Below are excerpts from an interview with David by Joshua Rosenbaum published in Bass Player Magazine in March of 1995. The interview deals with many questions of importance to those on the look-out for a new bass. If you have any questions you would like to see answered here, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"When many of New York's top acousitic bass players need to have work done on their instruments or are in the market for another bass, their first stop is invariably David Gage String Instrument Repair in Manhattan's Tribeca district. Gage's clients include such world'class jazz bassists as Dave Holland and Ray Brown as well as first-chair players for the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. But David doesn't just sell and repair instruments; he also takes the time to listen to his customers, advise them, and educate them. And you don't have to be a pro to patronize his shop - students and amateurs get the same kind of informed and courteous attention as the big names...
An acoustic bass can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $20,000 and up. If you buy an expensive bass, what are you getting for the higher price?
In generals terms, you're getting an instrument that's made more carefully - one that has fewer problems, more volume, and no weak spots in its tone. You're basically buying a healthy bass. When you get up over $10,000, you might be buying pedigree, too; the maker may have been well known, so you're buying a collector's item.
Does the country of origin have an effect on price?
Italian basses tend to cost more; the English, French, and German instruments usually have lower prices. Old Italian basses like Guarneris, made in the 18th century, are considered to be better because their sound has huge, wonderful spread. When classical musicians audition for orchestral jobs, the orchestra is looking for that sound. Bu you should be careful, because more money doesn't guarantee you a better bass.
Is there a big difference between old and new basses?
Traditionally, old ones are more in demand; basses and other instruments in the violin family mellow and become better over time, although there are excellent makers of new instruments. Some people say new basses are risky because the wood is green and therefor more likely to crack. That may be true for companies that mass-produce basses, but if you're buying a bass from a good maker, he will have used wood that was air-dried over a considerable period of time, so it shouldn't be a problem. Top-quality new carved-top basses cost $12,000 and up.
What are the pros and cons of carved-top and plywood basses?
For bowing, a carved-top bass is generally better. They usually have a more sophisticated sound, with a more even tone throughout. If you are going into music school and taking a traditional classical approach, a carved-top would be more suitable. A good one, set up properly, costs at least $3,000. Plywood, on the other hand, gives you more strength, so the basses tend to be more solid. They're less vulnerable to humidity changes and damage from being hit. For a jazz player, a plywood bass can be more effective than a carved bass, plywood basses tend to have a fat front end, and they often record better. In my opinion, plywood basses improve with age; a quality Kay bass that's 30 or 40 years old can be a really good instrument. Plywood basses are a good option - they're not just a poor man's instrument. A good plywood bass, worked on and set up properly, costs between $1,500 and $2,500 here.
How important is setup?
It's very important. Plywood basses are often thought of as the kind of instruments you see in high schools - difficult-to-play basses that are poorly set up, with high action. If you start on one of those, it's easy to give up. It's important for a plywood bass to be properly set up and to have a good ebony fingerboard. Many plywood basses coming out now have white wood fingerboards; the necks often warp, which increases the string height and the difficulty of playing.
What's the best size for a bass?
My first bass was a very big one, and I fell in love with that big sound. I figured: the bigger the bass, the bigger the sound. The string length of that bass was over 44", and it took me a while to find out I couldn't really lay it. I wasn't playing in tune, and it was so difficult it put me at a disadvantage. You can hurt your left hand with a bass that's too big. If the bridge is set correctly - basically, at the notches of the f-holes - I wouldn't recommend a string length over 42 ½. Also, unlike the violins and cellos, basses come in many different shapes, and the width of the shoulders can vary a lot, But generally, that's not too important as long as you can get around when you're playing.
How about the differences between a flat-back and rounded-back basses?
Some people say flat backs project better and have a better sound, but that's a matter of opinion. Flat backs tend to have more problems due to humidity than round backs. They're traditionally made of maple - unlike the top, which is spruce - and maple reacts more to humidity changes. In the summertime, when there's more humidity, the back fills up with water and bows forward; in the winter, the back bows the other way, pulling the fingerboard up into the strings.
What are the most important things to consider when shopping for a bass?
First, learn what kind of sound you like. Do you want to sound like Ray Brown? Paul Chambers? Marc Johnson? No bass can make you play like those guys, but it can get you closer to the sound you're hearing. There are certain immediately visible problems you should look for. If there's a crack where the neck and body join, that's pretty serious, especially if it's close to the fingerboard. Check the varnish - if you see little holes in the bass, that could be a sign of worm damage, which can be a serious problem. Is the top sagging in where the tailpiece is? That's a classic problem, too. Use a yardstick to check the fingerboard. When you put the yardstick at the seam between the fingerboard and the neck, the seam should be perfectly straight. If someone put the fingerboard on with the neck warped, or if the fingerboard has been planed too much, that will show up. A very thin fingerboard results in a weak sound and buzzing. Also, check the center seam on the back of the bass; if it's separating, or it looks as if it's been stuffed with glue or sawdust, that's a major problem and will be a source of buzzing. A good seem should look very clean, like a pencil line. There are three other things to look for that you can't see right away. First, is the neck straight? Look straight down the neck and see how it lines up; that can be difficult, but a repairmen can help you. Second, look inside the bass. You'll need a special tool, often called a furnace-inspection mirror, that has a low-wattage light bulb and a mirror mounted on a stick. Put it in the f-hole and look at the blocks at the end pin. Make sure they're not cracked. Check to see that the bass bar—the beam that crosses from top to bottom on the E-string side—is in place. If it's not, it's going to cost you a considerable amount to repair. New blocks and bass bars can cost $1,000 each, and resetting the neck can cost about $700. Third, be sure the play up the whole neck to see if there are any problems with the sound. It's important to establish where the wolf tone is. Play the octave A on the A string. Go down a whole-step on the G. Then slide up through the A to the B—you'll hear generally speaking, the sound getting rougher. If the bass has a bad wolf tone, that might be a consideration. The only real way to eliminate a wolf tone is to use something called a wolf eliminator, which you put on the string; it dampens the wolf tone, but it also dampens the whole sound of the instrument."