go for the missing string! There were some familiar lines that sounded strange with the lowest notes up an octave but I think other musicians thought it was just my (odd) personal take.

Disaster struck when my fingerboard became detached on a gig (*1), it was probably my fault because of the way I used to carry the bass, pleased note “used to”. Anyway I had been thinking of changing my instrument and that was the impetus I needed, I had the fingerboard repaired, the E string reinstated and part exchanged it for a “better” bass. It of course wasn’t a better bass and put me into a spiral of instrument changes which I didn’t seem to be able to escape. But that is another story.

These days I use my Czech 3 string for free-improv and sometimes Dixieland or Traditional things. It doesn’t work so well for mainstream and boppy stuff where I use my faithful plywood workhorse, a bass incidentally that has never let me down and saved my skin on numerous occasions.

The little Czech bass has a lovely thinned down neck and a wingless bridge but is just as temperamental as it was as a 4 string. One day it is divine and the next very difficult. There seems to be no reason, I have had to accept that this is its personality.

3 string basses somehow have a purity that other more multi stringed basses don’t have for me, particularly if I see an unrestored example. I fully accept the downsides but they don’t worry me. When I see a five string or heaven help us, a six-er (*2), I get an involuntary shudder of incomprehension. Probably very like the incomprehension some others experience when they see me using a three string double bass.

(*1) Believe it or not, I gaffer taped the finger board in place and got through the gig, but it was very scary and incredibly stressful.

(*2) I'm not being “sixist”, the amazing American bass player Ratzo Harris plays a six string double bass and I think he and it sound wonderful.