The double bass, or simply the bass, is the lowest-pitched and largest bowed string instrument in the contemporary symphony orchestra. And if you are playing it, you will surely be conspicuous and get the attention of everyone.
Kidding aside, it is indeed very conspicuous because of its huge size. Throughout the years, countless musicians have tried to play the double bass, but only very few have distinguished themselves and have etched an indelible mark in the history of double-bass playing. These guys have exemplified themselves by raising their double-bass playing skills a notch higher than the average double bass players.
Double bass players, of course, perform various Western music genres ranging from Baroque types of music to contemporary avant-garde musical pieces. Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini were pioneers in establishing the double-bass playing tradition carried over to contemporary time.
List of Famous Double Bass Players of All Time
Throughout the history of the double bass playing, a handful of double bass players had distinguished themselves for their extraordinary skills in playing modern-day double bass. Below is a list of the most famous double bass players throughout double-bass history:
1) Raymond Matthews Brown
Raymond Matthews Brown was born on October 13, 1926. He was a jazz double-bassist who was known for his significant works with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. An early influence on Brown’s playing style was Jimmy Blanton of the Duke Ellington band. Later, Brown became well-known in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Jazz scene while playing with Jimmy Hinsley Sextet and the Snookum Russel band.
He moved to New York City upon hearing of the lively jazz scene on New York City’s 52nd Street. Brown, however, was best known for being one of the members of Oscar Peterson’s trio (1951-1966). His buoyant playing appeared to complement Peterson’s laidback and relaxed piano playing.
He was briefly married to the famous Ella Fitzgerald. Brown. He also released many discs under his name from the early days of his career up to the 2000s. Brown got his first Grammy award for Gravy Waltz tune. This tune later became the theme song for the popular The Steve Allen Show.
2) Charles Mingus Jr.
Another great name in the field of double-bass playing is Charles Mingus Jr. He was born on April 22, 1922. He was a versatile musician who could also play the piano and compose songs. He was a staunch adherent of collective improvisation and is considered one of the greatest jazz composers and musicians of all time.
He had a long career spanning three decades, and this long career saw him collaborating with jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and Dannie Richmond.
The Library of Congress acquired in 1993 Mingus’ collected papers that included his scores, correspondence, sound recordings, and photos. Present-day musicians still play his compositions.
3) Domenico Dragonetti
Born on April 7, 1763, Domenico Dragonetti was a double bass virtuoso from Italy using the three-string double bass. He worked for three years at the Opera Buffa, in Venice, Italy, at the Grand Opera of Vicenza and San Marco Chapel. He became famous throughout Europe later and even turned down some great opportunities like the Russian Tsar offering in 1794.
Soon after, he moved to London to be a part of the King’s Theatre’s orchestra, and he settled in that city for the remaining of his life. His fifty years of stay in London made him a prominent figure in the English capital’s musical events. He performed in the Philharmonic Society of London’s concerts and in private events, which occasioned his meeting with the Duke of Leinster and the Prince Consort.
What distinguished Dragonetti from the rest was his formidable stamina and strength. Such characteristics were necessary for double bass players because his role was to help maintain the orchestra’s cohesion and establish the right tempo. His hands were huge and robust, with broad fingers that let him play well with strings and a taller bridge.
4) Oscar Zimmerman
Oscar Zimmerman was born on September 21, 1910, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was an American teacher, musician, and double-bass player and had been Rochester Philharmonic’s double bassist for 36 years. He also was a professor emeritus at Eastman.
He belonged to the first graduating class of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music under bassist Anton Torello’s tutelage. He was hired by the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was just 19 years old, and he played for that orchestra for almost six years until he joined as the principal bass player of the St. Louis Symphony in 1936.
He also played under Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1938 to 1945 before moving to Rochester. As an educator, he spent time teaching at the Eastman School of Music and Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy for 44 successive summers. His life as a musician was a prolific one, and he died in Traverse City in 1987.
5) Giovanni Bottesini
Widely acclaimed for his virtuosic skill relative to that of Paganini on violin, Bottesini significantly contributed to the double bass’s popularization as a string instrument. Together with Dragonetti and Sperger’s contributions, his contributions bestowed the double bass instrument a high level of respect.
His bass playing was considered to be unique because he used a unique bass characterized by a remarkable sound. Carlo Antonio Testore built this impressive bass in 1716. This unique instrument had changed ownerships until it almost got destroyed in the 1830s while sitting backstage in Milan’s marionette theater.
Fortunately, it wasn’t destroyed, and so later, it fell into the hands of Bottesini, who bought it for 900 lires in 1938. Later, another string was added to it to make it a four-stringed instrument.
