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The double bass is the largest of the stringed instruments in the orchestra played with a bow. It looks very much like an enormous cello. Like the cello, it is played standing on its end on a spike which rests on the floor. The sound is made by stroking the strings with a horsehair bow and the notes are changed by holding the strings down against the fingerboard. Unlike guitars and mandolins, the fingerboard has no frets, so there is almost unlimited scope for playing out of tune. The double bass is truly enormous; when standing up, the top is about 6 feet off the ground. Unlike the cello player, who is sitting on a chair, the double bass player has to stand up, or to sit on a high stool.
Double Basses in the Orchestra
The double bass shares some characteristics with the viola da gamba, being tuned in fourths rather than the violins', violas' and cellos' fifths; and basses are still often built flat-backed and sloping-shouldered like the viols, hinting at some viol ancestry. The viol (or viola da gamba) was never an orchestral instrument, playing in sections of many-to-a-part like the violin family; it only makes solo appearances in Bach's passions, some of his cantatas, and one of his Brandenburg concertos, being principally a chamber music instrument.
The double bass was used in early orchestras for playing the same bass line as the cello but an octave lower. Composers did not write out a separate part for the double bass player; instead, cello music was used and played an octave lower.
In later years, the double bass started to get its own score. Usually this was still a harmony bass line, but occasionally the double bass would get a solo theme. In Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the famous Ode to Joy theme is first played on all the double basses together, before being joined by the rest of the orchestra.
A modern symphony orchestra will typically have eight double basses, and this may be expanded to nine or ten for bigger works. The standard string quartet used for chamber music does not normally include a double bass, but occasionally there is a place for one in chamber music. Schubert's Trout Quintet, for example, uses piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass.
The double bass made its way into jazz groups, increasingly replacing the tuba which used to be the common bass instrument. In jazz, the double bass is mostly played by plucking the strings (known as pizzicato) instead of by bowing (known as arco). This produces a thumping sound which can provide harmony as well as a fundamental rhythm when playing a 'walking' bass line for the jazz group. In jazz circles, the double bass is normally played standing up. This lets the player spin the instrument on its spike, called the 'end pin', providing a flourish at the end of the music - an especially common practice among 'rockabilly' players.
Features of the Double Bass
The double bass has a number of features which make it different from the violin, viola and cello.
The strings are tuned a fourth apart instead of a fifth apart. In layman's terms, if the lowest string is 'do', the next string is 'fa' rather than 'so'. This pattern continues for all the strings. The strings are tuned to E1, A1, D2, G2. These are the same notes as a bass guitar1. The reason for tuning the strings in this way is because they are so long compared with a cello or the other smaller instruments that the gaps between notes are very far apart. If tuned the normal way in fifths, the player's hand would have to do a lot of jumping up and down the fingerboard. This tuning in fourths is one of the viol characteristics which has been retained in the double bass.
The strings are under much greater tension than in the cello, so a geared tuning head like that on a guitar is used rather than a simple peg like on the cello. This makes the tuning pegs stick out the back rather than out the side, giving the head a different look.
Where the body of the double bass meets the neck, there are sloping shoulders. This is a viol feature which has been retained because it leaves room for the player to reach around the instrument. The straight shoulders of a cello would get in the way when scaled up to the size of a double bass.
The double bass bow is much shorter and thicker than the violin bow. Many players use a bow of different shape which is held at the end like a hand saw, rather than with the hand over the bow. This style of bowing is compulsory in many German orchestras and is normally known as 'German bow'.
While most double basses have four strings, there are three-string and five-string models available. The five-string can have either an extra low string (often used for playing low C) or an extra high string. Five-string basses with an extra high string are popular with jazz groups.
Playing Low C
Because the double bass often has to play the cello part an octave lower, it needs to be able to play down to C1, an octave lower than the cello's lowest note. However, the lowest note on a normal double bass is E1. There are two main ways to get the extra notes:
Some double basses have a low fifth string.
Some double basses have a gizmo that looks like a rocket launcher mounted at the head on the lowest string. This is called a C extension. It extends the string upwards, providing the extra length needed for the extra notes and also provides keys for playing the low notes, since the fingerboard does not extend that far.
Other ways of playing the low C are not so common:
The lowest string can be tuned down to C from its normal E note. This slackens the string, which changes the pressure on the bridge and throws all the other strings out of tune, so it has to be done very carefully and is not really recommended2.
In a group of double basses, it is theoretically possible to simulate a low C without anybody playing it. By playing two particular notes on two double basses, the two notes can be made to 'interfere', causing a low note which is lower than either. Its frequency is the difference in frequencies between the two notes that produce it. This is very tricky, but it has been used occasionally. Concert players tend to think that it is much easier to use five strings.
A small but vociferous group of bass players propose tuning the double bass in fifths, like a cello, viola or violin. The strings are tuned to C1 G1 D2 A2. This requires a totally different technique to play, so it is not a step to be undertaken lightly. The principles of playing in this manner have not yet been fully investigated.
Names for the Double Bass
The double bass gets its name from the convention whereby notes below the G at the bottom of the bass clef were named as double capital letters – FF, EE, DD and so on down3. By this system, a three-string double bass was tuned AA-DD-G.
The double bass has gone under many different names and even now the players themselves are unsure what to call it. Other names which are sometimes used are bass, bass viol, bass fiddle, string bass, upright bass, contrabass and even dog house or bull fiddle!