Learning how to clean an upright bass (also known as a double bass) is an essential part of being a string player. Not only can excess rosin and other cleaning issues impair the sound of a bass, but they can also impact the aesthetics of the instrument. Everyone wants an instrument that is as beautiful to look at as it sounds.
So, how do you clean an upright bass? Cleaning an upright bass involves cleaning the bow by removing excess rosin, polishing the wood, and polishing the fingerboards. Mild cleaners are best for cleaning an upright bass because stronger solvents and polishes can dissolve the instrument’s lacquer finish, accelerating wear and tear.
There are many cleaning techniques you can use at home to keep your bass looking and sounding its best. Read on to find out more about how to clean your upright bass properly.
How to Clean an Upright Bass Bow
The bow is an integral part of the bass setup, and a bow with excess rosin doesn’t sound as rich and clean as one that has been adequately maintained. These are the supplies necessary to clean the bow to your upright bass properly:
- A soft untreated lint-free polishing cloth
- Orchestral varnish cleaner (optional)
- A soft-bristled toothbrush
- Rubbing alcohol
The most important part of cleaning a bow at home is to do it regularly, as bows are much easier to clean if they’ve been maintained. Because you don’t want to get commercial cleaners or solvents anywhere near your bow hair, it’s often best to avoid using polishes and cleaners on the bow at all if possible. Even aerosol cleaners and sprays used near bow hair can potentially be damaging.
Having to use a cleaner should be largely unnecessary if the bow is briefly cleaned every time it is used, rather than occasionally cleaning.
Here is the procedure for cleaning a bass bow:
- Wipe down the wood of the bow with the polishing cloth. At this point, a varnish cleaner can be used, but it’s an excellent idea to spot-test this cleaner on a small, inconspicuous area of your bow to ensure that it doesn’t damage the lacquer. Regardless of whether a chemical is designed for instrument use or not, it’s always a good idea to spot test.
- Wipe down the bow’s metal fittings at the frog, tip, and button. Wiping down these areas of the bow after every use can help prevent the build-up of tarnish from the oils on your skin and the build-up of excess rosin. Once these fittings have tarnished, they are more likely to tarnish again since they’ll have to be polished out. Keeping them oil-free from the get-go is crucial.
- Don’t use too much rosin on your bow. Excess rosin can make the bow hair sticky, causing the bow to catch on the strings. This leads to scratchy sound quality and added difficulty when playing. A bass bow should only be passed through the rosin three or four times from end to end per session to avoid too much.
- Be gentle with the bow hairs if you clean them. The bow hair can be very gently scrubbed in one direction with a soft-bristled toothbrush to remove any excess rosin, but a better way to remove excess rosin is to either play without adding it for a few sessions until it wears down or rub your bass strings with a little rubbing alcohol to help erode the excess rosin while playing. The bow hairs are delicate, so any cleaning done needs to be done very carefully.
The bow is one of the more fragile parts of the upright bass, so maintenance of it is crucial. Not only should it be cleaned after every session, but the bow’s tension should also be loosened so that the curvature of the bow does not become warped over time. While this is a natural process, it can be accelerated by not relaxing your bow, and this decreases the lifespan of the bow.
How to Clean Upright Bass Strings
Cleaning the strings on your upright bass is another way to avoid a scratchy, sticky sound when you’re playing. Like the hair of the bow, the strings on the bass become coated with excess rosin over time if they aren’t cleaned every time the bass is used.
If excess rosin has accumulated on your bass strings, here are the supplies you’ll need to clean it:
- Rubbing alcohol
- A microfiber cloth
To clean the strings, apply the rubbing alcohol to the cloth first, not the bass itself. Do not allow rubbing alcohol to come into contact with varnished areas of the bass. Rubbing alcohol will eat away the finish on your instrument, so make sure you control it carefully when you’re using it to clean.
While some bass players use a Brillo pad or steel wool to clean their bass strings, this can erode the strings over time and cause them to wear out faster, forcing a replacement sooner than necessary. A cloth and alcohol can clean bass strings just fine without the need for more abrasive tools.
