Double bass facts for kids
Double bass is a widely-used name for a large stringed instrument. Other terms, perhaps more correct, include contrabass and upright bass. It is used in orchestras, jazz bands, rockabilly bands, bluegrass music, and some country music bands. It plays low-pitched musical notes in musical ensembles and bands. In jazz bands, these low-pitched musical notes are called the "bass line." The double bass looks like smaller instruments like the violin, viola, and cello.
- Playing style
- Playing and performance considerations
- Use in jazz
- Use in bluegrass and country
- Use in popular music
The double bass stands around 180 cm (6 feet) from scroll to endpin. However, other sizes are available, such as a 1/2 or 3/4, which serve to accommodate a player's height and hand size. These sizes do not reflect the size relative to a full size, or frac|4|4 bass; a 1/2 bass is not half the size of a bass but is only slightly smaller. It is typically constructed from several types of wood, including maple for the back, spruce for the top, and ebony for the fingerboard. It is uncertain whether the instrument is a descendant of the viola da gamba or of the violin, but it is traditionally aligned with the violin family. While the double bass is nearly identical in construction to other violin family instruments, it also embodies features found in the older viol family.
Like other violin and viol-family string instruments, the double bass is 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, blues, and rockabilly, pizzicato is the norm, except for some solos and also occasional written parts in modern jazz that call for bowing.
In classical pedagogy, almost all of the focus is on performing with the bow and producing a good bowed tone; there is little work done on developing significant pizzicato skills. Bowed notes in the lowest register of the instrument produce a dark, heavy, mighty, or even menacing effect, when played with a fortissimo dynamic; however, the same low pitches played with a delicate pianissimo can create a sonorous, mellow accompaniment line. Classical bass students learn all of the different bow articulations used by other string section players (e.g., violin and cello), such as détaché, legato, staccato, sforzato, martelé ("hammered"-style), sul ponticello, sul tasto, tremolo, spiccato and sautillé. Some of these articulations can be combined; for example, the combination of sul ponticello and tremolo can produce eerie, ghostly sounds. Classical bass players do play pizzicato parts in orchestra, but these parts generally require simple notes (quarter notes, half notes, whole notes), rather than rapid passages.
Classical players perform both bowed and pizz notes using vibrato, an effect created by rocking or quivering the left hand finger that is contacting the string, which then transfers an undulation in pitch to the tone. Vibrato is used to add expression to string playing. In general, very loud, low-register passages are played with little or no vibrato, as the main goal with low pitches is to provide a clear fundamental bass for the string section. Mid- and higher-register melodies are typically played with more vibrato. The speed and intensity of the vibrato is varied by the performer for an emotional and musical effect.
In jazz, rockabilly and other related genres, much or all of the focus is on playing pizzicato. In jazz and jump blues, bassists are required to play extremely rapid pizzicato walking basslines for extended periods. As well, jazz and rockabilly bassists develop virtuoso pizzicato techniques that enable them to play rapid solos that incorporate fast-moving triplet and sixteenth note figures. Pizzicato basslines performed by leading jazz professionals are much more difficult than the pizzicato basslines that Classical bassists encounter in the standard orchestral literature, which are typically whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and occasional eighth note passages. In jazz and related styles, bassists often add semi-percussive "ghost notes" into basslines, to add to the rhythmic feel and to add fills to a bassline.
The double bass player stands, or sits on a high stool, and leans the instrument against their body, turned slightly inward to put the strings comfortably in reach. This stance is a key reason for the bass's sloped shoulders, which mark it apart from the other members of the violin family—the narrower shoulders facilitate playing the strings in their higher registers.
The double bass is generally regarded as a modern descendant of the string family of instruments that originated in Europe in the 15th century, and as such has been described as a bass Violin. Before the 20th century many double basses had only three strings, in contrast to the five to six strings typical of instruments in the viol family or the four strings of instruments in the violin family. The double bass's proportions are dissimilar to those of the violin and cello; for example, it is deeper (the distance from front to back is proportionally much greater than the violin). In addition, while the violin has bulging shoulders, most double basses have shoulders carved with a more acute slope, like members of the viol family. Many very old double basses have had their shoulders cut or sloped to aid playing with modern techniques. Before these modifications, the design of their shoulders was closer to instruments of the violin family.
