Renowned acoustic bass luthier Bruno Destrez ’89 explains to Berklee Today’s Mark Small how to improve any bass.
Bruno Destrez is responsible for improving the playing of countless acoustic bassists—students and top professionals alike—without giving a single music lesson. Destrez, a bass luthier, is sought after by jazz and classical bassists alike for his ability to improve the sound and playability of any bass—whether it’s a 300-year-old, European-built vintage instrument or a new and inexpensive plywood bass.
Destrez, who grew up in Saint-Raphael on the French Riviera, began playing the bass after hearing a jazz record featuring Dave Holland, John Abercrombie, and Jack DeJohnette. He transferred from a school of fine arts to the conservatory in Nice to study bass. After completing his studies there, he received a scholarship from the French government to study at Berklee in 1982. During his Berklee years, he began touring as a leader and sideman with such artists as Mick Goodrick, John Abercrombie, David “Fathead” Newman, Marlena Shaw, Dewey Redman, and others. When playing in major cities, Destrez would meet with bass luthiers. When the tours concluded, he would return and learn from the best luthiers.
Destrez explains that the templates and methods for building violins and cellos have been standardized for hundreds of years, but not for the bass. He found no consensus on bass specs and restoration techniques, nor established schools for bass building like those in Cremona, Italy, for violin and cello making. With his own playing experience and feedback from other bassists, Destrez undertook a study of the physics of the instrument, built models to understand how the bass worked, and analyzed common problems. He discovered techniques for set up that made the instruments sound and play better. The basses he has worked on minimize physical strain on the player and make available techniques for solo classical repertoire that bassists hadn’t considered possible before.
Destrez turned his full attention to luthiery nearly 40 years ago and is considered an international authority on bass maintenance and restoration. He works on the basses of jazz giants such as Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Ben Street, James Genus, and many more. Classical bassists from top orchestras in America, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere are also among his clients.
For years, Destrez has traveled the world tutoring professional luthiers and working with players in various locales to optimize their instruments. He has taught luthiery and the physics of the bass at the Milt Hinton Institute at Oberlin Conservatory and given masterclasses in cities across Japan, Europe, America, Puerto Rico, and Argentina. At this point in his career he is establishing schools in various countries to pass on to young luthiers techniques that he formerly held close to the vest.
How did you become interested in bass maintenance and restoration?
When I was at the conservatory in Nice, I couldn’t believe how different all the instruments were and how many students were complaining that they were difficult to play. We didn’t know if it was us or the instruments. My father was an engineer and since I was four years old, I had been building things. So I wanted to figure out what was wrong with the basses. I started by working on my own instruments and people kept asking who was taking care of my bass. I told them I was doing it myself and that is how this all started.
Have you found that a lot of bassists didn’t understand that their basses could play better and just accepted that the instrument was hard to play?
That’s the situation exactly. I’m now working at universities with students who are having trouble playing at a high level. Two years ago, I met the principal bassists of the Cleveland Orchestra, Maximilian Dimoff and Scott Haigh. They had heard of my work and came to Oberlin Conservatory, where I go to teach for 10 days at a time. They visited and asked me to work on their basses. I changed things about their instruments and they couldn’t believe how much easier they were to play and they were experiencing less pain. Now their repertoire is much larger, they can more easily approach violin and cello music. In a way, this is a revolution and most people are not aware of it because there is nowhere to get the information.
You have said that most problems with basses come from being poorly set up and the effects of the hygrometry in different climates.
In the Northeast of America, we have cold, dry, arctic weather in the winter and tropical weather in the summer that’s hot and humid. The height of the strings can move up or down as much as half an inch in different seasons. The entire instrument is moving and the sound post inside the instrument needs to be a different length for each season. A player like Marc Johnson has four or five sound posts for each of his basses for different types of weather. The top of the bass is like the membrane of a speaker that floats moving back and forth in a magnetic field. The bass top also floats and goes up and down.
A sound post needs to be longer for the summer when the instrument is at its biggest. When it contracts in the winter, the summer sound post pushes against the top and it can’t move down. That stops some frequencies. Most bass players know that, for half of the year, their instrument feels impossible to play, and then for the other half it feels good, but they don’t know why. In Paris, London, or Italy, where a lot of older instruments were built, the humidity used to be more constant. So many basses were made in Europe and builders were not concerned with variations of humidity. In places like America, Japan, and Korea, you have a season of tropical weather and the instruments move a lot. All the restoration techniques that people learn in violin-making schools don’t work in countries where there are big changes in hygrometry. We have had to invent new techniques to keep the instruments sounding great.
Do you set up basses differently for classical players and jazz players?
Absolutely. I also work in Buenos Aires with tango players who have a playing technique that’s totally different from classical and jazz bassists. Each musical style has a different setup. The setup is everything and we have discovered so many things. I work with some of the best bassists and spend weeks with them to see if the neck angle is right for them and figure new ways to make their instruments easier to play.
When Ron Carter came to me for the first time, I had him play pizzicato at a medium tempo, then louder, softer, and a fast tempo, then I asked him to solo. I watched the angle of his hands as he moved around the bass. I can change things to make it comfortable for the player without permanently altering the bass. I don’t believe that the work should be irreversible. Before he passed away, Dennis Irwin had been coming to me for 20 years. He played with gut strings and liked very high action. George Mraz [’70] likes very low action. Those two guys were asking for totally different setups that would help their phrasing. George wants to phrase like a saxophonist, so I would work to get more sustain on the fingerboard and very low action. Dennis wanted a thump, high action—a sound that drove very strongly with the focus in the center of the note. We can do this with the sound post; it acts like an equalizer. You can make the response of the instrument quicker or slower and get more highs and lows, and have more or less focus. Very few bass luthiers know about these things. What are you teaching when you give masterclasses at violin luthier schools?
There is no established school of bass making. People have been building cellos and violins the same way for 300 or 400 years. They use all the same templates and measurements. Bass makers are applying what they learned about violin making to basses and that’s the problem. In the classes I explain that they can’t use numbers and templates, they have to understand the principles and adapt to each instrument. It’s like a doctor working with human beings, no two are the same. A good doctor will look into your life and not just rely on a computer analysis of your blood. I teach them to feel the instrument and use their instincts. Luthiers need to learn to play the bass so they can really understand the instrument. Most of the information about a problem comes from feeling the vibration of the string under your finger rather than from just hearing the sound.
I am organizing an international meeting in the south of France for next year for teachers to meet and exchange ideas. I also work with the conservatory in Milano [Italy] and will invite teachers from Oberlin to go there for two weeks, and I’ll show them different techniques. This instrument is unbelievable but players have suffered to play it for years. I want bass players to be at the same level as violin and cello soloists. I would like to see composers writing new concertos for the bass.
Do you plan to write a book about your discoveries?
Yes. I kept these things to myself for a long while because it was how I made my living. Now, as I get older, I don’t feel the need to protect my secrets anymore. I want to pass them on. All basses should feel good to play, and currently 90 percent of them don’t. I don’t want to build basses. My goal is to open bass luthier schools and to bring all the existing basses into good playing condition. The good thing about bass luthiery it that we can make any bass feel extremely comfortable.