Double bass


Side and front views of a modern double bass with a french bow. The wire from the tailpiece to the bridge is for a piezo-electric pickup. With spike extended as in the photo, it measures approximately 2m tall.

The double bass is a musical instrument, the largest and lowest-tuned member of the violin family of string instruments, which includes the violin, viola, and cello. It resembles the other members of the family, but is much larger and has slight differences in shape. Other names for the instrument (especially when used in folk, bluegrass, and jazz music) include string bass, acoustic bass, bass violin, doghouse bass, dog-house, bull fiddle, contrabass, and upright bass. A person who plays this instrument is called a double-bassist or contrabassist.

The double bass, unlike the rest of the violin family, is derived from the viol family of instruments, in particular the Violone, a bass viol. Because of this, and also to avoid too long fingerstretch, it is tuned in fourths whereas the violin, viola and cello are tuned in fifths. Other differences with the violin, viola and cello are the sloped shoulders of the instrument, the angled back (both to allow easier access to the instrument, particularly in the upper range) and the near-universal use of machine headss for tuning.

The player stands or sits and holds the instrument upright, slightly tilted toward them. When standing, the top of the instrument (the head) is approximately at the same height as the players head. At the base of the double bass is a 'spike' or 'foot' which rests on the floor. As with other string instruments the double bass is played with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings (pizzicato).

Modern instruments are usually tuned E-A-D-G, with the upper G being an octave and a fourth below middle C (approx 98Hz), and the E almost 3 octaves below middle C (the bottom E on a modern piano, approx 41Hz). A variety of tunings, and numbers of strings were used on a variety of confusingly-named instruments through the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries, when the four-stringed tuning above became almost universal. Since the range of the double bass lies largely below the standard bass clef, it is usually notated an octave higher (hence sounding an octave lower than written). This transposition applies even when reading the tenor clef and treble clef, which are used for the instrument's upper range.

The double bass is used extensively in western classical music as a standard member of the string section of symphony orchestras and smaller string ensembles. However, it has perhaps achieved more prominence in jazz, blues, and early rock and roll where it is usually played with amplification and almost exclusively played with a form of pizzicato where the sides of the fingers are used in preference to the tips of the fingers.

In traditional jazz and swing, it is sometimes played in the slap style, a more vigorous version of pizzicato where the string is plucked so hard it then bounces off the finger board, making a distinctive sound. (Notable slap style bass players have included Bill Johnson, Wellman Braud, Pops Foster, and Milt Hinton.)

Slam Stewart, a jazz bassist in the 1940s, took solos in which he bowed the bass and sang along in octave harmony. Charles Mingus is another notable jazz bassist, regarded as one of the foremost virtuosi of the instrument in the genre.

Dance-band bass players had used conventional microphones as pickups for years without altering their playing styles. Some recent variations of the double bass have been fitted with pickups like an electric guitar's and are designed exclusively for use with electric amplification.

Table of contents
1 Double bass bow
2 Bluegrass bass
3 Bass tuning
4 Classical double bass repertoire
5 References and external links

Double bass bow

There are two kinds of bows used in double bass playing: German and French. They are different in both design and playing technique. The french bow is a heavier version of the bow used by the modern violin family, and held in the same way, with the palm facing down, the fingers resting over the top of the stick and the thumb grasping the frog. The german bow has a much larger frog and is held with the palm angled upwards, as used for the upright members of the viol family.


German bow

French bow

German bow hold

French bow hold

Bluegrass bass

The string bass is often used in bluegrass music. It is the largest instrument in the violin family, and is made in several sizes. Most usual for bluegrass use is the 3/4 size bass. Less frequently used are the full size and 5/8 size bass.

The upright bass is plucked for most bluegrass music. Some modern bassists have used the bow.

The bluegrass bass is responsible for keeping time in the polyrhythmic conditions of the bluegrass tune, enhancing the flow of the music with tasteful fills and runs. Most important is the steady beat, whether fast, slow, in 4/4 time, 2/4 or 3/4 time.

Early pre-bluegrass music was often accompanied by the cello, which was bowed as often as plucked. Some contemporary bluegrass bands favor the electric bass, but it has a different musical quality than the plucked upright bass which gives energy and drive to the music.

Notable bass players in contemporary bluegrass music:

  • Roy Huskey, Jr.
  • Todd Phillips
  • Mark Schatz
  • Mike Bub

Cedric Rainwater, bassist for Bill Monroe and later Flatt and Scruggs, helped to define the bluegrass sound with his characteristic walking bass, where each beat in 4/4 time is plucked, going up and down the scale.

Common rhythms in bluegrass bass playing are, in 4/4 time (plucking on the beats) 1, 3; 1, 4; 1, 3, 4. In 3/4 time (waltz time) 1; 1,2; and 1,3.

Another notable double bass player is Edgar Meyer, a renouned contemporary player in the bluegrass style. His repetoire in this genre includes the appalachia waltz, appalachia journey, short trip home series, and he also as repetoire in the classical genre, such as a masterful recording of Bach cello suites.

Bass tuning

The bass has usually 4 strings tuned (lowest to highest) E, A, D, G. The strings are made of either nylon or cat gut (traditionally) or metal-wrapped synthetic or nylon. Commonly used are flat-wrapped metal strings.

Some basses have 5 strings; the additional string may be either an extra high string (tuned to C) or an extra low string tuned to B. Such basses are larger than usual, somewhat harder to play, and rare.

Many four-string basses have a 'C extension' which extends the lowest string down as far as low C, a note an octave below the lowest note on the cello. This is invaluable in classical music, because the bass often doesn't have a separately written part but is told to play the cello part an octave lower, a practice known as 'doubling'. It is this that gives the double bass its name.

Classical double bass repertoire

The bass is one of the most usual instruments used in jazz. In classical music, however, the instrument has been primarily used to provide a solid but usually simple bass line. Bass soloists are virtually unheard of, although Giovanni Bottesini was a 19th century virtuoso on the instrument sometimes called the Paganini of the double bass. He wrote a number of concert pieces for the instrument, including concertos, and also pedagogical works.

Few works have been written for the instrument by better known composers, though there are a few examples such as the Fantasy for Double bass and orchestra on a Theme by Rossini by Niccolo Paganini and a duo for cello and double bass by Gioachino Rossini himself. The famous Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert replaces the usual second viola or cello of the string quintet with a double bass and gives the instrument a prominent solo line in the fourth movement (Antonin Dvorak wrote a much less well known piece for this same combination of instruments). Probably the most famous piece featuring double bass is "The Elephant" from Camille Saint-Saens' The Carnival of Animals.

In the 20th century the bass has been somewhat better served in classical music, although it is still only very rarely used as a solo instrument. One of the very few double bass concertos is by Serge Koussevitzky (better known as a conductor), a piece written in 1905. Other pieces to feature the instrument include Luciano Berio's Psy (1989), for solo bass; Composition II (1973) by Galina Ustvolskaya, for eight double basses, drum and piano; and a sonata for double bass and piano by Paul Hindemith (who also wrote a number of other pieces for unusual solo instruments).

Notable classical players

References and external links


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