The double bass is the only modern bowed string instrument that is tuned in fourths (like a viol), rather than fifths (see Tuning below). The issue of the instrument's exact lineage is still a matter of some debate, and the supposition that the double bass is a direct descendant of the viol family is one that has not been entirely resolved.
In his A New History of the Double Bass, Paul Brun asserts, with many references, that the double bass has origins as the true bass of the violin family. He states that, while the exterior of the double bass may resemble the viola da gamba, the internal construction of the double bass is nearly identical to instruments in the violin family, and very different from the internal structure of viols.
Double bass professor Larry Hurst argues that the "modern double bass is not a true member of either the violin or viol families." He says that "most likely its first general shape was that of a violone, the largest member of the viol family. Some of the earliest basses extant are violones, (including C-shaped sound holes) that have been fitted with modern trappings." Some existing instruments, such as those by Gasparo da Salò, were converted from 16th-century six-string contrabass violoni.
In general, there are two major approaches to the design outline shape of the double bass: the violin form (shown in the labelled picture to the right); and the viol da gamba form (shown in the header picture). A third less common design, called the busetto shape, can also be found, as can the even more rare guitar or pear shape. The back of the instrument can vary from being a round, carved back similar to that of the violin, to a flat and angled back similar to the viol family.
The double bass features many parts that are similar to members of the violin family, including a wooden, carved bridge to support the strings, two f-holes, a tailpiece into which the ball ends of the strings are inserted (with the tailpiece anchored around the endpin mount), an ornamental scroll near the pegbox, a nut with grooves for each string at the junction of the fingerboard and the pegbox and a sturdy, thick sound post, which transmits the vibrations from the top of the instrument to the hollow body and supports the pressure of the string tension. Unlike the rest of the violin family, the double bass still reflects influences from, and can be considered partly derived, from the viol family of instruments, in particular the violone, the lowest-pitched and largest bass member of the viol family. As with the other violin and viol family instruments that are played with a bow (and unlike mainly plucked or picked instruments like guitar), the double bass's bridge has an arc-like, curved shape. This is done because with bowed instruments, the player must be able to play individual strings. If the double bass were to have a flat bridge, it would be impossible to bow the A and D strings individually.
The double bass also differs from members of the violin family in that the shoulders are typically sloped and the back is often angled (both to allow easier access to the instrument, particularly in the upper range). Machine tuners are always fitted, in contrast to the rest of the violin family, where traditional wooden friction pegs are still the primary means of tuning. Lack of standardization in design means that one double bass can sound and look very different from another.
The double bass is closest in construction to violins, but has some notable similarities to the violone (literally "large viol"), the largest and lowest-pitched member of the viol family. Unlike the violone, however, the fingerboard of the double bass is unfretted, and the double bass has fewer strings (the violone, like most viols, generally had six strings, although some specimens had five or four). The fingerboard is made of ebony on high-quality instruments; on less expensive student instruments, other woods may be used and then painted or stained black (a process called "ebonizing"). The fingerboard is radiused using a curve, for the same reason that the bridge is curved: if the fingerboard and bridge were to be flat, then a bassist would not be able to bow the inner two strings individually. By using a curved bridge and a curved fingerboard, the bassist can align the bow with any of the four strings and play them individually. Unlike the violin and viola, but like the cello, the bass fingerboard is somewhat flattened out underneath the E string (the C string on cello). The vast majority of fingerboards cannot be adjusted by the performer; any adjustments must be made by a luthier. A very small number of expensive basses for professionals have adjustable fingerboards, in which a screw mechanism can be used to raise or lower the fingerboard height.
