The Double Bass (also known as the contrabass, string bass, upright bass, or simply bass) is the largest and lowest pitched bowed string instrument used in the modern symphony orchestra. It is used extensively in Western classical music as a standard member of the string section of symphony orchestras and smaller string ensembles. In addition, it is used in other genres such as jazz, blues, rock and roll, rockabilly, psychobilly, and bluegrass. Like many other string instruments, the double bass is played with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings (pizzicato).
The Double Bass is generally - possibly mistakenly - regarded as the only modern descendant of the viola da gamba family of instruments, a family which originated in Europe in the 15th century, and as such it has been described as a "bass viol." Before the 20th century many double basses had only three strings, in contrast to the five to six strings typical of instruments in the viola da gamba family or the four strings of instruments in the violin family.
The Double Bass' proportions are dissimilar to those of the violin; for example, it is deeper (the distance from top to back is proportionally much greater than the violin). In addition, while the violin has bulging shoulders, most double basses have shoulders carved with a more acute slope, like members of the viola da gamba family. Many very old double basses have had their shoulders cut or sloped to aid playing with modern techniques. Before these modifications, the design of their shoulders was closer to instruments of the violin family
The Double Bass is the only modern bowed string instrument that is usually tuned in fourths (like viols), rather than fifths (see Tuning, below). The issue of the instrument's exact lineage is still a matter of some debate, and the supposition that the double bass is a direct descendant of the viola da gamba family is an issue that has not been entirely resolved.
In his A New History of the Double Bass, Paul Brun asserts, with many references, that the double bass has origins as the true bass of the violin family. He states that, while the exterior of the double bass may resemble the viola da gamba, the internal construction of the double bass is nearly identical to that of other instruments in the violin family, and is very different from the internal structure of viols.
A person who plays this instrument is called a Bassist, Double Bassist, Double Bass player, Contrabassist, Contrabass player, or simply bass player. The instrument's standard English name, double bass may be derived from the fact that it is approximately twice as large as the cello, or because the double bass was originally used to double the cello part an octave lower. The name may derive from its alleged viol family heritage, in that it is tuned lower than the standard bass viola da gamba. The name also refers to the fact that the sounding pitch of the double bass is an octave below the bass clef.
Other terms for the instrument among classical performers are The contrabass (which comes from the instrument's Italian name, contrabbasso), string bass, or simply bass. Jazz musicians often call it the acoustic bass to distinguish it from electric bass guitars. Especially when used in folk and bluegrass music, the instrument can also be referred to as an upright bass, standup bass, bass fiddle, or bass violin (or more rarely as doghouse bass or bull fiddle).
The design of the Double Bass, in contrast to the instruments in the violin family, has never been fully standardized. In general there are two major approaches to the design outline shape of the double bass, these being the violin form, and the viol da gamba form. A third less common design called the busetto shape (and very rarely the guitar or pear shape) can also be found. The back of the instrument can vary from being a round, carved back similar to that of the violin, or a flat and angled back similar to the viol family (with variations in between).
The Double Bass features many parts that are similar to members of the violin family including a bridge, f-holes, a tail-piece and a scroll. Unlike the rest of the violin family, the double bass still reflects influence and can be considered partly derived from the viol family of instruments, in particular the violone, the bass member of the viol family.
The Double Bass also differs from members of the violin family in that the shoulders are (sometimes) sloped, the back is often angled (both to allow easier access to the instrument, particularly in the upper range) and machine heads are almost always used for tuning. Lack of standardization in design means that one double bass can sound and look very different from another. To see some of the variations and construction approaches discussed above visit the websites quoted below.
The Double Bass is closest in construction to violins, but has some notable similarities to the violone (literally "large viol")--the largest and lowest member of the viola da gamba family. Unlike the violone, however, the fingerboard of the double bass is unfretted, and the double bass has fewer strings (the violone, like most viols, generally had six strings, although some specimens had five or four).
