The double bass, also called the string bass, upright bass, bass fiddle, bass violin, doghouse bass, contrabass, or stand-up bass, is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra, with strings usually tuned to E1, A1, D2 and G2. A person who plays the double bass is usually referred to as a bassist. The double bass can be played either with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings (pizzicato). In orchestral repertoire and tango music, both arco and pizzicato are employed. In jazz, pizzicato is the norm, except for some solos and also occasional written parts in modern jazz that call for bowing. In most other genres, such as blues and rockabilly, the bass is plucked. In classical pieces, the bow is used.
It is the largest, lowest-pitched member of the string section, which also includes the violin, viola, and cello. The bassist produces sound by drawing a bow across one or more strings (which may be stopped by the fingers of the other hand to produce a full range of pitches), by plucking the strings (with either hand), or by a variety of other techniques. The double bass is a standard member of the string section of the symphony orchestra and smaller string ensembles in Western classical music. In addition, it is used in other genres such as jazz, 1950s-style blues and rock and roll, rockabilly/psychobilly, traditional country music, bluegrass, tango and many types of folk music.
The compass of the Double Bass is from E2 to C5. This can be extended upwards, however, through the use of natural or artificial harmonics.
Many Basses have mechanical aids enabling them to go lower, usually an extension of the E string down to C2 or C#2, or by a fifth string tuned to a B1 (a fourth below the bottom string). These aids are mainly found on professional instruments, and may not be available with a student ensemble.
Conventional western tuning of a Double Bass is based on A4(440Hz) and is in fourths. The double bass is generally tuned in fourths, in contrast to other members of the orchestral string family, which are tuned in fifths. The standard tuning (low to high) is E-A-D-G, starting from E below second low C (concert pitch). This is the same as the standard tuning of a bass guitar and is one octave lower than the four lowest-pitched strings of standard guitar tuning. The technique of scordatura allows this fundamental tuning to be changed in certain works or styles. The most common alternate tuning is in fifths (similar to a Cello) or all raised by a semitone (known as solo tuning). For non-conventional variants and tuning possibilites refer to Wikipedia.
Timbre & Tone
The Bass has a low bass timbre, which can be quite soft due to the low frequencies. When played with a bow it has a resonant quality, while it's pizzicate has a sharper attack than the electric bass. This tone can be adjusted through mechanical means (string choice, body and bow construction) or through the various techniques available to the bass player.
While the electric bass guitar is a common substitute for the upright bass. Apart from the jazz styles of jazz fusion and Latin-influenced jazz however, the upright bass is still the dominant bass instrument in jazz. The sound and tone of the plucked upright bass is distinct from that of the fretted bass guitar. The upright bass produces a different sound than the bass guitar, because its strings are not stopped by metal frets, instead having a continuous tonal range on the uninterrupted fingerboard. As well, bass guitars usually have a solid wood body, which means that their sound is produced by electronic amplification of the vibration of the strings, instead of the upright bass's acoustic reverberation.
Attaching a rubber, wooden, or metal device called a "mute" to the bridge of the bass alters the tone, softening the instrument's sound by adding mass to the bridge and so reducing its ability to vibrate freely, decreasing volume and giving a more mellow tone, with fewer audible overtones. In performances, it may give a desired dulled effect. Mutes are mostly used in orchestras with the entire string section playing with mutes, resulting in a soft, hushed sound quality. Parts to be played muted are marked con sord., for the Italian sordino or occasionally mit Dämpfer in German. (The instruction to take off the mute is senza sord., sometimes marked just senza or "ohne Dämpfer" in German.) In French, instruction is given for application of mutes at the beginning of muted passages, "mettez les sourdines", and for removal at the end "ôtez les sourdines".
Sharing the same name but with a completely different purpose, massive metal, rubber, or wooden "practice mutes" or "hotel mutes" are available. These mutes are used to drastically reduce the volume when practicing where others can be disturbed.