An important distinction between the double bass and other members of the violin family is the construction of the pegbox and the tuning mechanism. While the violin, viola, and cello all use friction pegs for tuning adjustments (tightening and loosening the string tension to raise or lower the string's pitch), the double bass has metal machine heads and gears. One of the challenges with tuning pegs is that the friction between the wood peg and the peg hole may become insufficient to hold the peg in place, particularly if the peg hole become worn and enlarged. The key on the tuning machine of a double bass turns a metal worm, which drives a worm gear that winds the string. Turning the key in one direction tightens the string (thus raising its pitch); turning the key the opposite direction reduces the tension on the string (thus lowering its pitch). While this development makes fine tuners on the tailpiece (important for violin, viola and cello players, as their instruments use friction pegs for major pitch adjustments) unnecessary, a very small number of bassists use them nevertheless. One rationale for using fine tuners on bass is that for instruments with the low C extension, the pulley system for the long string may not effectively transfer turns of the key into changes of string tension/pitch. At the base of the double bass is a metal rod with a spiked or rubberized end called the endpin, which rests on the floor. This endpin is generally thicker and more robust than that of a cello, because of the greater mass of the instrument.
The materials most often used in double bass construction for fully carved basses (the type used by professional orchestra bassists and soloists) are maple (back, neck, ribs), spruce (top), and ebony (fingerboard, tailpiece). The tailpiece may be made from other types of wood or non-wood materials. Exceptions to this include less-expensive basses that have laminated (plywood) tops, backs, and ribs, and some 2010-era lower- to mid-priced basses made of willow. Fully laminated plywood basses are resistant to changes in heat and humidity and accidental droppage or impacts, which can cause cracks in carved wood tops and bodies (a crack is most serious on the top).
Laminated (plywood) basses, which are widely used in music schools, youth orchestras, and in popular and folk music settings (including rockabilly, psychobilly, blues, etc.), are very resistant to humidity and heat, as well to the physical abuse they are apt to encounter in a school environment (or, for blues and folk musicians, to the hazards of touring and performing in bars). Another option is the hybrid body bass, which has a laminated back and a carved or solid wood top. It is less costly and somewhat less fragile (at least regarding its back) than a fully carved bass. In 2015, the least expensive entry-level new, fully carved basses range from $2,750 to $4,950 USD, although a higher-end new carved instrument may cost from $9,000 to $24,000 USD. In 2015, bassists in top professional orchestras may have antique carved instruments valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2015, new fully laminated basses are sold for about $1,350 to $4,500 USD. New hybrid basses range from $3,000 to $6,400 USD.
The soundpost and bass bar are components of the internal construction. All the parts of a double bass are glued together, except the soundpost, bridge, and tailpiece, which are held in place by string tension (although the soundpost usually remains in place when the instrument's strings are loosened or removed, as long as the bass is kept on its back. Some luthiers recommend changing only one string at a time to reduce the risk of the soundpost falling). If the soundpost falls, a luthier is needed to put the soundpost back into position, as this must be done with tools inserted into the f-holes; moreover, the exact placement of the soundpost under the bridge is essential for the instrument to sound its best. Basic bridges are carved from a single piece of wood, which is customized to match the shape of the top of each instrument. The least expensive bridges on student instruments may be customized just by sanding the feet to match the shape of the instrument's top. A bridge on a professional bassist's instrument may be ornately carved by a luthier.
Professional bassists are more likely to have adjustable bridges, which have a metal screw mechanism. This enables the bassist to raise or lower the height of the strings to accommodate changing humidity or temperature conditions. The metal tuning machines are attached to the sides of the pegbox with metal screws. While tuning mechanisms generally differ from the higher-pitched orchestral stringed instruments, some basses have non-functional, ornamental tuning pegs projecting from the side of the pegbox, in imitation of the tuning pegs on a cello or violin.
Famous double bass makers come from around the world and often represent varied national characteristics. The most highly sought (and expensive) instruments come from Italy and include basses made by Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Gaspar da Salo, the Testore family (Carlo Antonio, Carlo Giuseppe, Gennaro, Giovanni, Paulo Antonio), Celestino Puolotti, and Matteo Gofriller. French and English basses from famous makers are also sought out by players.
The history of the double bass is tightly coupled to the development of string technology, as it was the advent of overwound gut strings, which first rendered the instrument more generally practicable, as (over‑) wound strings attain low notes within a smaller overall string diameter than non-wound strings. Professor Larry Hurst argues that had "it not been for the appearance of the overwound gut string in the 1650s, the double bass would surely have become extinct." because thicknesses needed for regular gut strings made the lower-pitched strings almost unplayable and hindered the development of fluid, rapid playing in the lower register.