An important distinction between the Double Bass and other members of the violin family is the construction of the pegbox. While the violin, viola, and cello all use friction pegs for gross tuning adjustments, the double bass has machine heads. This development makes fine tuners unnecessary. At the base of the double bass is a metal spike called the endpin, which rests on the floor. This endpin is generally more robust than that of a cello, due to the greater mass of the instrument.
The soundpost and bass bar are components of the internal construction. The materials most often used are maple (back, neck, ribs), spruce (top), and ebony (fingerboard, tailpiece). The exception to this are the double basses which have plywood-laminate tops, backs, and ribs. These basses are resistant to changes in heat and humidity, which can cause cracks in spruce tops. Composite material basses, which are used in music schools, are very resistant to humidity and heat.
All parts are glued together except the soundpost, bridge and tailpiece, which are kept in place by string tension. The tuning machines are attached to the sides of the pegbox with wood screws. The key on the tuning machine turns a worm, driving a worm gear that winds the string.
Prior to the late 1900s, Double Bass strings were usually made of gut, but since that time, steel strings have largely replaced gut strings, because steel strings hold their pitch better and they project a larger volume when played with the bow. Gut strings are also more vulnerable to changes of humidity and temperature, and they break much more easily than steel strings. Gut strings are nowadays mostly used by bassists who perform in baroque ensembles, rockabilly bands , traditional blues bands, and bluegrass. Gut strings, because they produce a "thumpy," darker tone when they are played pizzicato (plucked), which better approximates the sound heard on 1940s and 1950s recordings. Rockabilly and bluegrass bassists also prefer gut because it is much easier to perform the "slapping" upright bass style (in which the strings are percussively slapped and clicked against the fingerboard) with gut strings than with steel strings. (For more information on slapping, see the sections below on Modern playing styles, Double bass in bluegrass music, Double bass in jazz, and Double bass in popular music).
The change from gut to steel has also affected the instrument's playing technique over the last hundred years, because playing with steel strings allows the strings to be set up closer to the fingerboard, and, additionally, steel strings can be played in higher positions on the lower strings and still produce clear tone. The classic 19th century Franz Simandl method does not utilize the low E string in higher positions because with older gut strings set up high over the fingerboard, the tone was not clear in these higher positions. However, with modern steel strings, bassists can play with clear tone in higher positions on the low E and A strings, particularly when modern lighter-gauge, lower-tension steel strings (e.g. Corelli/Savarez strings) are used.
The Double Bass bow comes in two distinct forms. The "French" or "overhand" bow is similar in shape and implementation to the bow used on the other members of the orchestral string instrument family, while the "German" or "Butler" bow is typically broader and shorter, and is held with the right hand grasping the frog in a loose fist.
These two bows provide for different ways of moving the arm and distributing force on the strings. The French bow, because of the angle the hand holds the bow, is touted to be more maneuverable and provide the player with better control of the bow. The German bow is claimed to allow the player to apply more arm weight- and thus more force- on the strings. The differences between the two, however, are minute for a proficient player trained in using his/her respective bow. Both bows are used by modern players, and the choice between the two is a matter of personal preference.
The German bow Dragonetti is the older of the two designs. The bowing style was handed down from the time when the bows of all stringed instruments played had to be held in that fashion (middle three fingers between the stick and the hair) to maintain tension of the hair before screw threads were used. The German bow is easier to use for such bow strokes as staccato, spaccato, and detache. A German Bow user can also produce a larger, and louder sound, and have a better control of the bow when a German Bow is in use.
The French bow was not widely popular until its adoption by 19th-century virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. This style is more similar to the traditional bows of the smaller string family instruments. It is held as if the hand is resting comfortably by the side of the performer with the palm facing toward the bass. The thumb rests at the edge of the U-curve in the frog while the other fingers drape on the other side of the bow. Various styles dictate the curve of the fingers and thumb, as do the style of piece- a more pronounced curve and lighter hold on the bow is used for virtuosic or more delicate pieces, while a flatter curve and sturdier grip on the bow provides more power for rich orchestral passages.
