Double bass

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Side and front views of a modern double bass with a French bow. The wire from the tailpiece to the bridge is for a piezo-electric pickup. With spike extended as in the photo, it measures approximately 2m tall.

The double bass is a musical instrument, the largest and lowest-tuned member of the violin family of string instruments, which includes the violin, viola, and cello, with the harp sometimes included (it is a common misconception that the piano is member of the string family; it is in fact a percussion instrument). It resembles the other members of the family, but is much larger and has slight differences in shape. The instrument is known by several other names (especially when used in folk, bluegrass, and jazz music), including string bass, acoustic bass, bass violin, doghouse bass, dog-house, bull fiddle, contrabass, standup bass, hoss bass and upright bass. A person who plays this instrument is called a double-bassist or contrabassist.

The double bass is used extensively in Western classical music as a standard member of the string section of symphony orchestras and smaller string ensembles. However, it has perhaps achieved more prominence in jazz, blues, rock and roll, and several country and western forms.



The double bass compared to the rest of the violin family is not an instrument that has gained a physical standardisation (even today).

In general there are three major approaches to the design outline shape of the double bass, these being violin, viol, and less common the busetto shape (and very rarely the guitar or pear shape). The back of the instrument can vary from being a carved rounded back similar to the violin, or a flat and angled back similar to the viol family (with variations in-between).

The double bass, unlike the rest of the violin family, still reflects influence and can be considered partly derived from the viol family of instruments. In particular the Violone, a bass viol.

Elements of this viol influence are tuning in fourths to avoid a too long finger stretch, whereas the violin, viola and cello are tuned in fifths. Other differences with the violin, viola and cello are the (sometimes) sloped shoulders of the instrument, the often angled back (both to allow easier access to the instrument, particularly in the upper range) and the near-universal use of machine heads for tuning.

Dance-band bass players had used conventional microphones as pickups for years without altering their playing styles. Some recent variations of the double bass have been fitted with electromagnetic pickups like an electric guitar's and are designed exclusively for use with electric amplification. These instruments, generally known as electric upright basses (mostly called [EUB]) often have a minimal or skeleton body, to reduce size and weight. The first electric upright basses were built around 1935 (by Rickenbacker). However, it took quite some years to develop high quality transducers to amplify the sound. Nowadays electric upright basses have become quite popular. One of the most famous EUB players is Sting. He used to play a Dutch brand, a Van Zalinge.

The principal logistical difficulty facing a double bass player is the sheer weight and bulk of the instrument itself. These issues, combined with the sensitivity of the instrument to changes in the environment (like all wooden string instruments) and relative fragility of the wooden body of the instrument tend to make double bassists relatively sedentary musicians, as the instrument is difficult to transport safely on typical motor vehicles and airlines are usually not prepared to handle such an item properly. Recently, however, violin/viol family instruments (including double basses) made of carbon fiber laminates have become available. These instruments are supposedly nearly impervious to changes in heat and humidity and extremely resilient to the knocking about that occurs during transport, and also (supposedly) have no reduction in sound quality from more traditional wooden basses.

This lack of standardisation means that one double bass can sound and look very different from another. To see some of the variations and construction approaches discussed above see the following web sites:


The player stands or sits and holds the instrument upright, slightly tilted toward him or her. When standing, the index finger of the player is equal to the players eye level when the index finger is in first position. At the base of the double bass is a 'spike', called the endpin, which rests on the floor. As with other string instruments, the double bass is played with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings (pizzicato).

Modern instruments are usually tuned E-A-D-G, with the upper G being an octave and a fourth below middle C (approx 98Hz), and the E almost 3 octaves below middle C (the bottom E on a modern piano, approx 41Hz). 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, when the four-stringed tuning above became almost universal. Since the range of the double bass 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 clef and treble clef, which are used for the instrument's extreme upper range.

When playing the extreme upper range of the instrument (above the G below middle C), the player will shift his hand out from behind the neck and flatten 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. Note that, while playing in thumb position, the pinky is not used because its range is inefficient.

Two advanced techniques should also be mentioned that extend the harmonic and textural range of the instrument. These being the use of natural harmonics (a technique often used by Giovanni Bottesini) and sometimes even stopped 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.

In popular music genres, the instrument is usually played with amplification and almost exclusively played with a form of pizzicato where the sides of the fingers are used in preference to the tips of the fingers.

In traditional jazz and swing, it is sometimes played in the slap style, a more vigorous version of pizzicato where the string is plucked so hard it then bounces off the finger board, making a distinctive sound. (Notable slap style bass players have included Bill Johnson, Wellman Braud, Pops Foster, and Milt Hinton.) Slap Style takes its name from the electric bass technique called Slap and Pop, where the thumb of the plucking hand is used to hit the string, making a slapping sound but still allowing the note to ring, and the index or middle finger of the plucking hand is used to pull the string back so it hits the fretboard, achieving the pop sound described above.