Prior to the mid-20th century, double bass strings were usually made of gut, (which despite its name is made from sheep intestine, not cats) but, since that time, steel has largely replaced it, because steel strings hold their pitch better and yield more volume when played with the bow. Gut strings are also more vulnerable to changes of humidity and temperature, and break more easily than steel strings.
Gut strings are nowadays mostly used by bassists who perform in baroque ensembles, rockabilly bands, traditional blues bands, and bluegrass bands. In some cases, the low E and A are wound in silver, to give them added mass. Gut strings provide the dark, "thumpy" sound heard on 1940s and 1950s recordings. The late Jeff Sarli, a blues upright bassist, said that, "Starting in the 1950s, they began to reset the necks on basses for steel strings." Rockabilly and bluegrass bassists also prefer gut because it is much easier to perform the "slapping" upright bass style (in which the strings are percussively slapped and clicked against the fingerboard) with gut strings than with steel strings, because gut does not hurt the plucking fingers as much. A less expensive alternative to gut strings is nylon strings; the higher strings are pure nylon, and the lower strings are nylon wrapped in wire, to add more mass to the string, slowing the vibration, and thus facilitating lower pitches. (For more information on slapping, see the sections below on Modern playing styles, Double bass in bluegrass music, Double bass in jazz, and Double bass in popular music).
The change from gut to steel has also affected the instrument's playing technique over the last hundred years. Steel strings can be set up closer to the fingerboard and, additionally, strings can be played in higher positions on the lower strings and still produce clear tone. The classic 19th century Franz Simandl method does not use the low E string in higher positions because older gut strings, set up high over the fingerboard, could not produce clear tone in these higher positions. However, with modern steel strings, bassists can play with clear tone in higher positions on the low E and A strings, particularly when they use modern lighter-gauge, lower-tension steel strings. For information on the strings used in regular and solo tuning (F♯-B-E-A) and with different types of basses (e.g., four-string and five-string), see the section below on tuning.
The double bass bow comes in two distinct forms (shown below). The "French" or "overhand" bow is similar in shape and implementation to the bow used on the other members of the orchestral string instrument family, while the "German" or "Butler" bow is typically broader and shorter, and is held in a "hand shake" (or "hacksaw") position.
These two bows provide different ways of moving the arm and distributing force and weight on the strings. Proponents of the French bow argue that it is more maneuverable, due to the angle at which the player holds the bow. Advocates of the German bow claim that it allows the player to apply more arm weight on the strings. The differences between the two, however, are minute for a proficient player, and modern players in major orchestras use both bows.
The German bow (sometimes called the Butler bow) is the older of the two designs. The design of the bow and the manner of holding it descend from the older viol instrument family. With older viols, before frogs had screw threads to tighten the bow, players held the bow with two fingers between the stick and the hair to maintain tension of the hair. Proponents of the use of German bow claim that the German bow is easier to use for heavy strokes that require a lot of power.
Compared to the French bow, the German bow has a taller frog, and the player holds it with the palm angled upwards, as with the upright members of the viol family. When held in the traditionally correct manner, the thumb applies the necessary power to generate the desired sound. The index finger meets the bow at the point where the frog meets the stick. The index finger also applies an upward torque to the frog when tilting the bow. The little finger (or "pinky") supports the frog from underneath, while the ring finger and middle finger rest in the space between the hair and the shaft.
The French bow was not widely popular until its adoption by 19th-century virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. This style is more similar to the traditional bows of the smaller string family instruments. It is held as if the hand is resting by the side of the performer with the palm facing toward the bass. The thumb rests on the shaft of the bow, next to the frog while the other fingers drape on the other side of the bow. Various styles dictate the curve of the fingers and thumb, as do the style of piece; a more pronounced curve and lighter hold on the bow is used for virtuoso or more delicate pieces, while a flatter curve and sturdier grip on the bow sacrifices some power for easier control in strokes such as detaché, spiccato, and staccato.
