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One of the groups I play for, a renaissance-faire-friendly folk act, is considering investing in an acoustic bass guitar, for both amplified and unamplified use. However, acoustic bass guitars have a rep for being useless when they're not plugged in. (This seems reasonable. Keep in mind, a double bass needs a bigger body than a violin to produce audible sound.)

I owned an inexpensive one many years back that certainly lived up to this. However, I have heard that some rare instruments of this type can be loud enough to be heard over a quiet ensemble.

Is this even possible? When looking at acoustic basses, if a loud instrument is important, what should we look for? What should we stay away from? Or is this a hopeless quest?

(Note: Unless the advice is specific to a bass, conventional acoustic guitar advice such checking the straightness and relief of the neck, solid top (if affordable), sealed tuning machines, solid top if affordable, etc, can be taken as a given.)

(Edit: The band currently uses instruments like harp guitar, mandolins, regular acoustic guitars, congas and hand percussion.)

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Why not play upright bass? That is what they are designed for. –  Wheat Williams May 9 '12 at 13:09
    
(1) It's a renaissance band, and an upright doesn't fit with the period, unfortunately. Also, (2) I don't know how to play one. –  neilfein May 9 '12 at 15:33
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@neilfein Does "Renaissance Band" mean what I think it does? Because they didn't have steel strings in 1600 either. I suspect their bass notes came from a brass instrument. –  slim May 9 '12 at 17:00
    
Then you should play the Renaissance version of the upright bass, the violone. See my answer below. –  Wheat Williams May 9 '12 at 18:20
    
@slim - Renfest band, but not tied down to period accuracy. (There's a lot of Celtic and Indian music in the mix.) –  neilfein May 9 '12 at 18:26
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5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

When we play as our alter ego band Acoustech (we play folk and acoustic blues arrangements of our metal songs :-) , I use a 12 string, my rhythm guitarist has a fairly loud acoustic guitar, but our bassist is easily loud enough to work without amplification. He has a fretless acoustic bass, custom made for him, but the only key point for volume seemed to be the body size (standard guitar shape, but larger) and the structure of the ribs in the soundboard.

Here's a picture of his bass, on luthier Chris Larkin's website:

enter image description here

I will try and find out exactly how they are arranged, but excluding that I would just suggest playing a range of acoustic basses and checking the volume for yourself.

Ones with f-holes may be louder, but even then size seems to be key.

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This is somewhat of a shot in the dark, but...

Take a look at a Guitarrón mexicano. I frequented a mexican restaurant that had a strolling mariachi band and it was clearly and cleanly audible. The secondary bassist played an el cheapo you'd find on the wall in guitar center and it was not always clean, clear and audible. One big drawback here is that the Guitarrón is probably 2 - 5 times more expensive than a guitarcenter wall queen. And it is big

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+1 Guitarrón fits the visual style, too. It's very much like a Lute body. –  luser droog May 9 '12 at 18:13
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I think the answer is "no" based on physics. To amplify very low sounds adequately requires a large resonator, hence why instruments get bigger and bigger as they get lower and lower (think violin, viola, cello, and double bass). Amplification helps cheat so one can add lower and lower strings without worrying about resonance. Hence you can get seven string electric violins with the range of a cello plus a viola plus a violin!

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If you are going for historical performance practice, and it's a Renaissance band, then you should play a violone or viola da gamba. They have frets and they are tuned in 4ths like a guitar. You are expected to play them with a bow however, and learning to do that would take some work.

If it's a contemporary folk band that plays some Renaissance-style music on modern instruments, this may be going farther than you are willing to go, and a plugged-in acoustic bass guitar would be more practical and easily obtainable.

Here is a company in the United States that sells reasonably affordable replicas of Renaissance instruments and bows that are made in China.

http://www.violadagamba.com/

enter image description here

Bass viol, or violone

enter image description here

My friend Martha Bishop of Atlanta, Georgia, playing her viola da gamba (which has a similar pitch range to the modern cello)

I hope this doesn't come as too much of a shock, but this is a group of clips of authentic Renaissance and early Baroque music played by historical consorts in Europe a generation ago. There is a viol consort at the end.

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That would be a great solution, but I suspect for the long term. What's the price range on these? –  neilfein May 9 '12 at 18:24
    
The link in my answer will take you to a company in the United States that sells relatively inexpensive replicas of Renaissance and Baroque instruments built in China. –  Wheat Williams May 9 '12 at 18:26
    
I see it, they seem to hover around US$2k. I'm trying to find a video that has an example of one of these used as a bass in a ren or folk band. –  neilfein May 9 '12 at 18:33
    
If you make a UK trip the amazing Aladdin's Cave known as The Early Music Shop sells them in kit form! –  dumbledad May 10 '12 at 7:11
    
Featured in the film Tous les Matins Du Monde. –  luser droog May 11 '12 at 2:12
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My favourite acoustic bass guitar ever made was the Ernie Ball Earthwood. Earthwoods were manufactured from 1972 until about 1985. They were very limited in production. Those Earthwood basses were huge! The bodies were so deep and long that even tall players looked dawrfed when playing one of those Earthwood basses. The huge bodies made all the difference in great bass projection. Earthwoods actually sounded like upright basses, and were just as loud. Earthwoods are seldom seen on the market place, but once in a while there will be one on ebay, and good ones sell for over 2 grand now. If you see a clean one for sale and you've got the bucks then by all means get it!!! Some Earthwoods have pick ups in the saddle (Fishman) to further amplify a thunderous bass attack! Earthwoods are one of a few acoustic bass guitars that are loud enough to actually rattle objects in a room without an amplifier! Just imagine plugging one of those basses in an Ampeg bass amp with a 2x15 sub cabinet:) I can only dream on to actually own a great bass like that.

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Thanks, that's very helpful. –  neilfein Aug 16 '12 at 7:27
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