At around six feet tall, the double bass is commonly known as the largest instrument in the violin family. The double bass does not have a uniform size, shape, or even one common name. Some instruments have pointed violin corners and others have rounded gamba corners. There are instruments that have flat backs and others that are curved. Most basses have four strings, though some have five strings, and some very old instruments still only have three. Answering to double bass, contrabass, bass viol, bass, basso, ax, box, and many more, this instrument can be found anywhere from symphony halls to jazz nightclubs to the main stage at a rock concert.
Types of bass stringed instruments have been around since the late 15th century. These instruments were all different shapes, sizes, and had anywhere from three to six strings. An Italian viol luthier, Gasparo Bertolotti (1540-1609), was one of the first to create an instrument that is recognized as the modern double bass. Two of his three-string creations, labeled inside the instrument Gasparo da Salò, can be seen at museums in Toronto and Venice. By the late 17th century three-string basses like the da Salò tuned A-D-G or G-D-G were most common. A low fourth string was added by the 19th century producing the modern orchestral tuning E-A-D-G. Many basses now have an extension added to the low E string. This allows the pitch to go down to C and sometimes B. There are two types of extensions, mechanical and fingered. The mechanical extension has four keys just to the right of the low string corresponding with the four notes on the extension. When a key is pressed it sends a pad down on the extension to change the pitch. The fingered type, the player reaches back on the extension to press the desired note by hand. Many luthiers are adding gates on every extension note to make it faster and easier to play. Five-string basses add a string to the low end and tune it to this same C or B. In 1849 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume built what he called the Octobasse. This three-stringed giant commissioned by Hector Berlioz was over 13 feet tall and required two men to play it. The lowest pitch is an octave below a bass’s C extension. There are a few copies of the octobasse, but the original made by Vuillaume can be seen at the Musée de la Musique in Paris.
The advent of steel strings has done more than anything to propel the contrabass into what it is today. Strings were originally made of gut that had a smooth sound, but was very fat and sluggish. A new wound gut string in the 1650’s had a sleeker profile and responded quicker. Several types of steel strings are available today that allows even more flexibility and nimbleness. Gut strings are still made and used by many players, but most prefer the thinner gauge, response and power of steel.
There are a few different ways to play the double bass. Pizzicato is when a player plucks a string with the fingers. This is the most common method for jazz bassists, but is applied in classical playing as well. Arco is the term used when a player pulls a bow across the strings to make them vibrate. Unlike other instruments in the violin family, there are two types of bows used by double bass players. A French bow has the same basic shape of a violin bow. It is played with an overhand grip the way a cellist holds a bow. The German bow has a larger frog and uses an underhand grip similar to gamba players. Even though the bass is so large, the bows used to play them are the shortest. Sustaining a note requires a slower controlled stroke to allow the string to vibrate freely.
The bass has a range of over four octaves. Bass music is generally written in bass clef, but due to its vast range, tenor and treble clefs are also used. The wide tonal range of the bass allows it to be utilized in many ways. Jazz players have walking bass lines that keep a group tonally centered and play solos as well. Orchestras have anywhere from one to ten players in the bass section. Their job is to set up a solid fundamental pitch for the rest of the orchestra to build on. Composers on occasion will write a solo for the contrabass. Gustav Mahler opens the third movement of his First Symphony with the bass and Camille Saint-Saëns in Carnival of the Animals portrays the bass as The Elephant. Many times the bass doubles the cello line. Even though they read the same part, the bass will sound an octave lower than the cello section, thus the name double bass. The bass is also a solo instrument. There are actually solo strings tuned one whole step higher (F# B E A) than strings made for orchestra. These strings create a brighter quality of sound that makes it easier for the bass to project over an entire orchestra.
One of the first great performers and composer for the contrabass was Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846). He was actually the last one to play the circa 1602 Gasparo da Salò bass that now resides in Venice. The nuns at St. Mark’s gave him the bass after an amazing concert he gave there. Upon his death it was returned and has never been played since. Dragonetti along with Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) and Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) were major contributors to revolutionizing the double bass. They took an instrument that was considered ponderous and too difficult to play and proved it could have life, excitement and energy. All three wrote landmark concertos known by every orchestral bass player today.
Solo double bassists are not very common even to this day. One of the leaders for the past 30 years has been Gary Karr. Mr. Karr still plays the 1611 Amati bass given to him by Sergei Koussevitzky’s wife. Another major soloist is two-time winner of the Isle of Man double bass competition Duncan McTier. Mr. McTier is the solo bass of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and tours all over the world. Bassists like Jon Deak and Dave Anderson compose music for the bass community. Another way bass players expand their repertoire is to borrow works from other instruments. Bach Cello Suites, Brahms Cello Sonatas, and even violin pieces by Frank and Paganini are becoming more popular as the level of bass playing increases from year to year.