Bow construction and materials
Double bass bows vary in length, ranging from 60 to 75 cm (24–30 in). In general, a bass bow is shorter and heavier than a cello bow. Pernambuco, also known as Brazilwood, is regarded as an excellent quality stick material, but due to its scarcity and expense, other materials are increasingly being used. Inexpensive student bows may be constructed of solid fiberglass, which makes the bow much lighter than a wooden bow (even too light to produce a good tone, in some cases). Student bows may also be made of the less valuable varieties of brazilwood. Snakewood and carbon fiber are also used in bows of a variety of different qualities. The frog of the double bass bow is usually made out of ebony, although snakewood and buffalo horn are used by some luthiers. The frog is movable, as it can be tightened or loosened with a knob (like all violin family bows). The bow is loosened at the end of a practice session or performance. The bow is tightened before playing, until it reaches a tautness that is preferred by the player. The frog on a quality bow is decorated with mother of pearl inlay.
Bows have a leather wrapping on the wooden part of the bow near the frog. Along with the leather wrapping, there is also a wire wrapping, made of gold or silver in quality bows. The hair is usually horsehair. Part of the regular maintenance of a bow is having the bow "rehaired" by a luthier with fresh horsehair and having the leather and wire wrapping replaced. The double bass bow is strung with either white or black horsehair, or a combination of the two (known as "salt and pepper"), as opposed to the customary white horsehair used on the bows of other string instruments. Some bassists argue that the slightly rougher black hair "grabs" the heavier, lower strings better. As well, some bassists and luthiers believe that it is easier to produce a smoother sound with the white variety. Red hair (chestnut) is also used by some bassists. Some of the lowest-quality, lowest cost student bows are made with synthetic hair. Synthetic hair does not have the tiny "barbs" that real horsehair has, so it does not "grip" the string well or take rosin well.
String players apply rosin to the bow hair so it "grips" the string and makes it vibrate. Double bass rosin is generally softer and stickier than violin rosin to allow the hair to grab the thicker strings better, but players use a wide variety of rosins that vary from quite hard (like violin rosin) to quite soft, depending on the weather, the humidity, and the preference of the player. The amount used generally depends on the type of music being performed as well as the personal preferences of the player. Bassists may apply more rosin in works for large orchestra (e.g., Brahms symphonies) than for delicate chamber works. Some brands of rosin, such as Pop's double bass rosin, are softer and more prone to melting in hot weather. Other brands, such as Carlsson or Nyman Harts double bass rosin, are harder and less prone to melting.
The double bass is generally tuned in fourths, in contrast to other members of the orchestral string family, which are tuned in fifths (for example, the violin's four strings are, from lowest-pitched to highest-pitched:G-D-A-E). The standard tuning (lowest-pitched to highest-pitched) for bass 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. Prior to the 19th-century, many double basses had only three strings; "Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889) favored the three-stringed instrument popular in Italy at the time", because "the three-stringed instrument [was viewed as] being more sonorous." Many cobla bands in Catalonia still have players using traditional three-string double basses tuned A–D–G.
Throughout classical repertoire, there are notes that fall below the range of a standard double bass. Notes below low E appear regularly in the double bass parts found in later arrangements and interpretations of Baroque music. In the Classical era, the double bass typically doubled the cello part an octave below, occasionally requiring descent to C below the E of the four-string double bass. In the Romantic era and the 20th century, composers such as Wagner, Mahler, Busoni and Prokofiev also requested notes below the low E.
There are several methods for making these notes available to the player. Players with standard double basses (E–A–D–G) may play the notes below "E" an octave higher or if this sounds awkward, the entire passage may be transposed up an octave. The player may tune the low E string down to the lowest note required in the piece: D or C. Four string basses may be fitted with a "low-C extension" (see below). Or the player may employ a five-string instrument, with the additional lower string tuned to C, or (more commonly in modern times) B, three octaves and a semitone below middle C. Several major European orchestras use basses with a fifth string.