Pernambuco is regarded by many players as the best stick material, but due to its scarcity and expense, other materials are used in less expensive bows nowadays. Less expensive student bows may be constructed of solid fiberglass, or of less valuable varieties of brazilwood.
Snakewood and carbon fiber are also used in bows of a variety of different qualities. The frog of the double bass bow is usually made out of ebony, although Snakewood and buffalo horn are used by some luthiers. The wire wrapping is gold or silver in quality bows, and the hair is usually horsehair. Some of the lowest-quality student bows feature synthetic fiberglass "hair". Double bass bows vary in length, but average around 24" (70 cm).
The Bow is strung with either white or black horsehair, or a combination of the two (known as "salt and pepper"), as opposed to the customary white horsehair used on the bows of other string instruments. The slightly rougher black hair is believed by some to "grab" the heavier strings better; similarly, some bassists and luthiers believe that it is easier to produce a smoother sound with the white variety.
String players apply rosin to the hair of their bows so that the hair will "grip" the string and make it vibrate. Double bass rosin is generally softer and stickier than violin rosin to allow the hair to grab the thicker strings better, but players use a wide variety of rosins that vary from quite hard (like violin rosin) to quite soft, depending on the weather, the humidity, and the skill and preference of the player. The amount used generally depends on the type of music being performed as well as the personal preferences of the player. Most bassists apply more rosin in works for large orchestra (e.g., Brahms symphonies) than for delicate chamber works. Popular brands include Pop's Double Bass Rosin, which is softer and is prone to melting, and Carlsson Double Bass Rosin, which is harder.
The bass (or F) clef is used for most orchestral double bass music.The lowest note of a double bass is an E1 (on standard four-string basses) at 41.20 Hz or a B0 (when five strings are used) at 30.87 hertz, and the highest notes are almost down at the bridge.
In many Double Bass concertos harmonic tones are used. The use of natural harmonics (a technique often used by Giovanni Bottesini) and sometimes even "false" harmonics, where the thumb stops the note and the octave or other harmonic is activated by lightly touching the string at the relative node point, extend the double bass' range considerably.
The Double Bass parts from most orchestral music rarely exceed three octaves. However, a virtuoso solo player could cover five or six octaves in solo bass repertoire, using natural and artificial harmonics.
Since the range lies largely below the standard bass clef, it is notated an octave higher (hence sounding an octave lower than written). This transposition applies even when reading the tenor and treble clef, which are used to avoid excessive ledger lines when notating the instrument's upper range.
The double bass is generally tuned in fourths, in contrast to the other members of the orchestral string family, which are tuned in fifths. This avoids too long a finger stretch (known as an "extension"). Modern double basses are usually tuned (low to high) E-A-D-G. The lowest string is tuned to E (the same pitch as the lowest E on a modern piano, approx 41Hz), nearly 3 octaves below middle C); and the highest string is tuned to G, an octave and a fourth below middle C (approx 98Hz).
A variety of tunings and numbers of strings were used on a variety of confusingly-named instruments through the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries, by which time the four-stringed tuning mentioned above became almost universal.
Much of the classical repertoire has notes that fall below the range of a standard double bass. Notes below low E appear regularly in double bass parts in the Baroque and Classical eras, when the double bass was typically doubling the cello part an octave below. In the Romantic era and the 20th-century, composers such as Mahler, Beethoven, and Prokofiev also requested notes below the low E.
There are two common methods for making these notes available to the player. Major European orchestras generally use basses with a fifth string, tuned to B three octaves and a semitone below middle C.
A low C extensionIn the United States, Canada and United Kingdom, most professional orchestral players use four-string double basses with an "C extension" which extends the lowest string down as far as low C, an octave below the lowest note on the cello (more rarely, this string may be tuned to a low B). The extension is an extra section of fingerboard mounted up over the head of the bass, which requires the player to reach back over the pegs to play, or to use a mechanical lever system.
