Last year at Bethel, in California, there were many times during worship sets when I thought how cool it would be to have a double bass. I’m a sucker for big band and old jazz records. As much as I love rock and roll, I have always loved the sentimental sounds of a jazzy double bass.
I began tossing around the idea of restoring the old Kay bass my grandmother gave me about 16 years ago. I researched different techniques of stripping the old finish and applying new. I figured if I could at least take care of the finish, I could then take it to a luthier to make any necessary repairs.
When I came back to Texas, in May, I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish; restoring the bass was chief among them. Since I was in Texas during the uncertainties of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, it was as good a time as ever to take on such a project.
The first step was to strip the 50 year old finish brushed by my grandfather. I decided to use Blue Bear Soy Gel Stripper. I had no idea what the original varnish was or the state of the wood underneath. It took a bit of courage to take the plunge into the unknown and even more patience. But after several coats of stripper, beautiful wood grain and an 80 year old patina began to emerge.
I spent the next 3 weeks carefully stripping the old finish one layer at a time. I then began the process of sanding it down. I had to go a little deeper than normal to remove some of the sanding swirls from when my grandfather refinished it. I took it all the way up to an impressive 1500 grit. Smooth as glass.
With all that done, I decided to take it to the luthier before I applied any finish. My luthier is Lamb’s Music in White Settlement, Texas. Steve Lamb and his family do amazing work and are always patient with my long list of questions.
They reshaped the fingerboard and glued a few places around the body of the bass that over time had come apart and formed small gaps. They also ordered a new bridge, bridge adjusters, and did a proper setup with a new set of D’Addario Zyex strings.
After a few weeks, it was ready to pick-up. Now, the big job began. French polishing.
If you know anything about French polishing, you know it is both time and labor-intensive on even the smallest of instruments. To French polish a double bass is largely a ridiculous notion, but I, however, was undeterred. I wanted to do the best job I could, and there’s no sound like a French polished instrument.
After watching hours of Youtube videos, reading dozens of articles, and testing out techniques on scrap pieces of lumber, I felt relatively ready.
I figured I would learn as I went, so I started on the bottom bout to hone my skills a bit more. It wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined, but I was surprised by the elbow grease required. I had to keep a sweat rag nearby to constantly wipe away my sweat and prevent dripping on the bass.
There were many days when I spent well over 8 hours working on it. I easily lost all track of time. I would only realize how long I’d been working when the sun began to set, and I needed to bring in more lighting. It was without question a labor of love, and I couldn’t wait to show my grandmother.
In the process of buffing the bass, I noticed something that caused my stomach to sink. The old crack across the neck heel had become loose. I called the luthier to tell them what had happened and see if it was possible for them to repair it before I drove back to California. They were less than optimistic.
In the luthier world, a double bass neck repair is considered the most difficult and labor-intensive project there is. They estimated it would take 6-8 weeks, and I was leaving in 16 days. It didn’t look good.
I almost decided to do the work, myself. I was just about to order the necessary tools to do the job when I began to feel the stress mounting. I stopped to pray and asked God what I should do. He told me to take it to the luthier and put it in His hands, so that’s what I did.
When I went to drop it off, they again told me they didn’t see any possibility of finishing the job before I had to leave for California. I assured them I understood but only asked them to do their best.
In the midst of all of this, the unexpected happened.
We got the call that my grandmother had been rushed to the hospital. She was not doing well. It turned out she needed heart surgery. It was touch and go for a bit. And with the added difficulties of hospital quarantine restrictions, only one person could visit her each day. But each time my mom or I spoke to her, it appeared she only had one thing on her mind – the bass.
“How are things with that ol’ bass fiddle? Heard anything from the luthier yet?” she’d ask. Each time, I had to tell her I had not heard anything from the luthier. The truth was I was a little nervous to call them. But eventually, I decided to call and find if there was any news.
The bass had been at the shop for less than a week, so I wasn’t expecting to hear much in regard to progress. Needless to say, I was surprised when the first words I heard were, “The bass is ready. You can pick it up tomorrow.” Stunned and smiling, I repeated what I heard to make sure there wasn’t a mistake.
The luthier noticed my surprise and explained he didn’t need to remove the back of the bass. Instead, he was able to slide the neck out from the front with a little steam and muscle. If you ask any luthier, that never happens. He was as surprised as I was. This was the answer to my prayer.
At the same time, we received even better news. After much prayer and a few well-placed stints, my grandmother was doing much better and on the road to recovery. She was released from the hospital and on her way back home. By all definitions, it was truly a miracle in which we are still thanking God.
My dream before summer even began was to restore the bass and see my grandmother’s reaction when it was finished. It had all looked impossible far more than a couple of times along the way. But against all odds, it was actually happening.
A few days later, my grandparents came over to my parents’ house for dinner. Soon after they arrived, she looked at me and asked, “So where’s that bass?” I led her into the piano room where it lay waiting. She absolutely loved it and beamed, “Your Grandpa Jerry would be so proud.” That moment alone was worth it all.
She laughed and played while my parents and I took pictures. Afterward, I played the old hymn “Come, Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” for her. This was a dream come true and the culmination of months of work.
I told my grandmother I wanted to name the bass after her. She laughed at the thought. I plan to carve a heel plate with her name inscribed in script, “Minnie.”
My grandmother, Minnie, stands just below 5 feet, yet chose to play the biggest instrument in the band. I appreciate the irony.
A few days later, I packed up all my instruments in my little white hatchback, and began the long drive all the way to Redding, California. I crossed the entirety of the American West with a double bass in the passenger seat of my car.
It now sits safely on its stand beside me.
This bass belonged to my grandmother and then grandfather. They both played it in worship to God. It is a part of them. It is a part of their story. And because of tragedy, its voice was silenced for almost 47 years. Until now.
Now, she sings again.
She reverberates praise to our King.
She has been restored.