Playing and performance considerations
Body and hand position
Double bassists either stand or sit to play the instrument. The instrument height is set by adjusting the endpin such that the player can reach the desired playing zones of the strings with bow or plucking hand. Bassists who stand and bow sometimes set the endpin by aligning the first finger in either first or half position with eye level, although there is little standardization in this regard. Players who sit generally use a stool about the height of the player's pants inseam length.
Traditionally, double bassists stood to play solo and sat to play in the orchestra or opera pit. Now, it is unusual for a player to be equally proficient in both positions, so some soloists sit (as with Joel Quarrington, Jeff Bradetich, Thierry Barbé, and others) and some orchestral bassists stand.
When playing in the instrument's upper range (above G3, the G below middle C), the player shifts the hand from behind the neck and flattens it out, using the side of the thumb to press down the string. This technique—also used on the cello—is called thumb position. While playing in thumb position, few players use the fourth (little) finger, as it is usually too weak to produce reliable tone (this is also true for cellists), although some extreme chords or extended techniques, especially in contemporary music, may require its use.
Despite the size of the instrument, it is not as loud as many other instruments, due to its low range. In a large orchestra, usually between four and eight bassists play in the same bassline in unison to produce enough volume. In the largest orchestras, bass sections may have as many as ten or twelve players, but modern budget constraints make bass sections this large unusual.
When writing solo passages for the bass in orchestral or chamber music, composers typically ensure the orchestration is light so it does not obscure the bass. While amplification is rarely used in classical music, in some cases where a bass soloist performs a concerto with a full orchestra, subtle amplification called acoustic enhancement may be used. The use of microphones and amplifiers in a classical setting has led to debate within the classical community, as "...purists maintain that the natural acoustic sound of [Classical] voices [or] instruments in a given hall should not be altered."
In many genres, such as jazz and blues, players use amplification via a specialized amplifier and loudspeakers. A piezoelectric pickup connects to the amplifier with a 1/4-inch patch cable. Bluegrass and jazz players typically use less amplification than blues, psychobilly, or jam band players. In the latter cases, high overall volume from other amplifiers and instruments may cause unwanted acoustic feedback, a problem exacerbated by the bass's large surface area and interior volume. The feedback problem has led to technological fixes like electronic feedback eliminator devices (essentially an automated notch filter that identifies and reduces frequencies where feedback occurs) and instruments like the electric upright bass, which has playing characteristics like the double bass but usually little or no soundbox, which makes feedback less likely. Some bassists reduce the problem of feedback by lowering their onstage volume or playing further away from their bass amp speakers.
In rockabilly and psychobilly, percussively slapping the strings against the fingerboard is an important part of the bass playing style. Since piezoelectric pickups are not good at reproducing the sounds of strings being slapped against the fingerboard, bassists in these genres often use both piezoelectric pickups (for the low bass tone) and a miniature condenser mic (to pick up the percussive slapping sounds). These two signals are blended together using a simple mixer before the signal is sent to the bass amp.
The double bass's large size and relative fragility make it cumbersome to handle and transport. Most bassists use soft cases, referred to as gig bags, to protect the instrument during transport. These range from inexpensive, thin unpadded cases used by students (which only protect against scratches and rain) to thickly padded versions for professional players, which also protect against bumps and impacts. Some bassists carry their bow in a hard bow case; more expensive bass cases have a large pocket for a bow case. Players also may use a small cart and end pin-attached wheels to move the bass. Some higher-priced padded cases have wheels attached to the case. Another option found in higher-priced padded cases are backpack straps, to make it easier to carry the instrument.
Hard flight cases have cushioned interiors and tough exteriors of carbon fiber, graphite, fiberglass, or Kevlar. The cost of good hard cases–several thousand US dollars–and the high airline fees for shipping them tend to limit their use to touring professionals.
Double bass players use various accessories to help them to perform and rehearse. Three types of mutes are used in orchestral music: a wooden mute that slides onto the bridge, a rubber mute that attaches to the bridge and a wire device with brass weights that fits onto the bridge. The player uses the mute when the Italian instruction con sordino ("with mute") appears in the bass part, and removes it in response to the instruction senza sordino ("without mute"). With the mute on, the tone of the bass is quieter, darker, and more somber. Bowed bass parts with a mute can have a nasal tone. Players use a third type of mute, a heavy rubber practice mute, to practice quietly without disturbing others (e.g., in a hotel room).
