5-String Double Bass by Joseph Hill, London circa 1765 – Review

Tell me about this instrument

The basses from the Hill family are some of the earliest, finest and most noble of all English instruments. This instrument is of viol outline with flat back and upper angle break. The back and ribs are of well figured maple with an almost horizontal medium flame. The table is of two pieces of fine to medium-fine spruce with flanks at the edges of the bouts.

Is there a maker's label?

Unfortunately there is not. The work is however very typical of his output and there are many characteristics in the work that support the attribution.

Can you tell me some of the features?

Yes. As mentioned previously – both the model and English maple used in the instrument's construction are quite typically of the work of Joseph Hill. So too are the toothing plane marks left in the wood especially on the back, the thick band of purfilling on both the front and back and the full use of outside linings.

What about the varnish?

Yes. The light red-brown spirit-varnish applied artistically over a yellow ground is also typical. The slightly darker appearance to the table varnish seems common to many instruments of the Hill family and is because the spruce - being a softer wood - has absorbed the varnish slightly more.

Are there any repairer's inscriptions?

Well – there were some inscriptions as follows; On the central back brace there was a pencil inscription which read "Repaired in Edinburgh 1865" and in the same hand writing immediately below "Repaired by Harry Young London N7 1962"

A second pencil inscription just above the lower back bar read "Len Skeat 1977"

Why did you say "there were some inscriptions".

The large number of previous restorations were literally a mish-mash of poor quality work so we decided to completely rebuild the instrument. As part of the rebuilding work the central and lower back braces and the studs along the back central joint were replaced. Although the inscriptions were lost in the process they are included in the write up as they form part of the history of the instrument.

When you rebuilt the instrument did you convert it into a 5-stringer at the same time?

Yes. We felt that the proportions of the instrument were most suitable to a conversion. Doing the conversion at the same time enabled us to reduce the string length from about 110.0cm down to a really manageable 104.6cm. This was quite a challenging part of the rebuild and in brief involved modifying the top block, shortening the upper ribs and grafting on a new back button.

What else did you do to the instrument?

Quite honestly it reads like a book but if you really want to know here is a summary;

    1. Remove back.
    2. Graft new back button.
    3. Half edge, edge and purfle back as necessary.
    4. Repair back centre joint.
    5. Replace back central brace.
    6. Replace bottom brace.
    7. Repair and stud back angle break.
    8. Repair cracks to back and stud.
    9. Re-glue back onto rib assembly.
    10. Remove front.
    11. Repair crack in bass side C-rib
    12. Shorten top ribs.
    13. Modify top block.
    14. Replace later bottom rib on bass side.
    15. Replace outside linings to replacement bottom rib.
    16. Replace additional outside linings to back where necessary.
    17. Remove bass bar.
    18. Repair cracks in the vicinity of the bass bar.
    19. Fit new bass bar.
    20. Remove all other ancient studs and replace as necessary.
    21. Fit soundpost patch.
    22. Half-edge entire front and correctly thickness.
    23. Replace edges where necessary (most of front).
    24. Purfle where necessary (most of front).
    25. Replace outside linings to front where necessary (most of front).
    26. Replace bad repair to original bottom rib.
    27. Lighten bottom block and four corner blocks.
    28. Re-glue front to rib assembly.
    29. Perform neck graft and fit neck.
    30. Fit ebony crown and ebony side strips.
    31. Repair large open crack in upper-peg box - bass side.
    32. Bush peg holes in pegbox and fill in all screw holes.
    33. Make and fit new brass plates and fit new set of "Hart" style machines.
    34. Clean and touch in varnish.
    35. Fit ebony fingerboard
    36. Fit bridge with boxwood adjusters.
    37. Fit soundpost.
    38. Set-up.

Wow – that's an awful lot of work.

Yes it represents nearly five months work to one of our outworkers and a repair bill in excess of £14600-00 inc vat.

So you could say that the instrument is now in A1 structural condition?

We reckon that you'll be hard pressed to find an instrument in better structural condition. We are proud to say that the quality of the work is as good as it gets. Just take a look at the picture of the restoration work to the inside table.

The instruments of Joseph Hill are prized for their rich tonal qualities. Does this magnificent 5-string example do that reputation justice?

Yes it certainly does. It produces one hell of a glorious sound on all strings and in every position. There are rich tonal sounds, there is clarity and there is a subliminal evenness right across the strings. When played you'll love the way in which the vibrations from the instrument go straight into your body. The feeling is both fabulous and it proves that the whole instrument is responding and working well.

What about responsiveness on the E and B srings?

We understand that this is a common problem with most five stringers – so you'll be pleased to know that the Hill - upon receiving instructions from your bow - is incredibly responsive and articulate. Huge sounds come straight out – seemingly without much effort – even on the B!

Final Summary

Classic English basses from the mid-eighteenth century are pretty hard to find. Really fine Classic English basses from the mid-eighteenth century of this quality and in this structural condition are even harder to find. Add together the fact that this is a 5-stringer, it plays as easily as any four and it has a sound department that is simply awesome and you start to get the picture of just how desirable this instrument is. If you are a pro-player, an orchestra or a collector thinking about investing in a really fine 5-string instrument then you need to think about viewing it as soon as possible. Why? Otherwise – and with a certain tonepoem in mind by Richard Strauss that contains a notoriously exposed four desk bass soli, of which the lower line should be played on 5-stringers - it will be gone before you can say "Also Sprach Zarathustra".

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