bass viol

Also:       viola da gamba      gamba      

Title: Suites en Trio: Pieces devioles, 4e Livre by Marin Marais; Music's Re-creation. Label: Centaur. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CRC 2334. Track: 12.

Contextual Associations

The bass viol is a bowed box-lute chordophone of Renaissance Europe. It is the bass-register member of the viol family of bowed and fretted string instruments played in a vertical position; the Italian name for the instrument is ‘viola da gamba,’ which means ‘leg viol’ and describes how the instrument is held either between or resting on the player's calves. During the Renaissance period and well into the Baroque, viols were played as consorts to perform polyphonic music often in accompaniment of voices. Viols are most strongly associated with European court life, a context in which they would be performed upon by professionals and some courtiers. Upper class amateurs, such as members of wealthy merchant families, might also own and play these relatively expensive instruments. The earliest published viol consort music dates from the 1530s, and the earliest solo literature from the 1540s. During the Baroque, the bass viol came to be used both as a solo instrument and also to support the bass line in chamber music with figured bass. It is heard today primarily in the context of college and professional early music ensembles.


Viols have two basic sections that are joined together--the resonator (constructed from several thinly-shaven pieces of wood glued together) and the neck (comprising of the neck proper, the peg box, and the scroll all carved from a single piece of wood, and the fingerboard, made from another piece of wood). This bass viol is typical of the shape instruments constructed during the Baroque period took. It has steep sloping shoulders, a flat back the top third of which slopes toward the base of the neck, deep ribs, and an arched belly with C-shaped sound holes. A small decorative rosette is carved into the belly below the end of the fingerboard. Inside the resonator there is a long strip of wood (bass bar) glued vertically underneath the left side of the belly to boost the instrument's bass frequencies, and a sound post is fitted snugly between the belly and the back to augment in the transmission of energy to the back. The wide fingerboard attached to the neck is arched longitudinally and extends over the resonator well past the bottom end of the neck. Seven moveable frets made from gut are tied around the neck and fingerboard. Six strings (gut, with the bottom two aluminum wound) run the length of the instrument, attached at their bottom end to a tailpiece and at their top end to tuning pegs mounted laterally into the peg box. Just above the tailpiece, the strings pass over the broad and arched bridge, and at the top end of the fingerboard they pass over a raised nut. The acoustically active segment of all the strings (distance between the bridge and the nut) is 25.5 inches. A wooden convex bow with horsehair is used to set the strings into vibration.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A seated player rests the bottom of the resonator on or between their calves with the neck extending beyond their left shoulder. The fingers of the left hand are used to stop the strings against the fingerboard, aided by the frets. The right hand holds the nut end of the bow with an underhand grip (palm facing up) and sets the strings into vibration with a bowing motion just above the bridge. The six strings of the bass viol are tuned from low to high to: D2 - G2 - C3 - E3 - A3 - D4. A range of two octaves and a fifth (D2 to A4) can be produced with the available frets. It produces a quiet but reedy and resonant sound.


Dating back to the late 15th century and possibly of Spanish origin (earliest representation from the Aragon region of Northeast Spain), viols were found all over continental Europe and the British Isles by the middle of the 16th century. The details of its construction varied over time and from region to region, as did the nature of the music played on it and composed for it. The instrument's popularity was waning by the early 18th century as members of the violin family became the dominant European bowed string instruments. An interest in viols as historical objects emerged in the latter half of the 19th century and intensified in the latter half of the 20th century during the early music movement. A few 20th century composers even wrote a small body of new music for them.

Bibliographic Citations

Gillespie, Wendy. 1994. "Bowed Instruments," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 109-124.

Randel, Don. 1986. "Viol," In The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge: Belknap Press, pp. 914-915.

Woodfield, Ian, and Lucy Robinson. 1984. "Viol," NGDMI v.3: 736-753.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Formation: European

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

Category: chordophone

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: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


45.5 in. length 26.8 in. length of resonator 15.4 in. greatest width of resonator

Primary Materials

string - gut
string - wire-wound gut


Hermann Bächle, Baiersdorf

Entry Author

Roger Vetter