A quiver is an accessory for holding the bow. It is often made of leather and it attaches to the bridge and tailpiece with ties or straps. It is used to hold the bow while a player plays pizzicato parts.
A wolf tone eliminator is used to lessen unwanted sympathetic vibrations in the part of a string between the bridge and the tailpiece which can cause tone problems for certain notes. It is a rubber tube cut down the side that is used with a cylindrical metal sleeve which also has a slot on the side. The metal cylinder has a screw and a nut that fastens the device to the string. Different placements of the cylinder along the string influence or eliminate the frequency at which the wolf tone occurs. It is essentially an attenuator that slightly shifts the natural frequency of the string (and/or instrument body) cutting down on the reverberation. The wolf tone occurs because the strings below the bridge sometimes resonate at pitches close to notes on the playing part of the string. When the intended note makes the below-the-bridge string vibrate sympathetically, a dissonant "wolf note" or "wolf tone" can occur. In some cases, the wolf tone is strong enough to cause an audible "beating" sound. The wolf tone often occurs with the note G♯ on the bass.
In orchestra, instruments tune to an A played by the oboist. Due to the multiple octaves between the oboist's tuning A and the open A string on the bass (for example, in an orchestra that tunes to 440 Hz, the oboist plays an A at 440 Hz and the open A of the bass is 55 Hz) it can be difficult to tune the bass by ear during the short period that the oboist plays the tuning note. Violinists, on the other hand, tune their A string to the same frequency as the oboist's tuning note. To ensure the bass is in tune, some bassists use an electronic tuner that indicates pitch on a small display. Bassists who play in styles that use a bass amp, such as blues, rockabilly, or jazz, may use a stompbox-format electronic tuner, which mutes the bass pickup during tuning.
A double bass stand is used to hold the instrument in place and raise it a few inches off the ground. A wide variety of stands are available, and there is no one common design.
Use in jazz
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, the upright bass gradually replaced these wind instruments around the 1920s. Many early bassists doubled on both the brass bass (tuba) and string bass, as the instruments were then often referred to. Bassists played improvised "walking" bass lines—scale- and arpeggio-based lines that outlined the chord progression.
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 to produce a rhythmic "slap" sound against the fingerboard. The slap style cuts through the sound of a band better than simply plucking the strings, and made the bass more easily heard on early sound recordings, as the recording equipment of that time did not favor low frequencies. For more about the slap style, see Modern playing styles, below.
Jazz bass players are expected to improvise an accompaniment line or solo for a given chord progression. They are also expected to know the rhythmic patterns that are appropriate for different styles (e.g., Afro-Cuban). Bassists playing in a big band must also be able to read written-out bass lines, as some arrangements have written bass parts.
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.
A number of other bassists, such as Ray Brown, Slam Stewart and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, were central to the history of jazz. Stewart, who was popular with the beboppers, played his solos with a bow combined with octave humming. Notably, Charles Mingus was a highly regarded composer as well as a bassist noted for his technical virtuosity and powerful sound. Scott LaFaro influenced a generation of musicians by liberating the bass from contrapuntal "walking" behind soloists instead favoring interactive, conversational melodies. Since the commercial availability of bass amplifiers in the 1950s, jazz bassists have used amplification to augment the natural volume of the instrument.
While the electric bass guitar was used intermittently in jazz as early as 1951, beginning in the 1970s bassist Bob Cranshaw, playing with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and fusion pioneers Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke began to commonly substitute the bass guitar 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.
Demonstrative examples of the sound of a solo double bass and its technical use in jazz can be heard on the solo recordings Emerald Tears (1978) by Dave Holland or Emergence (1986) by Miroslav Vitous. Holland also recorded an album with the representative title Music from Two Basses (1971) on which he plays with Barre Phillips while he sometimes switches to cello.