A small number of bass players tune their strings in fifths, like a cello but an octave lower (C-G-D-A low to high). This tuning is mostly used by jazz players, as the major tenth can be played easily without a position shift, but is increasingly used by classical players, notably the Canadian bassist Joel Quarrington. Tuning in fifths can also make the instrument louder, because the strings have more common overtones, causing the strings to vibrate sympathetically.
In classical solo playing the double bass is usually tuned a whole tone higher (F#-B-E-A). This higher tuning is called "solo tuning," whereas the regular tuning is known as "orchestral tuning." String tension differs so much between solo and orchestral tuning that a different set of strings is often employed that has a lighter gauge. Strings are always labelled for either solo or orchestral tuning, and published solo music is arranged for either solo or orchestral tuning. Some popular solos and concerti, such as the Koussevitsky Concerto are available in both solo and orchestral tuning arrangements.
A variant and much less-commonly used form of solo tuning used in some Eastern European countries is (A-D-G-C), which uses three of the strings from orchestral tuning (A-D-G) and then adds a high "C" string. Some bassists with five string basses use a high "C" string as the fifth string, instead of a low "B" string. Adding the high "C" string facilitates the performance of solo repertoire with a high tessitura (range).
Double bassists have the option to either stand or sit while playing the instrument. When standing, the double bass' height is set (by adjusting the endpin) so that the player may easily place the right hand close to the bridge, either with the bow (arco) or plucking (pizzicato). While personal opinions vary, often the endpin is set by aligning the first finger in either first or half position with the player's eye level. While sitting, a stool (which is measured by the player's seam length) is used. Traditionally, standing has been preferred by soloists although many now choose to play sitting down.
When playing in the upper register of the instrument (above the G below middle C), the player shifts his hand out from behind the neck and flattens it out, using the side of his thumb as a finger. This technique is called thumb position and is also a technique used on the cello. While playing in thumb position, the use of the fourth finger is replaced by the third finger, as the fourth finger becomes too short to produce a reliable tone.
Despite the size of the instrument, it does not project a loud volume, because its range is so low. When the bass is being used as an ensemble instrument in orchestra, usually between four and eight bassists will play the part in unison. In jazz and blues settings, the bass is normally amplified with a bass amplifier and loudspeakers. When writing solo passages for the bass, composers typically ensure that the orchestration is light, so it will not cover the bass.
Performing on the bass can be physically taxing because the strings of the bass are larger and thicker than those of a smaller stringed instrument. As well, since the bass is much larger than other stringed instruments, the space between notes on the fingerboard is larger. As a result, bass parts have relatively fewer fast passages, double stops, or large jumps in range. The increased use of playing techniques such as thumb position and modifications to the bass such as the use of lighter-gauge strings have reduced this problem to some degree.
As with all unfretted string instruments, performers must learn to place their fingers precisely to obtain the correct pitch. Because the bass is larger than other string instruments, the positions for the fingers are much further apart. As a result, more shifting of position is required, which increases the likelihood of intonation errors. As well, for bassists with smaller hands, the large spaces between pitches on the bass fingerboard may present a challenge, especially in the lower range, where the spaces between notes are largest.
Until the 1990s, child-sized double basses were not widely available, and the large size of the bass meant that children were not able to start the bass until their hand size and height would allow them to play a 3/4-size instrument (the most commonly-available size). In the 1990s and 2000s, smaller half, quarter, eighth and even sixteenth-sized instruments became more widely available, which meant that children could start at a younger age.
The double bass' large size, combined with the fragility of the wooden top and sides and the wood make safely transporting the instrument difficult. Since hard cases are both expensive and heavy, most bassists use padded bags. Some players use wheeled carts or endpin-attached wheels to transport the instrument.
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