The double bass, as an instrument, had a long history of evolution from the three-stringed bulky instrument to the modern-day five-stringed double bass. It is an essential component of the orchestra’s string section, and it is not hard to notice, for it stands proud among the string instruments.
Maybe you have watched the comedy-mystery films called The Pink Panther, and perhaps you are pretty familiar with the Pink Panther Tune by Henry Mancini. You will notice that the tune is wrought by a double bass quintet, making it quite delightful to listen to. The tune, of course, is a perfect example of the sounds of the double bass.
The double bass is best learned if you are desirous of joining a band. Since the double bass is tuned in the same manner as the four-stringed electric bass guitars, many students who take up double bass lessons hope to transition from the classic double bass to the string electric bass guitar. Yet, before you dabble in the double bass and purchase one, you should at least know more about it.
Understanding the Double Bass
The double bass is a six-foot-tall string instrument that features four thick strings that are tuned to EE, AA, D, G. Sometimes, a low fifth string comes with it, tuned to C below the E string. The double basses are tuned in fourths instead of in fifths as those of the other string instruments.
The double bass, of course, is the largest among the string instruments. It also has the longest strings that let its player get to very low notes. In the orchestra, you will find around six to eight double basses that usually play the harmony. These double basses are huge enough, making their players stand or sit on a tall stool to play them.
If you have long and sturdy arms and fingers, you will indeed thrive in playing the double bass. Since the double bass stands on the ground, a metal peg supports its weight while its neck rests on the player’s left shoulder. You can use your left hand to change its pitch and your right hand to pluck its strings or to move its bow.
How Are the Double Bass Strings Tuned?
The evolution of the double bass can be traced back 500 years ago in Northern Italy. Instruments that corresponded in appearance and size first were depicted at the beginning of the 16th century, showing a single huge bass instrument in an ensemble with other bowed instruments. The earliest depiction of the string bass dates back to 1516.
However, the first written account about double bass talked about viols which were as tall as a person. These early instruments were tuned in different ways. Some were tuned using fourths, while some combined 3rd and 4th tuning.
In 1542, however, Silvestro Ganassi developed an instrument called bass viola de gamba. This instrument, of course, was regarded as the pioneering double bass instrument.
There were around 50 various tunings used in the past for the string bass. Nevertheless, the double bass standard tuning was only solidified in the early 20th century as E-A-D-G, though many musicians and composers still requested lower note tuning for their compositions. The present-day tuning, however, is either for double bass solo or orchestral tuning.
The Evolution of the Double Bass Strings
In the early days of the double bass, the instruments had a varying number of strings. Some early instruments might have had up to six strings. Then, some had three before they evolved the standard four strings for the double bass.
Moreover, in the early days, gut-type fretting once became popular by wrapping horizontally gut strings at different intervals along its fingerboard to mark every semitone’s frets.
In the 17th century onwards, there were attempts to pattern the double bass after the cello, but such attempts were unsuccessful.
Two probable types of double bass emerged from such an attempt: the double bass with an enlarged body (16-foot range) and tenor instruments that strengthened the middle voices. The heavy and thick gut strings prevented musicians from playing the instrument well. So, the new wound strings were introduced, but these strings created a new problem.
The string tensions were radically increased, making tuning very difficult. Nevertheless, in 1778, Carl Ludwig Bachmann, a violin maker, patented a screw mechanism on the double bass pegbox. Such an innovation allowed for the precise tuning of the double bass.
During the mid-18th century, most double basses featured three strings. Though the three-stringed bass produced clearer and more powerful sound, the lower register of this double bass was small. Hence, in the 1830s, the four-stringed double bass was introduced. Nevertheless, both types of double basses existed alongside each other until the end of the century.
In the 20th century, however, the five-stringed double basses were introduced, featuring more advantages when it comes to range. Nevertheless, it is more challenging to play because it entails a larger fingerboard.
How to Tune the Double Bass Strings?
You will find the double bass strings tuned in fourths, which contrasts to the tuning of other string instruments, which are tuned primarily in fifths. The strings are tuned as follows E-A-D-G, an octave lower than the guitar’s four lowest-pitched strings from low to high.
A cursory look at the classical repertoire will show you that there are notes below the double bass’ standard range. For example, in Baroque music, you will find notes below the low E. However, in the Romantic Era, you will find composers who requested notes below low E. So, to accommodate those notes, modern European orchestras make use of a double bass that features a fifth string.
The fifth string is tuned to B (three octaves) and a semitone (below middle C). In Canada, United States, and the United Kingdom, double bass players use double basses that come with a C extension. This extenuates the lowest string below to low B. This extension features an extra fingerboard section mounted over the bass head.
The simplest version of this extension features a locking nut for the additional low notes. To sound the extension notes, you need to reach back over the double bass pegs so that you can press the fingerboard’s string. With this fingered extension, you can adjust the stopped notes’ intonations on the said extension sans mechanical noise.
However, its disadvantage is that you will find it hard to do rapid alternations between those low notes on this extension and the fingerboard notes. So, in the case of basslines that feature repetitious pedal points like in the low D, you can use the wooden fingers as a mechanical aid.
This is because when you lock a note in place using the mechanical finger, the lowest string will sound a different note when you play it open as in a low D. Using a B extension, you can fret the low C using the wooden fingers. You can also sound the Low C if you tune the double bass in Fifths, making the sound similar to the string section.
The sousaphone or tuba usually played the bass parts during the early years of jazz. However, the double bass slowly inched its way in the jazz scene during the classical jazz period to accentuate the beat, achieved mostly by using the slap bass technique. Later, double bass played a melody of its own as a counter melody. At present, rapid tempo playing had quickly become a modern jazz standard.