Some bass players also apply oil, powder, or other additives to their bass strings, but these really just make a mess and ultimately cause the strings to wear out faster. It’s a better idea to leave the strings bare except for occasional alcohol cleanings.
If you make a point to quickly pass an untreated cloth over your strings after each play session, you’ll significantly reduce your need to apply alcohol or any other cleaner to your instrument. Rosin is most easily wiped away directly after playing rather than waiting for it to build up over time.
How to Clean the Bout of Your Upright Bass
The bout is the body of the bass, and like the bow and strings, rosin and body oils will gradually accumulate on the varnished surface, causing it to look grimy. Rosin is most likely to accumulate at both the head of the bout and across the saddle of the bass.
If the bout of the bass is wiped down regularly with a soft polishing cloth, stronger cleaners should not have to be used on the wood often. However, if a bass does start to get dirty and needs a deep cleaning, there are instrument specific cleaners that are explicitly made for the care of string instruments. These cleaners also leave the bass with a pleasing fragrance as well as a glossy surface.
It’s fine to use rubbing alcohol to clean certain parts of your upright bass, such as your fingerboard, strings, and bow, but it should never be applied to any wooden surface on your instrument. Ideally, cleaning the upright bass and polishing it should be done with a twenty-four-hour window between so that the varnish has a chance to cure again after being softened by cleaners before being exposed to polish.
How to Clean the Fingerboard of an Upright Bass
For the most part, since the fingerboard of the upright bass is wooden like the bout, strong cleaners and alcohol should be avoided in attending to it. You don’t want to end up with a dull spot on your bass. Instead, most manufacturers recommend that for both ebony and rosewood fingerboards, lemon oil should be used to condition the wood.
Lemon oil performs three services in cleaning the fingerboard:
- Polish: Lemon oil acts as a glossing agent, working to leave your fingerboard shining and feeling smoother to the touch.
- Protectant: Lemon oil forms an invisible barrier on the surface of the fingerboard that helps protect it against both grime build-up and moisture. Over time, lemon oil soaks into the surface of the fingerboard wood and causes it to become water-repellent.
- Fragrance: Upright basses that are played in bars and clubs can pick up some unsavory odors over time, such as beer and cigarettes, so conditioning your instrument with lemon oil helps it to maintain a clean scent.
Not only can lemon oil be used to polish and condition the fingerboard, but it can also be used to polish the rest of the wood on the upright bass.
Wiping down the fingerboard after every play session can help prevent lengthy cleaning and conditioning sessions, so make it a point to give your upright bass a quick rub down with a cloth after every session, and you won’t end up having to spend a few hours at a time trying to get it back to baseline.
Maintenance for Keeping Your Upright Bass Clean
By now, you’re probably starting to see a pattern—cleaning the upright bass after every play session pretty much negates the need for most cleaners other than lemon oil. If you wipe down your bass regularly, the lemon oil isn’t even needed for cleaning, just conditioning the wood.
There are also several other methods you can use to help keep your upright bass both clean and in good condition throughout your playing career.
Here are the best ways to take good care of your bass to minimize deep cleaning or damage from neglect:
- Keep the bass in a slightly humid place. Keeping the bass in a humidified environment helps protect the wood from the stressors related to moisture and temperature fluctuations. The best way to determine the humidity in your bass storage area is to invest in a hygrometer. If the humidity in the room where the bass is primarily kept is less than 40%, you should consider investing in a mist humidifier.
- Keep the bass safe in either a case or a secure stand. Basses getting knocked over is one of the top contributors to dings and scratches. While these defects are an inevitable part of toting a huge instrument around, you should do your best to avoid scratches and damage when possible. Scratches that get past the varnish can expose the bare wood of the bass to moisture. Scratches and digs can’t be cleaned out, so they should be avoided.