Slam Stewart, a jazz bassist in the 1940s, took solos in which he bowed the bass and sang along in octave harmony. He used a German bow so he could play pizzicato with the sides of his fingers and still hold the bow. Charles Mingus is another notable jazz bassist, regarded as one of the foremost virtuosi of the instrument in the genre.

Difficulties in sound and performance of the instrument include projection. Despite the size of the instrument, it is relatively quiet, primarily due to the fact that its range is so low. When writing solo passages for the instruments, composers take extreme care in their orchestration. Dexterity is also an issue, as the instrument cannot play nearly as quickly as a violin can (It should be noted that this is an issue that has greatly improved due to modern technique). This is due to the size of the strings. Inertia tells us that it takes more effort to vibrate the large strings of the bass than it does to vibrate the tiny strings of a violin. Therefore, composers tend to shy away from giving the bass extremely fast passages or large jumps in range. Intonation, as with all string instruments, is arguably the biggest difficulty to overcome in mastering the instrument. Because of the size of the instrument, the positions for the fingers are much further apart than they would be on a violin.

Additionally, some rockabilly and rock bassists have taken advantage of the large size of the double bass by balancing themselves, or "surfing" upon the instrument as a trick during performances. (Note this is a visual entertainment technique and can seriously damage an instrument if it is not robust enough to withstand the treatment)

Double bass bow

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German bow
French bow
French bow
German bow hold
German bow hold
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French bow hold

There are two kinds of bows used in double bass playing: German and French. They are different in both design and playing technique. The French bow is a heavier and shorter version of the bow used by the modern violin family, and held in the same way, with the palm facing down, the fingers resting over the top of the stick and the thumb grasping the frog. The German bow has a much larger frog and is held with the palm angled upwards, as used for the upright members of the viol family.

The bass bow is strung with white or black horse hair or a combination of black and white. (known as salt and pepper) as opposed to the customary white horse hair used for the string family. The slightly rougher black hair is of use for more effective articulation of the string.

In order to help better grip the string, string players use rosin on their bows. Bass rosin is frequently difficult to find, but the most popular type of bass rosin is a Pops rosin, a company located in Houston, Texas. Find Pops rosin here (


Some basses have five strings; the additional string may be either an extra high string (tuned to C) or an extra low string tuned to B. Such basses are larger than usual, somewhat harder to play, and rare.

Many four-string basses have a 'C extension' which extends the lowest string down as far as low C, a note an octave below the lowest note on the cello. This may take the form of 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 of a mechanical lever system where keys are positioned next to the neck in the positions which the corresponding notes would occupy if the instrument had a fifth string. The extension is invaluable in classical music, because the bass often does not have a separately written part but is told to play the cello part an octave lower, a practice known as 'doubling'. The string bass is known as the double bass because it transposes down one octave.

Classical double bass repertoire

In European classical music, the double bass has been primarily used to provide a solid but usually simple bass line. Bass soloists are rare but not unheard of. Domenico Dragonetti was perhaps the first soloist of note. He was a friend of Beethoven, and often performed the cello solos in Beethoven's pieces in performances.

Giovanni Bottesini was a 19th century virtuoso on the instrument sometimes called the Paganini of the double bass. He wrote a number of concert pieces for the instrument, including concertos, and also pedagogical works.

Few works have been written for the instrument by better known composers, though there are a few examples and exceptions. The Mozart aria KV 612 "Per questa bella mano" (By this beautiful hand), being one.

We know that Joseph Haydn wrote a concerto Hob. VIIc 1 for bass which has now been lost. It was written for Johann Georg Schwenda, an outstanding double bassist at Estehza. Remaining evidence of his regard for the instrument can be found in solo passages he wrote for it in the trios of the minuets in his symphonies numbers 6, 7 and 8 (Le Matin, Le Midi and Le Soir). All were probably written for the player Friedrich Pichelberger.

Later pieces with solo parts for the bass include the Fantasy for Double bass and orchestra on a Theme by Rossini by Niccolo Paganini and a duo for cello and double bass by Gioacchino Rossini. The famous Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert added the double bass to the traditional piano quartet, creating an ensemble consisting of all four members of the bowed string family plus piano. Antonin Dvorak wrote a much less well known quintet in which the standard string quartet is augmented by adding a double bass. Probably the most famous classical piece featuring double bass is "The Elephant" from Camille Saint-Sans' The Carnival of Animals. Also worthy of note is the passage which begins the third movement of Gustav Mahler's 1st symphony where a solo double bass quotes a minor key version of the children's song "Frere Jacques".