Use in bluegrass and country
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 or 3
4 time. The Engelhardt-Link (formerly Kay) brands of plywood laminate basses have long been popular choices for bluegrass bassists. Most bluegrass bassists use the 3⁄4 size bass, but the full-size and 5⁄8 size basses are also used.
Early pre-bluegrass traditional music was often accompanied by the cello. The cellist Natalie Haas points out that in the US, you can find "...old photographs, and even old recordings, of American string bands with cello." However, "The cello dropped out of sight in folk music, and became associated with the orchestra." The cello did not reappear in bluegrass until the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. 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.
Common rhythms in bluegrass bass playing involve (with some exceptions) plucking on beats 1 and 3 in 4
4 time; beats 1 and 2 in 2
4 time, and on the downbeat in 3
4 time (waltz time). 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 early bluegrass bassist to rise to prominence was Howard Watts (also known as Cedric Rainwater), who played with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys beginning in 1944. The classical bassist Edgar Meyer has frequently branched out into newgrass, old-time, jazz, and other genres. "My all-time favorite is Todd Phillips," proclaimed Union Station bassist Barry Bales in April 2005. "He brought a completely different way of thinking about and playing bluegrass.
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.
Slap-style bass is sometimes used in bluegrass bass playing. When bluegrass bass players slap the string by pulling it until it hits the fingerboard or hit the strings against the fingerboard, it adds the high-pitched percussive "clack" or "slap" sound to the low-pitched bass notes, sounding much like the clacks of a tap dancer. Slapping is a subject of minor controversy in the bluegrass scene. Even slapping experts such as Mike Bub say, "Don't slap on every gig," or in songs where it is not appropriate. As well, bluegrass bassists who play slap-style on live shows often slap less on records. Bub and his mentor Jerry McCoury rarely do slap bass on recordings. While bassists such as Jack Cook slap bass on the occasional faster "Clinch Mountain Boys song," bassists such as Gene Libbea, Missy Raines, Jenny Keel, and Barry Bales [rarely] slap bass.
Bluegrass bassist Mark Schatz, who teaches slap bass in his Intermediate Bluegrass Bass DVD acknowledges that slap bass "...has not been stylistically very predominant in the music I have recorded." He notes that "Even in traditional bluegrass slap bass only appears sporadically and most of what I've done has been on the more contemporary side of that (Tony Rice, Tim O'Brien)." Schatz states that he would be "... more likely to use it [slap] in a live situation than on a recording—for a solo or to punctuate a particular place in a song or tune where I wouldn't be obliterating someone's solo." Another bluegrass method, Learn to Play Bluegrass Bass, by Earl Gately, also teaches bluegrass slap bass technique. German bassist Didi Beck plays rapid triplet slaps, as demonstrated in this video.
Use in popular music
In the early 1950s, the upright bass was the standard bass instrument in the emerging style of rock and roll music, Marshall Lytle of Bill Haley & His Comets being but one example. In the 1940s, a new style of dance music called rhythm and blues developed, incorporating elements of the earlier styles of blues and swing. Louis Jordan, the first innovator of this style, featured an upright bass in his group, the Tympany Five.
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. They were forced to compete with louder horn instruments (and later amplified electric guitars), making bass parts difficult to hear. The upright bass is difficult to amplify in loud concert venue settings, because it can be prone to feedback howls. As well, the upright bass is large and awkward to transport, which also created transportation problems for touring bands. In some groups, the slap bass was utilized as band percussion in lieu of a drummer; such was the case with Bill Haley & His Saddlemen (the forerunner group to the Comets), which did not use drummers on recordings and live performances until late 1952; prior to this the slap bass was relied on for percussion, including on recordings such as Haley's versions of "Rock the Joint" and "Rocket 88".
In 1951, Leo Fender released his Precision Bass, the first commercially successful electric bass guitar. The electric bass was easily amplified with its built-in magnetic pickups, easily portable (less than a foot longer than an electric guitar), and easier to play in tune than an upright bass, thanks to the metal frets. In the 1960s and 1970s bands were playing at louder volumes and performing in larger venues. The electric bass was able to provide the huge, highly amplified stadium-filling bass tone that the pop and rock music of this era demanded, and the upright bass receded from the limelight of the popular music scene.
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