Going out of your way to treat your instrument gently and with respect can save you a lot of hassle at the luthier’s workshop, so it’s worth it to get invested in good habits early on as a bass player to keep your upright bass looking its best.
Restoring Shine to an Old or Neglected Upright Bass
Sometimes string musicians come into possession of an older or neglected upright bass that either hasn’t been taken care of or has deteriorated from years of wear and tear. In many cases, years of rosin build-up can obscure the original shine of an upright bass. So, how do you get it back to a glossy state?
One way of both restoring an upright bass and giving it a beautiful, aged-looking patina is to undertake a French polish. French polish is a technique of polishing, rather than a type of polish. While this is a somewhat painstaking and tedious process of polishing an instrument, it leaves the player with a lustrous bass, with high levels of reflection.
A French polish is done by first taking a French polish rubbing pad and soaking it in a mixture of shellac and denatured alcohol.
- The rubbing pad is made with an absorbent inner pad (wool, surgical gauze, or cheese cloth) surrounded by a soft cotton cloth.
- This mixture is rubbed vigorously across the entire wooden surface of the instrument in small areas.
- The French polish rubbing pad is then lubricated with oil (mineral oil, walnut oil, and olive oil are standard), which serves to finish and seal the polished wood.
French polishing is typically done over several weeks and can be difficult for beginner bass players to do. For this more advanced cleaning method, it may be prudent to bring in the experience of a professional luthier, as using alcohol and shellac on a bass can be very cosmetically damaging if it’s done incorrectly.
It’s important to remember that several cosmetic defects that result from aging, such as hairline cracks in the finish, patina, and other signs of old age help contribute value to antique instruments, so be careful how much restoring you do—you could end up devaluing an expensive vintage instrument by trying to fix it up.
How to NOT Clean Your Upright Bass
While there are several ways to clean and condition your bass correctly, there are also several cleaning methods you could inadvertently use that could cause serious harm to your bass. It’s critical to know what chemicals you can and can’t use on your instrument, and it’s always a good idea to use oils and cleaners that are specific to string instruments if possible.
Here are some things to avoid in cleaning and caring for your upright bass:
- Never use furniture polish on your upright bass. These chemicals have a high level of alcohol content present and can eat away at the varnish of your bass if a residue is left behind or the chemicals soak into the varnished surface.
- Don’t go overboard with water. Water should be used sparingly in cleaning. It’s fine to wipe your upright bass down with a slightly damp rag to remove any rosin dust immediately after playing. The varnish on the instrument will protect it from moisture. However, submerging your bass should be avoided.
- Don’t play with damp strings. Let your bowstrings dry completely before use if you clean them. Rubbing bow strings gently with rubbing alcohol can clean the rosin build-up from them, but the bow should be allowed to dry completely before use, as using the bowstrings while they are damp can ruin them.
- Don’t get rubbing alcohol or other solvents near the wooden parts of your bass. Not unless you feel like having it refinished at a luthier, which is not likely to be cheap. The best way to accomplish this is to dab a little of the cleaner on a rag and apply it carefully to the areas of the bass that are safe to use it on.
- Don’t eat and drink around your instrument.Alcoholic beverages especially can both leave a sticky residue and can eat away at the varnish if left to fester on the surface of the bass. You also don’t want to risk getting crumbs inside the bass or spilling anything in it where it will be almost impossible to clean out.
Since many cleaning agents can be damaging to your bass, knowing what you can and can’t use for cleaning it can prevent a catastrophe. A lot of bass care is common sense, but going out of your way to take care of your bass can leave you with a beautiful heirloom piece. It’s worth taking special care of the instrument if you can.
Learning to Clean Your Bass Is a Vital Part of Instrument Ownership
Learning the ins and outs of cleaning and maintenance on your string instrument is vital for keeping your upright bass in top condition. The state of the varnish on a bass affects its tonality, so learning to clean your bass every time you use it rather than occasionally can ultimately lead to a better-sounding instrument.
Bass players who find a particular affinity for cleaning string instruments may eventually find themselves pursuing luthier work themselves.