Left Hand Techniques
- Double stopping is when stopped notes are played on two adjacent strings, producing a two-note harmony. This is more difficult than normal single-string playing, as fingers must be accurately placed on two strings simultaneously. Sometimes moving to a higher position is necessary for the left hand to be able to reach both notes at once. Double stopping is also used to mean playing on three or all four strings at once, although such practices are more properly called triple or quadruple stopping. Collectively, double, triple and quadruple stopping is called multiple stopping. Sounding an open string alongside a fingered note is another way to get a harmony. While sometimes also called a double stop, it is more properly called a drone, as the drone note (the open string) may be sustained for a passage of different notes played on the adjacent string.
- Vibrato is a technique of the left hand and arm in which the pitch of a note varies in a pulsating rhythm. Mechanically, it is achieved by fingertip movements which alter the length of the vibrating string. There are several different styles of vibrato ranging from the use of just the fingers, to the use of the wrist or even the whole forearm. By employing these different techniques both the speed and amplitude of vibrato oscillations can be varied for musical effect.
- Vibrato is often perceived to create a more emotional sound, and it is employed heavily in music of the Romantic era. The acoustic effect of vibrato has largely to do with adding interest and warmth to the sound, in the form of a shimmer created by the variations in projection of strongest sound. A well-made violin virtually points its sound pattern in different directions depending on slight variations in pitch.
- Violinists oscillate backwards, or lower in pitch from the actual note when using vibrato, since aural perception favors the highest pitch in a varying sound. Vibrato does little if anything to disguise an out-of-tune note. Violin students, especially of beginner level, are taught to use it only on extended notes and or during points of emotional tension. Vibrato can be difficult to learn and may take a student several months, if not years, to master.
- A special timbre results from playing a note without touching its string with a finger, thus sounding the lowest note on that string. Such a note is said to be played on an open string. Open string notes (G3, D4, A4, E5) have a very distinct sound resulting from absence of the damping action of a finger pad, and from the fact that vibrato can not be produced. Other than G3 (which can be played in no other way), open strings are sometimes selected for special effects.
- Lightly touching the string with a fingertip at a harmonic node while bowing close to the bridge can create harmonics. Instead of the normal solid tone a lighter-sounding overtone note of a higher pitch is heard. Possible harmonics are defined by the Harmonic Series of the string being played. A responsive instrument will provide numerous possible harmonic nodes along the length of the string.
- Harmonics are marked in music with a little circle above the note that determines the pitch of the harmonic. There are two types of harmonics: natural harmonics and artificial harmonics (also known as "false harmonics").
- Artificial harmonics are more difficult to produce than the natural harmonics described above. Stopping a note on one string, for example first finger "E" on the D string, and having another finger just touching the string a fourth higher, in this case on the position of the note "A", produces the fourth harmonic of the "E," sounding a tone two octaves above the note that is stopped, in this case, E.
- Harmonics become more difficult to produce as you move up the harmonic series. Consequently the most found harmonics are the octave (1st harmonic), two octaves (2nd harmonic) with the fifth and third slightly less common.
- Traditional notation of artificial harmonics uses two notes on one stem: the lower note employs a round note-head representing where the string is strongly stopped with the first finger, and the upper note uses an open diamond note-head representing where the string is lightly touched with the fourth finger.
- Many double bass symphony parts and virtuoso concertos employ harmonics (also called flageolet tones). Both natural harmonics and artificial 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, extend the instrument's range considerably.
- Orchestral parts rarely demand the double bass exceed a two-octave range (an example of an exception to this rule is Orff's Carmina Burana, which calls for three octaves and a perfect fourth). However, there is no hard limit to the upper range a virtuoso solo player can achieve using natural and artificial harmonics. The high harmonic in the range illustration found at the head of this article may be taken as representative rather than normative.