At present, this unique bass is a private collector’s possession in Japan. Bottesini got the distinction of being among the first performers who adopted the French-style bow grip when playing double bass. Such a style was only used previously by violists, violinists, and cellists.
6) Francois Rabbath
Francois Rabbath was born in Aleppo, Syria, to a family of three girls and six boys. He started playing the double bass at thirteen when his brother brought home a double bass. His family moved to Beirut, where he found a copy of Edouard Nanny’s Contrabass Method. He then moved to Paris to meet Nanny, but was disappointed to learn that Nanny had already died in 1947.
He eked out his living while in Paris as an accompanist to Jacque Brel, Gilbert Becaud, Charles Aznavour, Michel Legrand, and others. He made his first solo record album in 1963, and his album Bass-Ball became a highly sought-after recording during that time. No doubt, Rabbath is a virtuoso player who inspired countless bassists.
He collaborated in 1977 with Frank Proto, an American composer. Proto had written around five significant works for the orchestra and double bass, specifically for Rabbath, who did the recording of those works. Two of those works include the Nine Variants on Paganini and A Carmen Fantasy; both works are for Orchestra and Double Bass.
7) Garry Karr
Gary Michael Karr was born on November 20, 1941. He is an American double-bass virtuoso and an educator who is considered one of the most distinguished bassists of our time. His main teachers were Stuart Sankey and Herman Reinshagen, who mentored him when he was studying at Juilliard School and Aspen Music Festival.
He got his break in 1962 when he appeared in a nationally televised concert of the New York Philharmonic Young People, wherein he featured as a soloist. He performed The Swan (The Carnival of the Animals) by Camille Saint-Saëns. Karr later recorded this piece with Bernstein along with the New York Philharmonic.
8) Teppo Hauta-aho
Teppo Hauta-aho was born in Janakkala, on May 27, 1941. He enrolled at Sibelius Academy, learning how to play the double bass from 1963 to 1970. Afterward, he played for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra from 1965 to 1972. He also played with the Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera. He also performed in 1999 with Ivo Perelman, a Brazilian tenor saxophonist, with John Wolf Brennan, an Iris-Swiss pianist, and with Teppo Mäkynen during the Kerava Festival.
His best-known works include the Fantasia, for orchestra and trumpet, which won in the Queen Maria Jose Competition of 1986 in Geneva. Another work that gained international recognition was the Kadenza which became the international competitions’ set-piece and was played at Music Festivals.
He composed chamber music, a double bass concerto, and other works for double bass as a self-taught composer. There is no doubt Teppo Hauta-aho is a great double bass player with a respectable resume in the classical music field.
9) Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers Jr. was born on April 22, 1935. He distinguished himself as a jazz double bassist. His impeccable intonation and timekeeping best measured his contribution to the evolution of jazz bass. Moreover, he was known for his virtuosic improvisions.
In his short life, he recorded several albums as a sideman, leader, or co-leader. He was most notably known for being the anchor for the First Great Quintet of Miles Davis and Wynton Kelly, a pianist.
Chambers started as a string bassist in 1949 but got his formal training in 1952 as he took lessons from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s bassist. He died at the age of 33. Despite his not-so-long life, he was able to appear in more than 100 albums. He was known for his great bass lines and his impeccable ear for notes.
The most remarkable thing about Chambers is that he synthesized the bop language and made it very personal. Jazz bass players will benefit from digging deep into his bass lines.
10) Larry Grenadier
Larry Grenadier is a Californian bassist born on February 6, 1966, in San Francisco, California. He started to play the trumpet at the age of ten but shifted to bass playing the year after. Besides, his father introduced him to music theory and greatly influenced his interest in music.
He began a formal study of acoustic bass at the age of 12. At 16, Grenadier was already a busy musician, playing at the Bay Area with other local musicians. Then, he studied at Stanford University, graduating with a degree in English Literature. After graduation, he moved to Boston and then to New York.
He continued his collaborations with many musicians, and in the 1990s, he first played with Brad Mehldau, a pianist, joining the pianist’s trio with Jorge Rossy, a drummer. Grenadier was a prolific musician who did a hefty amount of collaborative projects with other distinguished musicians. Together with FLY, a trio, they came up with 3 critically acclaimed albums.
You would surely have heard a selection of solos, orchestral works, and concertos that epitomize the beauty and value of double bass. Of course, the double bass is a crucial instrument in classical music because of its unique sound.
With the importance of the double bass in classical music, it is not surprising that there were bassists who distinguished themselves for their exceptional skills in playing the double bass. You only have to read through the names mentioned above to learn about these great bassists.