Deep pulsating rhythm washes over you, throbbing like an external heartbeat as the music begins to flow through the room. As a rockabilly tune builds momentum, you see a quartet that includes drums, a guitar, a singer and a large violin-looking instrument that the musician is not only strumming but also slapping, spinning and even riding. That’s a double bass, and it’s an impressive instrument with a long and varied history.
Just the Basics
The largest stringed instrument played with a bow in modern symphony orchestras, the double bass is regarded as the only modern descendant of the viola da gamba family of instruments. It’s also the only one that is tuned in fourths rather than fifths. However, those facts are not the only things that make the double bass stand out.
Dating from when all stringed instruments began in the late 15th or early 16th centuries, the double bass was a common instrument by the 18th century. Composers used the deep tones of this large instrument to provide background or to double the cello parts of the piece.
The double bass is an impressively large string instrument. Only the octobass — sometimes referred to as the Gargantuan — is larger than the double bass, standing sixteen feet tall and needing two people to play it.
There are three standard sizes for the double bass. The largest of these stands roughly six feet tall. There are also three-quarter models and even smaller versions that are slightly larger than a cello and called bassettos.
The design for these instruments has never been fully standardized. There are two primary designs commonly seen, those that look like guitars and those that look like violins. Rarely a double bass is built with a design similar to that of a guitar. Much of the features of these large instruments are similar to those seen in members of the violin family including a tailpiece, F-holes, a bridge and a scroll.
The body of the double bass is hollow and constructed to selectively amplify the deep rich tones that it produces. Until the 20th century, the double bass had only three strings. However, most now have four strings that are tuned to the pitches of E, A, D and G.
Sometimes, specific genres add a fifth string to the double bass. For jazz bands, that string is generally added at the top of the register to provide higher notes. In a symphony orchestra, the string is added below the E string and is tuned to produce the C note.
Influence Across Genres
The double bass has found its way into many genres of music throughout the centuries. Starting as a favorite addition of classical composers, this versatile instrument has inundated the modern music scene from one generation to the next.
Stars of the Double Bass
From its beginnings in concertos composed by greats through its innovations within the areas of jazz and bluegrass music all the way to its place in the rockabilly movement, the double bass has seen it all. Each generation has celebrated great double bassists.
- Serge Koussevitzky is a Russian born double bass virtuoso who composed concertos exclusively for the double bass.
- Mozart, Shubert and Rossini: All composed chamber music featuring the double bass.
Listen as Rinat Ibragimov performs the Giovanni Bottesini Concerto for Double Bass No 2 in B Minor.
Jazz & Bluegrass
- Jimmy Blanton: Double bassist with Duke Ellington, he pioneered the use of the double bass in bebop music.
- Ray Brown: Known in the jazz bassist community for his virtuosic technique of bowing.
- Edgar Meyer: Bassist and composer, he received the 2002 MacArthur Award in recognition of his work in the field of music.
- Marshall Lytle: The double bassist for Billy Haley & His Comets in the 1950s, pioneered the energetic way that modern rockabilly bassists play the standup bass, including slapping, spinning and riding the instrument.
For centuries, the double bass has been holding down the bottom end for all kinds of composers in an endless series of combos, and it’s unlikely that it’ll be kicked out of the string instrument family. Too much is riding on that doghouse bass, including the bassist, on occasion.