In the 20th century the bass has been somewhat better served in classical music, although it is still only rarely used as a solo instrument. One of the very few double bass concertos is by Serge Koussevitzky (better known as a conductor), a piece written in 1905. Other pieces to feature the instrument include Luciano Berio's Psy (1989), for solo bass; Composition II (1973) by Galina Ustvolskaya, for eight double basses, drum and piano; and a sonata for double bass and piano by Paul Hindemith (who also wrote a number of other pieces for unusual solo instruments).

Over the last thirty years or so players such as Bertram Turetzky and Gary Karr have commissioned a large number of new works. Player and composer Edgar Meyer has written three concertos for the instrument and arrangements of Bach's unaccompanied cello suites. Meyer also includes the double bass in the majority of his chamber music compositions. Player and teacher Rodney Slatford, via his company Yorke Edition, has done much to publish both old and new music for the double bass.

Double bass in jazz

The bass is one of the most prominent instruments in jazz.As the main ensemble of Jazz changed from that of a marching band with tuba suplying the bass (from about 1920) this slowly gave way to groups such as piano drums trumpet and double bass. As the music moved into into the bars and brothels the double bass replaced the tuba. Initaly playing 2 or 4 beats to a bar the walking bass line was an early melodic, harmonic invention that is still evolving today.

It could be said that with nearly every major change in the evolution of Jazz, Double Bass players have contributed in an important way. For example swing era players such as Ray Brown and Jimmy Blanton who played with Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson.

The cool style of jazz has been influnced and extended by players such as Scott LaFaro (a refined and stunning technical and musical virtuosity) or form another extreme some one like Percy Heath who played in an unforgettably solid but swinging manner and who's solos where melodicaly gracefull and poetic. In addition one must not forget the great Paul Chambers who worked on the Kind of Blue album with Miles Davis one of the most influential albums in the history of jazz.

Free jazz was embraced and extended by players such as Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden.

Jazz rock was the time of players such as Stanley Clarke and Miroslav vitous both of whom incorporated bowed solos that showed Spanish and classical infleuence.

Today many modern jazz pieces are composed with the double bass in mind, and much musical freedom is allowed. On the other hand, it must compete with the electric bass for a spot in jazz lineups, though it is more common than in rock lineups.

Double bass in bluegrass music

The string bass is often used in bluegrass music. It is the largest instrument in the violin family, and is made in several sizes. Most usual for bluegrass use is the 3/4 size bass. Less frequently used are the full and 5/8 size bass.

The upright bass is plucked for most bluegrass music. Some modern bassists have used the bow.

The bluegrass bass is responsible for keeping time in the polyrhythmic conditions of the bluegrass tune, enhancing the flow of the music with tasteful fills and runs. Most important is the steady beat, whether fast, slow, in 4/4 time, 2/4 or 3/4 time.

Early pre-bluegrass music was often accompanied by the cello, which was bowed as often as plucked. Some contemporary bluegrass bands favor the electric bass, but it has a different musical quality than the plucked upright bass which gives energy and drive to the music.

Common rhythms in bluegrass bass playing are, in 4/4 time (plucking on the beats) 1, 3; 1, 4; 1, 3, 4. In 3/4 time (waltz time) 1; 1,2; and 1,3. Bluegrass baselines are usually extremely simple, typcially staying on the Tonic and Dominant chords throughout.

Cedric Rainwater, bassist for Bill Monroe and later Flatt and Scruggs, helped to define the bluegrass sound with his characteristic walking bass, where each beat in 4/4 time is plucked, going up and down the scale.

Notable bass players in contemporary bluegrass music:

Double bass in popular music

For much of the history of popular music (especially rock music), the double bass was an integral part of pop lineups. However, it faced inherent problems. For one, it was forced to compete with louder horn instruments (and later amplified electric guitars.) For another, the double bass' size created inherent problems. In 1951, Leo Fender independently released his Precision Bass, the first commercially successful bass guitar; his invention soon made the upright bass functionally obsolete in popular music. Scott Owen of The Living End is the most famous double bassist playing in a punk rock band.

Double bassists

Notable classical double bass players of historical importance

Contemporary classical double bass players

Double bass players in other genres

Also see List of jazz bassists, which includes both double bass and electric bass players.

References and external links

da:Kontrabas de:Kontrabass es:Contrabajo fr:Contrebasse it:Contrabbasso he:קונטרבס hu:Nagybōgō nl:Contrabas ja:コントラバス ko:콘트라베이스 pl:Kontrabas fi:Kontrabasso sv:Kontrabas


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