The double bass is truly a remarkable instrument. It is the largest of all the stringed instruments that feature in a modern-day symphony orchestra. Also, it has the lowest pitch amongst all stringed instruments. But, that is not all there is to know about the double bass.
For instance, did you know the instrument goes by many other names, including contrabass, bass viol, bass fiddle, bull fiddle, and more simply bass? All these are more are the exciting facts that we will reveal to you in the course of this blog post.
Whether you are a double bass player or you play another instrument, or perhaps you are just an instrument enthusiast, we are confident you can learn a thing from this article. So, join us for the ride!
Here are some facts about the double bass (or bass) that you probably did not know before:
- The name ‘double bass‘ is a result of the initial function of the instrument. They used it to ‘double‘ the ‘bass‘ sound line of larger musical ensembles.
- The double bass typically comes in two designs or shapes – a viol-like shape or a violin-like shape. There are some other designs too. But, those are less common.
- Of course, you probably already know that many instrumentalists play the bass with a bow (the arco style of play). However, some players may also choose to pluck the strings with their hands (pizzicato style of play). This is particularly common in jazz music, blues, and rockabilly. In an orchestra repertoire, there is usually a combination of both bowing and plucking.
- Classical double bassists can employ both arco and pizzicato at the same time while playing. They achieve this effect by rocking their left hand, which is in contact with the strings. This then causes the desired undulating effect in the pitch of the tones they produce. Experts call this effect a vibrato, and it adds a certain emotional and even musical appeal to music.
- The double bass may have considerable variations in its size. In its largest form (full size), the double bass stands at just under 6 feet with a length of 1.8 meters. However, in some smaller sizes, the instrument may be no more than 1.2 meters, which is less than four feet.
- Typically, a double bass has only four (don’t forget to add ‘heavy’) strings. The strings’ pitches range from E1 to A1 to D, and then G. However, some Jazz bassists may add a fifth string at the top register to enable them to play higher notes. Symphony orchestra bassists may add theirs below E and tune it to a C.
- Fun fact? Instead of adding a fifth string, some double bass players install a mechanical device on their instrument that allows them to increase the length of their fourth string. In this case, the E-string pitch may drop to an E-flat, D, D-flat, or a C.
- The bow for playing the double bass comes into variations – the short, narrow French ‘Bottesini’ bow (looks like a violin bow, which you hold with your palm downwards) and the wider ‘Simandl’ German bow (which you hold with your palm facing upwards).
- The double bass is a hybrid of both the violin string family and the gamba family. (Bet you didn’t know that. Or maybe you did).
- In an orchestra, the double bass is responsible for supplying not only power but also adds weight and the foundation for basic rhythm.
- The first brilliant and outstanding double bass work that made it to print form was Mozart’s brainchild – the aria Per questa bella mano.
- Before the 18th century, many composers did not consider the double bass to be a solo instrument. However, in the 1760s, composer Franz Joseph Haydn added bass solos to his sixth, seventh, and even eighth symphonies. In no time, many other composers followed suit.
- Before the 1950s, most double basses usually had catgut strings. But since, then steel strings have taken the forefront on the double bass scene. This is because these strings can hold their pitch better and reach higher volumes than gut strings. Moreover, they are also more resistant to temperature and humidity changes, not to mention more durable.
- The switch from gut strings to steel strings resulted in changes in the double bass’s playing technique. Steel strings allowed closer setup to the fingerboard as well as higher playing positions on the lower strings, which compromising tone quality.
- Franz Simandl‘s traditional 19th-century method did not allow the E string in higher positions. This is because gut strings at high positions over the fingerboard typically did not give off clear tones. However, with modern-day steel strings (especially lighter-gauge and low-tension models), unclear tones at higher positions were no longer a problem.
- Like other string players, double bassists sometimes put some rosin on their bow hair such that it grabs the strings and makes them vibrate. However, the rosin for a double bass is typically softer and stickier to help it grip the bass’s thicker strings. The amount they apply to the by depends on the music they’re performing. For a large orchestra, most double bass players will add more rosin. However, for more intricate chamber music, they will typically use less of it.
- Over the years, the double bass’s playing style has gone through some variations to accommodate some musical pieces. Although bowing is still the most popular playing style, some music pieces (especially jazz) require heavy plucking. Furthermore, some bassists may slap the strings to provide a desired pitch or beat. They achieve this by pulling the bass strings off the fingerboard and releasing it such that ‘slaps’ off the fingerboard.
- Like every other bowed instrument, the double bass originated from Italy.
- The three-quarter size of the double bass is the most popular size that most people buy. The 4/4 or full size is considerably less common. Most people consider it a jumbo size, and more often than not, only bassists in orchestras use it. This is because they require the fuller volume and acoustic depth that it provides.
- In the 16th and early 17th century, the double bass had not found its place in the orchestra. Before the 17th century ended, the instrument was already among the 24 ‘Les Violons du Roy’. The 24 Les Violons du Roy was a court string group that came to be in the 16th century. It was arguably the first orchestra because the ensemble featured various instruments that played as one.
- It was in the 18th century that the double bass found its way into the opera orchestra. Two men were responsible for this incorporation – Neapolitan Giuseppe Aldovrandini (1673 -1707) alongside Marin Marais (1656 – 1728).
- Originally, the double bass had only three strings. This gave the instrument a much clearer, more powerful, and a much more assertive tone. However, it had a much smaller range in its lower register. The tuning was either an A1-D2-G1 or a G1-D2-A2. However, before the 19th century ended, four-stringed double basses began to emerge.
- Finally, did you know that some double basses have five strings? To achieve an excellent production of some 20th century musical pieces, a fifth string on the double bass became necessary. This allowed the instrument to achieve a tonal range that went as low as B0. However, the five-stringed double bass is slightly more difficult to play due to its much wider fingerboard. Also, only select bassists use their instruments with five strings. The four-stringed cello is still by far the most popular.
If you reached here, we’d like to congratulate you. By now, you’ll agree that the double bass is a very exciting instrument that is rich in history. Hopefully, you’ve picked up one or two interesting tidbits about the instrument. You can keep them in your arsenal in case you need to boss your way through a conversation on the double bass. Or perhaps, you can use them to educate some of the younger bassists around you.
Whichever way you choose to apply the information you’ve from our facts about the double bass compilation, we’re glad we could help you along the way!
What proportion of double bassists nickname their instrument “Basie”?
Bob Jacobson says
Sorry, I know of no one who has nicknamed his/her bass as “Basie”. (However, I’m not a jazz player, so I’m not around people who are probably more likely to choose nicknames for their instruments.)
I wanted to add the “octobass” to this discussion–the 12-foot 3 stringed instrument so large that levers are needed to stop the strings. There are very few of these, with one being in the Musical Instrument Museum (in Phoenix, Arizona) and another played in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. There are a couple tunings for this instrument, with a higher tuning strongly overlapping the range of the “ordinary” double bass, and the the lower descending to the lower limits of human hearing.
I’ve wondered if it would be possible to tune my own double bass an octave lower than the standard tuning–that is, could this be done without causing damage to the instrument, such as warping or snapping the neck. I could use stock AA and EE strings as GG and DD, respectively, but would have to find or make suitable strings for the AAA and EEE lower strings.