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Carl Bryan Ibaos

Double Bass
The double bass, or simply the bass (and numerous other names), is the largest and
lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra.

Brief description

German: Kontrabass
French: Contrebasse
Italian: Contrabbasso

The double-bass is the contrabass instrument of the string section and is not strictly
speaking a member of the violin family (violin, viola, cello).

The double-bass differs in several ways from the instruments of the violin family. In
its modern form it is a hybrid, combining elements of both the viola da gamba and
the violin families. From the gamba it retains the sloping shoulders, the generally
relatively flat back and the string tunings to fourths (older instruments also retain
the frets and the five to six strings). The F-shaped sound holes, the scroll, the often
rounded back and the ribs with corners come from the violin. Inside the body a wide
cross bar reinforces the sound post. Historically and in terms of its original
construction the double-bass belongs to the gamba family, but the developments it
underwent made it increasingly similar to the instruments of the violin family.

The ribs are very high in relation to the other stringed instruments, which is
necessary to achieve the required resonance. They give the double-bass a rather
box-like appearance, which has earned it the affectionate nickname doghouse
among jazz musicians. The ribs become flatter toward the neck so they do not hinder
access to the higher positions on the fingerboard.
For solo performance the strings are generally tuned a whole note higher to produce
a brighter timbre (scordatura).
The bow is shorter and thicker than the cello bow. Horsehair is stretched between
the two ends of the bow, with rosin ensuring it remains in contact with the string.
Two types of bow are used: the French bow, which is similar to the cello bow but
shorter and thicker. It is bowed overhand, the back of the hand facing the listener;
and the German bow, slimmer, with thinner horsehair and a wider frog which is
bowed underarm , the thumb facing upward.

The playing position has more to do with personal taste than the size of the
instrument: some soloists play standing while others prefer to sit on a long-legged
stool. The question why one should prefer to stand and the other to sit is a
philosophical one.


Viola da gamba bass versus violin bass

The story of the double-bass began at the same time and in the same place as that of
all the other bowed instruments: about 500 years ago in Upper Italy. The story is
riddled with a confusing array of differing construction, sizes and tunings. The two
aspects that constituted the principal bones of contention were the tuning and the
number of strings. Instruments corresponding in size and appearance to a
double-bass were first depicted in the early 16th century. All of these early
portrayals show a single large bass instrument in an ensemble with bowed
instruments of the viola da braccio family. They are often augmented by a trombone
or other brass instruments.

In 1542, Silvestro Ganassi developed a bass viola da gamba in Venice, which is often
regarded as the progenitor of the double-bass. Its sloping shoulders, frets and six
strings tuned mainly to fourths (D2, G2, C3, E3, A3, D4) indicate that low bowed
instruments emerged originally from the gamba family. Whereas Ganassis
instrument was not tuned to 16-foot pitch, it is known that Ventura Linarol made a
bass viola da gamba in Padua in 1585 the lowest four strings of which had the same
tuning as the modern double-bass: E1, A1, D2, G2, C3, F3. However, this tuning came
about mainly by chance and was exceptional, since subsequent instruments show
that agreement on a standard tuning was still far from being reached.


The Italian term violone (large viola), which has fallen out of common usage, gave
rise to the word violoncello. In the course of history many bass and double-bass
instruments of both string families were described as violones. In the 16th century
the terms application was restricted solely to instruments of the gamba family. The
violone provided the fundamental bass and accompanying chords for solo voice.

In search of a role

In the 16th and 17th centuries the double-bass had not yet found its niche in the
orchestra. From the end of the 17th century it was part of the 24 Violons du roi.

This court string ensemble was founded in the 16th century and was probably the
first orchestra in the true sense of the word, because the 24 violins were
supplemented by 12 hautbois; the ensemble thus consisted of various instruments,
with a single voice being played by several instruments of the same type in unison.

It was not until around 1700 that the double-bass was accepted into the opera
orchestra. The men responsible for this were the Neapolitan Giuseppe Aldovrandini
(16731707) and Marin Marais (16561728).
17th and 18th century scores often included parts for all three groups, the violone,
violoncello and double-bass, the cello being entrusted more with solo tasks and the
violone with a ripieno function.

Two inventions pave the way

Attempts in the 17th and 18th centuries to model the double-bass more and more
on the cello were only partially successful; the hybrid form that emerged proved to
be the most suitable. There were probably two types of double-bass: instruments
with an enlarged body for the 16-foot range and tenor instruments which reinforced
the middle voices.

The double-bass was the bowed instrument with the largest number of possible
tunings. One reason for this was chordal playing, for which early evidence exists. To
make it easier to finger the chords the strings were retuned (scordatura) so that they
corresponded to the tonic triad desired.

A ground-breaking invention was required to make the 16-foot range really usable:
in the 17th century the low gut strings began to be covered with copper wire. The
thick and heavy gut strings had hampered the musician, making more agile playing
impossible. However, the new wound strings posed a new problem: the string
tension was increased to such an extent that tuning became more difficult. In 1778
the violin maker Carl Ludwig Bachmann from Berlin constructed a screw mechanism
on the pegbox: thumb screws on the outside of the pegbox turn small metal
cogwheels that can be adjusted with such precision that the strings can be tuned to a
nicety. This mechanism replaced the old wood pegs.

On 3, 4 and 5 strings

In the mid 18th century most double-basses were made with three strings, a practice
that continued until shortly before the end of the 19th century. The three-stringed
double-bass had a more powerful sound, a clearer, harder and more assertive timbre;
on the other hand its range in the lower register was smaller. Its tuning was A1, D2,
G2 or G1, D2, A2. Composers from the period of Viennese Classicism all had
three-stringed double-basses with which to perform their orchestral works.

From the 1830s onward four-stringed double-basses were reintroduced; until the
end of the century both types existed side by side, the four-stringed model
eventually replacing the three-stringed as standard.

The four-stringed bass had a more mellow, smoother and weaker sound than the
three-stringed version, but its range in the lower register was larger (to E1). To
compensate for its weaker sound the number of instruments in the orchestra was
increased. In addition, new low-pitched wind instruments such as the bass clarinet
and the contrabassoon began to support it.

For the performance of 20th century works five-stringed double-basses have

become necessary. The five-stringed instrument has the advantage of a range that
goes down as far as B0, a note which has now become indispensable. The
disadvantage: it is harder to play because of the wider fingerboard.

Since the beginning of the 20th century the double-basss range of tasks and playing
techniques has increased enormously, inspired by entirely new tonal concepts.


In early jazz the bass part was played by the tuba or the sousaphone. The
double-bass did not appear until the Classical period. In most jazz styles its task is the
accentuation of the beat, which is generally achieved by the slap bass technique. In
later styles it swings and wanders, playing a melody line of its own contrivance
(walking bass) as a counter melody. Rapid tempos, playing in the highest register and
advanced playing techniques have become standard in modern jazz styles.


Range of the double-bass: B0 G4 (harmonic G6).

B string (B0 F#2)

E string (E1 B2)
A string (A1 E3)
D string (D2 D4)
G string (G2 G4)