The Double Bass

The Double Bass is essentially the Contrabass instrument of the Violin family although it has many differing characteristics. It is about 2m tall and 25cm wide with wide gentle sloping shoulders which puts it apart in shape from the other violins. It also uses metal "machine heads" attached to its 1m long strings instead of the usual tuning pegs. The usual "orchestral" tuning is in 4ths (not 5ths like the other Violins). It is tuned E1, A1, D2, and G2. There is also, however, a "solo" tuning, a tone higher, and a few modern soloists also use a tuning in 5ths. Some instruments also posses an extra bass string which takes its range down to a B0 or C1 but increasingly more common is a mechanical "finger extension" attached to the bottom string and extending over the peg box which also yields a bottom C1. In whatever tuning it uses it always sounds an octave lower than the music is written. With regards to the top range, about three-and-a-half octaves above the open string sound is possible, although not easy, with about three octaves used in solo music and only about one in orchestral music
    The instrument developed from the Viola Da Gamba and Double Bass Violone around the 16th century. However, its huge size forced it out of most early music in the place of the smaller Violones and 'Gambas. It eventually succeeded them by about 1750; well over 50 years after the Violins had succeeded their respective Viols. This late succession meant that the Double Bass received little attention from the great composers of the 18th century; in many pieces, including several of Beethoven's symphonies the Double Bass just doubles the 'cello's part. The only composer of this period who wrote much for the Double Bass was a player himself called Domenico Dragonetti. He was the Double Bass virtuoso of the time, much akin to Nioló Paganini on the Violin. Later composers such as Giovanni Bottesini and Serge Koussevitsky wrote some solo music for the bass. In modern times, the Double Bass is going through a Renaissance. There are several new concertos being written for it by composers like John Downy, Raymond Luedeke, and Robin Holloway, to name but a few. It is also finding new ground in a "low" string quartet of two Violas, 'cello and Double Bass and it is also becoming popular as a duet instrument with the Violin. Many luthiers are also turning their attention to the Double Bass because so few were made by the great "Cremona" makers (only one Amati Double Bass survives, to my knowledge).
    It is also important to comment on the place of the Double Bass in Jazz and Popular music. The Double Bass has been a prominent feature in Jazz since the start playing both the chord sequence and most famously the "walking bass". In Popular music, it has featured less with the smaller "Electric Bass" (which is the Double Bass shrunk and placed on its side with just electricity for amplification) being more popular. The Electric Bass is also used in Rock frequently but the Double Bass is still mostly reserved for Jazz and Classical.


Jacob Head,

© 2000, Jacob Head