Also: contrabass string bass bass upright bass contrebasse Kontrabass contrabasso
The modern double bass (also commonly referred to as the contrabass, string bass, or, simply, bass), a bowed box-lute chordophone, is the contrabass member of the violin family of string instruments (see separate entries for violin, viola, and violoncello) that was developed in Western Europe. The modern double bass pictured and discussed here came into existence only in the 19th century; it wasn’t until the 1920s or so that this particular model became what might be considered the standard one. The present day classical music bassist has available to him or her a considerable solo repertoire of works, predominantly concertos, dating back to the late 18th century. While the double bass was written for in the orchestral music of some areas of Europe in the mid-18th century, it was only in the latter half of that century that composers began to regularly provide a part for the instrument in their orchestral works. Since then it has been a mainstay in the orchestra. Composers have only infrequently incorporated the double bass into their works for chamber music. The performance of this ‘classical’ repertoire is today most concentrated in tertiary educational institutions around the world, which typically include in their faculty a professor of double bass and offer degrees in double bass performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Professional classical bassists find employment in orchestras, freelancing in the commercial music industry (performing and recording), and studio teaching. A very few professional classical bassists in any generation attain international recognition and perform recitals and concerto engagements with symphony orchestras throughout the cosmopolitan world. In the late 19th century the double bass began to be included in the military band for concert performances, and is still utilized in this idiom and in wind ensembles as an optional instrument to the present day. Outside of the classical and concert band music domains, the double bass has been incorporated into many other musical practices and is found around the world as an important instrument in many vernacular and popular/commercial traditions: polka, klezmer, tango, old-time music, bluegrass, Hawaiian contemporary folk music, and many strains of jazz (see Jazz Combo and Jazz Big Band). In most of these ‘non-classical’ contexts of performance the double bass is performed primarily as a plucked chordophone rather than a bowed one, a performance technique that at one and the same time brings out the harmonic and the rhythmic potentials of the instrument.
The resonator of the double bass is a curvaceous, somewhat figure-8 shaped wooden box consisting of arched top (‘belly’) and bottom plates glued to a side band (‘ribs’). The ribs, constructed from six curved strips of thinly-shaven maple, are reinforced internally at their four corners (where they come to points) and at their top and bottom with blocks--the top block is used to anchor the neck to the resonator, the bottom one to anchor the endpin, which has to withstand the full force of the instrument’s string tension. The belly is made of thinly-shaven spruce, the back plate and ribs of maple. Two stylized f-shaped soundholes (‘f-holes’) are cut into the belly. Several coats of varnish are applied to the resonator exterior. The neck (including the pegbox and scroll) is fashioned from a piece of maple the bottom end of which is joined to the top internal block of the resonator. An arched, slightly angled, fretless fingerboard of ebony wood is glued to the topside of the neck and extends several inches over, but without touching, the resonator belly. At the top end of the fingerboard is a horizontally positioned nut of ebony wood. The pegbox has four laterally mounted metal tuning machine heads, two per side. The scroll at the top end of the neck is purely ornamental. All four strings are wire-wound with cores of either gut, metal, or synthetic material. The bottom end of each string is tied to one end of an ebony wood tailpiece, which in turn is tied to the endpin that is anchored in the resonator ribs. The strings then run over and make contact with a high, thin and arched pressure bridge, which is a separate component that stands on the resonator belly and that is held in place by the downward force of the string tension. The strings then ride over the full length of the fingerboard, make contact with the slightly higher nut, and are then wound around the tuning pegs with which their tension can be controlled. An additional fine-tuning device for the lowest-pitched string is located where that string is connected to the tailpiece. Each string has the same active vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut) of 41 inches. They are set into vibration with rosined horsehair stretched the length of an in-curved wooden bow. The energy of the vibrating strings is transferred to the resonator through the bridge, an action that is enhanced by a soundpost and a bass-bar inside the resonator (the former is wedged between the two resonator plates below one of the bridge’s feet, the latter is glued to the bottom side of the belly, runs nearly the entire length of the resonator, and passes beneath the other foot of the bridge).
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The bass is held vertically with its body kept off the ground by an adjustable metal rod in the endpin. The performer either stands to the side of the instrument or sits on a high stool with the instrument leaning against him/her. The performer uses the fingertips of her/his left hand to alter the vibrating length of a string by pressing it against the fingerboard, thus producing numerous pitches on any given string. By lightly touching, instead of pressing, the strings at specific points, the harmonics of a string's fundamental pitch are produced. The strings are set into vibration in one of two ways: bowing or plucking. Rubbing the rosined horsehair of the bow, held at its frog end with a special right hand grip, at a roughly perpendicular angle to the length of the string excites the string into the desired mode of vibration. Alternatively, one or two fingers of the right hand can pluck the strings to set them into vibration (called pizzicato). The basic timbre of the instrument, which is deep and resonant, can be subdued by placing a comb-shaped mute over the instrument's bridge. The standard tuning of the four strings is: E1 - A1 - D2 - G2 (an interval sequence of P4 - P4 - P4). The highest practical note on most double bass fingerboards is A4, giving the instrument a range of more than three octaves from E1 to A4. Higher pitches can be produced by either pressure stopping the G-string beyond the fingerboard or by producing harmonics on the G-string. Parts for the double bass are typically notated in the bass clef an octave above actual pitch. Because the fingerboard of the instrument has no frets, the performer can produce either chromatic intervals or microtonal ones over the double bass’ entire range. This design feature also makes the performance of subtle and bold ornamentations and sliding pitch inflections possible. Additionally, there are several effects producible with the bow. Finally, two strings can be sounded simultaneously. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the double bass.
While precursors to the modern double bass date back to 16th century Europe, it is difficult to trace a clear evolutionary trail for the instrument. This is largely due to the reality that, between the early 16th century, which is when the first bass-like instruments were reported, and the early 20th century, when the bass pictured on this page more-or-less became standard, contrabass register violins and viols took on many fleeting size, shape, number of strings, and tuning variations. Many modern double basses reveal in the shape of their resonators their mixed parentage--the belly with f-holes looks very much like a violin, but its drooping shoulders and flat backboard are reminiscent of viols (see violone, which in essence is a contrabass viol). Many of the finest present day double basses date from as early as the late 16th century but have undergone so many modifications over the centuries that it can be difficult to determine their original size, number of strings, what the tuning pattern of those strings might have been, and whether or not there were frets on its neck. That said, 4-string double basses without frets and tuned in fourths existed throughout much of the 19th century, but they were in competition with instruments bearing different features such as having only three strings.
“Instruments.” Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments
Randel, Don,ed. 1986. “Double bass.” In The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 240-241.
Slatford, Rodney. 1984. “Double bass [contrabass, string bass, bass],” NGDMI v.1: 590-594.
Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck
Design and Playing Features
String carrier design: lute - joined
Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard
String courses: single
Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut
String tension control: machine head
Method of sounding: bowing (direct) and plucking (direct)
Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretless fingerboard)
77.2 in. length 25.5 in. greatest width 8 in. average height of ribs
¾ size SB-300