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Highly Strung - An Ingenious String Bass By 19th-Century English Luthier James Brown

Reproduced with kind permission of Orpheus Publications Ltd.  First printed in the Double Bassist.  Issue Number 7, Autumn/Winter 1998.

Anthony Houska examines an ingenious string bass by 19th century English luthier James Brown.

You're on the last desk of basses in your symphony orchestra and you hate playing five-string because it's big, heavy and clumsy. Suddenly you're confronted by Richard Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, programmed for performance next week. You panic. Should you rush out and buy a second instrument? Convert your fragile Italian? Go for an infuriating finger extension? Or opt for one of those confounded heavy mechanical contraptions that disfigure the scroll and aren't capable of reaching that blessed low C or coping satisfactorily with the intervals in Zarathustra?

But you could have a four- and five-string bass in one package. 'What?' I hear you exclaim. 'How can an instrument be both at the same time without having an additional cog on the peg-box side or one of those cranky and often crudely copied conversion jobs that originated sometime in the mid-1970s and which fitted to the inside of a peg-box that's already too small?'

Enter a classic example of good quality, northern English making in the form of this large double bass by James Brown, who worked at Huddersfield in Yorkshire from 1827 to 1886. The instrument pictured still bears its maker's original label from Huddersfield dated 1864. It is a flat-back, viol-shaped instrument with high angle break. The original and exceptionally well preserved dark brown varnish highlights the medium-flamed maple ribs and back and a five-piece front of fine to medium grain.

The good, 'solid' neck appears to be the original as there is no evidence of a neck graft at the peg-box or indeed bushing to facilitate a conversion from three to four strings. Although one of the cogs does have very slight differences, it could be possible that this instrument was made as a four-string. Fortunately, an inside table inscription from a previous restorer records a little piece of history, stating '1922 converted to four strings.'

Currently set up for four strings, a later alteration (in all likelihood, by the 1992 restorer) and addition to the peg-box means there is an ingenious mechanism in place for a simple conversion to a fifth string. On either side of the peg-box is a customised brass plate which extends above the top of the peg-box walls to create a bracket. This in turn holds and locates an additional cog and worm approximately 9cm above the top nut. This neat fixing means that with minimal disturbance the instrument can become a five-stringer following a change of top nut and bridge. A seldom-seen but clever idea for converting an instrument from four to five strings relatively quickly, this may have been a 'one-off' job for our restorer.

Whatever the case, this interesting design alleviates the time-consuming, expensive and often detrimental job of bushing pegholes and repositioning cogs. It obviates, too, the need to fit various designs of extension. The system could be incorporated onto any full- to large-size instrument, providing its bar is of suitable dimensions to support the additional table pressure and that its fingerboard has sufficient curvature to allow all five strings to vibrate freely. As such, it is an interesting alternative for makers, repairers, manufacturers of machines and - most importantly - players themselves. Oh, and good luck with the Strauss!

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra copyright 1932 by C F Peters

Reproduced by permission of Peters Edition Limited, London

James Brown bass vital statistics

String length:

1058mm (from bottom of nut to top of bridge)

Back length:

1191mm

Bouts (at widest point):

548mm (top) 707mm (bottom)

Neck length:

436mm (bottom of button to underside of nut)

Head length:

346mm (underside of nut to top of scroll)

Rib depth (including table and back):

167mm (minimum) 229mm (maximum)

Sound holes:

22mm (maximum width but not with nicks)

Table length:

1182mm

Peg-box:

67mm (maximum width at top)

Inner peg-box:

40mm (maximum) 25mm (minimum)

Purfling width

2mm

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