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What Is a Double Bass Instrument? - History, Music & Technique

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

In this lesson you'll encounter the double bass, the lowest stringed instrument and an important member of the orchestra. You'll learn about the instrument's history, its anatomy, and some important performers and music for the bass.

Master of the Low End

Way before singer Meghan Trainor was 'all about that bass', orchestras and composers were crazy for the deep, lush rumble of a section of double basses. Jazz, bluegrass, and folk musicians had gone nuts for the driving beat a good bass line could bring to their sound. And many musicians had looked to the big, tall instrument to take center stage as a soloist and a virtuoso. An irreplaceable sound, heavy rhythmic power, the ability to play fast and slow and high and low: the double bass really does have everything. Let's take a look at this marvelous instrument to learn about its history and music.

The Bass-ics

A double bass
A double bass. Photo by Andrew Kepert.

The double bass (also called the string bass, contrabass, upright bass, acoustic bass or just bass) is a member of the stringed instrument family, which also includes instruments like the violin and guitar. Stringed instruments are built by mounting heavy strings on a hollow body, usually made of wood. The bass is a bowed stringed instrument like the violin and cello; bowed strings are played by dragging a bow across the strings, forcing them to vibrate. The bass can also be played by plucking the strings, a technique called pizzicato. Pizzicato is used often by orchestral musicians, and extensively in jazz and popular music. Because the instrument is so large, most performers stand up when playing, although some sit on a tall stool.

Like the other orchestral strings, the bass is fitted with four strings, each tuned to a different note. The lowest string is tuned to an 'E'; from there, the strings are tuned to 'A', 'D', and 'G'. The performer can change the pitch of the instrument by depressing the string against the fingerboard, the long smooth backing which runs up the neck of the bass. Doing so shortens the string and raises the pitch which is produced. Many modern basses are fitted with a 'C' extension mechanism which, when triggered, adds length to the E string lowering it to a C. This extends the low range of the bass, should the performer need it.

A C extension in close-up
A close-up of a C extension. Photo by Bottesini at the English language Wikipedia.

History

While there's still some debate about the exact origins of the double bass, its direct descendant seems to be the violone, a six-stringed instrument that appeared in the early 1600s. Instrument makers used violoni (the plural of 'violone') as the basis for their own designs, changing little about the body but tweaking the instrument's tuning and number of strings. By the 1750s, basses with five strings were common in the orchestra, but tunings varied from performer to performer. In the 19th century, basses began to be made with just three strings, often tuned A-D-G. This version of the double bass stuck around awhile; it wasn't until the 1920s that a fourth low string was added to make the E-A-D-G double bass that is used today.

Music

An instrument that's been around for upwards of 300 years is going to have quite the repertoire. The most common use for basses and violoni in the Baroque era (about 1600-1750) was as a continuo instrument. The continuo group of a Baroque ensemble would play a written bass line while another performer on a harpsichord or lute would improvise chords above. In this context basses were always paired with another instrument, such as a cello or bassoon. Very few composers considered the bass a solo instrument until, in the 1760s, Franz Joseph Haydn wrote bass solos into his 6th, 7th, and 8th symphonies. This exposure piqued the interest of other composers, and before long many had written solo works for bass.

An orchestral bass section
Performers in an orchestral bass section. Photo by Fernando Arroyo.

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