Right Hand Techniques
- When a note is marked pizz. (abbreviation for pizzicato) in the written music, it is played by plucking the string with a finger of the right hand rather than by bowing. When the bow hand is occupied (or for virtuosic effect) the left hand can be used; this is indicated by a "+" (plus sign) in the music. This allows players to simultaneously play bowed notes while plucking on a different string. In addition, some players have acquired the trick of playing fast pizzicato passages using two alternating fingers of the right hand. Players continue playing pizzicato until there is an indication to return to arco (playing with the bow).
- Bassists may also pluck a string with their left hand, denoted on written music as a "+" symbol above the note desired. Left-handed pizz in general is less flexible pitch-wise than the right-handed pizz, but allows the right hand to either stay where it is or simultaneously play with the bow or by plucking.
- A snap pizzicato, first specified by Béla Bartók, and often called a Bartók pizzicato, requires the player to pull the string away from the fingerboard so that when it is released it rebounds with force onto the fingerboard, yielding a sharp, percussive snapping sound.
- In traditional jazz, swing, polka, rockabilly, and psychobilly music, it is sometimes played in the slap style. This is a vigorous version of pizzicato where the strings are "slapped" against the fingerboard between the main notes of the bass line, producing a snare drum-like percussive sound. The main notes are either played normally or by pulling the string away from the fingerboard and releasing it so that it bounces off the fingerboard, producing a distinctive percussive attack in addition to the expected pitch. Notable slap style bass players, whose use of the technique was often highly syncopated and virtuosic, sometimes interpolated two, three, four, or more slaps in between notes of the bass line.
- Sul ponticello - Playing close to the bridge gives a more intense sound than usual, emphasizing the higher harmonics;
- Sul tasto - Playing with the bow over the end of the fingerboard makes for a delicate, ethereal sound, emphasizing the fundamental frequency.
- Détaché - The term détaché simply means "separated" and it can be applied to any notes not linked by a slur. Stopping the bow on the string deadens the vibrations and thus creates a muted accent, elastic détaché which covered off-the-string strokes, and dragged détaché (détaché traîné) where smooth bow changes leave no audible gap between each note. Video Example of Detaché.
- Martelé (French; Italian martellato) - literally "hammered," is a type of détaché stroke with a lightly hammered attack. A strong attack is referred to as Martellato.
- Collé - "stuck," or "glued," is a stroke that begins from a heavily weighted bow resting motionless on the string. Ideally, the initial weight will be almost enough to cause an undesirable scratch sound.
- Spiccato - Technique that uses a bowing style that leaves the string clearly to produce a light "bouncing" sound. Despite major misconceptions, violinists play this technique with a horizontal stroke; the "bouncing" motion is only due to the natural resistance of the violin string and light weight of the blow. Spiccato becomes Sautillé at faster tempos, due to the lower amplitude of the "bounce". Spiccato is usually performed at the balance portion of the bow. The balance portion of the bow refers to the area of the bow where weight is distributed evenly on both sides, allowing for maximum control. Spiccato articulation is indicated by a small dot placed directly under the note.
- Legato - Of successive notes in performance, connected without any intervening silence of articulation. In practice, the connection or separation of notes is relative, and achieved through the presence or absence of emphasis, Accent and attack, as much as silences of articulation; degrees of connection and separation vary from legatissimo (representing the closest degree of connection), tenuto, portamento, legato, portato, non legato, mezzo-staccato, Staccato (the natural antonym of legato), to staccatissimo. Some of these terms have connotations going beyond simple degrees of connection or separation.
- Sautillé (French; Italian saltando, German Springbogen, Spanish saltillo) - A bowstroke played rapidly in the middle of the bow, one bowstroke per note, so that the bow bounces very slightly off the string. If the bounce becomes higher at this speed, it is really a flying staccato or flying spiccato. It is not indicated in any consistent manner: sometimes dots are placed above or below the notes, sometimes arrow-head strokes, and sometimes the stroke is simply left to the performer's discretion. spiccato and sautillé are sometimes used as synonyms, though spiccato tends to be applied to a broader range of off-the-string strokes. Video Example of Sautillé.
- Jeté - Also known as "ricochet" bowing, this consists of "throwing" the bow on the string in the upper third of the bow on a down bow, so that it bounces and produces a series of rapid notes. Usually from two to six notes are sounded this way, but up to ten or eleven can be played.
- Louré (French; Italian portato) - This bow stroke, used in slow tempo, separates slurred notes slightly to articulate them, without stopping the bow. It is used in passages of a cantabile character.
- Arpeggio, arpeggiando, arpeggiato - A bouncing stroke, played on broken chords, so that each note of the arpeggio is played on a different string.
- Tremolo - Chiefly used for orchestral playing, this consists of moving the bow back and forth in very short strokes extremely rapidly, not in measured rhythm.
- Col legno - Occasionally the strings are struck with the stick of the bow ("with the wood.") This gives a muted percussive sound, and is most effective when employed by a full orchestral violin section. The eerie quality of a violin section playing col legno is exploited in some symphonic pieces, notably the "witches' dance" of the last movement of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique.
- "Shuffle" - A repetitive pattern of slurs and accents, much used in some fiddling styles. Named shuffles include the Nashville shuffle, the Georgia shuffle, and the double shuffle, which is often considered to be a trick or showoff shuffle.
- "Chopping" - A more modern percussive technique, in which the hair near the frog of the bow is struck against the strings with a quick scratching sound of indeterminate pitch.
- Flautando - A light tone produced by fast bow movement with very little pressure on the string.
Since there is no established instrumental ensemble that includes the double bass, its use in chamber music has not been as exhaustive as the literature for ensembles such as the string quartet or piano trio. Despite this, there is a substantial number of chamber works that incorporate the double bass in both small and large ensembles. There is a small body of works written for piano quintet with the instrumentation of piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The most famous is Franz Schubert's Piano Quintet in A major, known as "The Trout Quintet" for its set of variations in the fourth movement of Schubert's Die Forelle. There are also a few works for string quartet with double bass. Antonín Dvořák's String Quintet in G major, Op.77 and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Serenade in G major, K.525 ("Eine kleine Nachtmusik") are the most popular pieces in this repertoire. Slightly smaller string works with the double bass include six string sonatas by Gioachino Rossini, for two violins, cello, and double bass written at the age of twelve over the course of three days in 1804. Larger works that incorporate the double bass include Beethoven's Septet in E-flat major, Op.20, one of his most famous pieces during his lifetime, which consists of clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass. When the clarinetist Ferdinand Troyer commissioned a work from Franz Schubert for similar forces, he added one more violin for his Octet in F major, D.803. Paul Hindemith used the same instrumentation as Schubert for his own Octet. In the realm of even larger works, Mozart included the double bass in addition to 12 wind instruments for his "Gran Partita" Serenade, K.361 and Martinů used the double bass in his nonet for wind quintet, violin, viola, cello and double bass. The double bass in the baroque and classical periods would typically double the cello part in orchestral passages. A notable exception would be Haydn, who composed solo passages for the double bass in some of his Symphonies, but who otherwise would group the bass and cello parts together. Beethoven paved the way for separate double bass parts, which became more common in the romantic era. The scherzo and trio from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are famous orchestral excerpts, as is the recitative at the beginning of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. While orchestral bass solos are somewhat rare, there are some notable examples. Johannes Brahms, whose father was a double bass player, wrote many difficult and prominent parts for the double bass in his symphonies. Richard Strauss assigned the double bass daring parts, and his symphonic poems and operas stretch the instrument to its limits. "The Elephant" from Camille Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals is a satirical portrait of the double bass, and American virtuoso Gary Karr made his televised debut playing "The Swan" (originally written for the cello) with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Ensembles made up entirely of double basses, though relatively rare, also exist, and several composers have written or arranged for such ensembles. In addition, the double bass sections of some orchestras perform as an ensemble, such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Wacker Consort. There is an increasing number of published compositions and arrangements for double bass ensembles, and the International Society of Bassists regularly features double bass ensembles (both smaller ensembles as well as very large "mass bass" ensembles) at its conferences, and sponsors the biennial David Walter Composition Competition, which includes a division for double bass ensemble works.
Beginning around 1890, the early New Orleans jazz ensemble (which played a mixture of marches, ragtime, and Dixieland) was initially a marching band with a tuba or sousaphone (or occasionally bass saxophone) supplying the bass line. As the music moved into bars and brothels, the upright bass gradually replaced these wind instruments. Many early bassists doubled on both the brass bass and string bass, as the instruments were then often referred to. Bassists played "walking" bass lines—scale-based lines that outlined the harmony. Because an unamplified upright bass is generally the quietest instrument in a jazz band, many players of the 1920s and 1930s used the slap style, slapping and pulling the strings so that they make a rhythmic "slap" sound against the fingerboard. The slap style cuts through the sound of a band better than simply plucking the strings, and allowed the bass to be more easily heard on early sound recordings, as the recording equipment of that time did not favor low frequencies. Many upright bass players have contributed to the evolution of jazz. Examples include swing era players such as Jimmy Blanton, who played with Duke Ellington, and Oscar Pettiford, who pioneered the instrument's use in bebop. Paul Chambers (who worked with Miles Davis on the famous Kind of Blue album) achieved renown for being one of the first jazz bassists to play bebop solos with the bow. Terry Plumeri furthered the development of arco (bowed) solos, achieving horn-like technical freedom and a clear, vocal bowed tone, while Charlie Haden, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman, defined the role of the bass in Free Jazz. Scott LaFaro influenced a generation of musicians by liberating the bass from contrapuntal "walking" behind soloists instead favoring interactive, conversational melodies.
The string bass is the most commonly used bass instrument in bluegrass music and is almost always plucked, though some modern bluegrass bassists have also used a bow. The bluegrass bassist is part of the rhythm section, and is responsible for keeping a steady beat, whether fast, slow, in 4/4 time, 2/4 or 3/4 time. Early pre-bluegrass traditional music was often accompanied by the cello . Some contemporary bluegrass bands favor the electric bass, because it is easier to transport than the large and somewhat fragile upright bass. However, the bass guitar has a different musical sound. Many musicians feel the slower attack and percussive, woody tone of the upright bass gives it a more "earthy" or "natural" sound than an electric bass, particularly when gut strings are used. Bluegrass bass lines are usually simple, typically staying on the root and fifth of each chord throughout most of a song. There are two main exceptions to this rule. Bluegrass bassists often do a diatonic walkup or walkdown, in which they play every beat of a bar for one or two bars, typically when there is a chord change. In addition, if a bass player is given a solo, they may play a walking bass line with a note on every beat or play a pentatonic scale-influenced bassline. An upright bass was the standard bass instrument in traditional country western music. While the upright bass is still occasionally used in country music, the electric bass has largely replaced its bigger cousin in country music, especially in the more pop-infused country styles of the 1990s and 2000s, such as new country.
In the 1940s, a new style of dance music called rhythm and blues developed, incorporating elements of the earlier styles of blues and swing. The upright bass remained an integral part of pop lineups throughout the 1950s, as the new genre of rock and roll was built largely upon the model of rhythm and blues, with strong elements also derived from jazz, country, and bluegrass. However, upright bass players using their instruments in these contexts faced inherent problems. The upright bass began making a modest comeback in popular music in the mid-1980s, in part due to a renewed interest in earlier forms of rock and country music. In the 1990s, improvements in pickups and amplifier designs for electro-acoustic horizontal and upright basses made it easier for bassists to get a good, clear amplified tone from an acoustic instrument. Some popular bands decided to anchor their sound with an upright bass instead of an electric bass. A trend for "unplugged" performances further helped to enhance the public's interest in the upright bass and acoustic bass guitars. The upright bass is also favored over the electric bass guitar in many rockabilly and psychobilly bands. In such bands the bassist often plays with great showmanship, using slapping technique, sometimes spinning the bass around or even physically climbing onto the instrument while performing.