The double bass: a comprehensive guide to the orchestra's largest string instrument, including how it differs to the cello
Used in multiple musical settings, the versatile double bass is the largest and lowest pitched bowed stringed instrument, writes Charlotte Smith
What is a double bass?
The double bass, or contrabass as it is sometimes known, is the largest and lowest pitched bowed stringed instrument in a modern classical symphony orchestra. Together with violins, violas and cellos, the double bass is part of the string section and supports the orchestra with its warm, deep tone - but is also a popular instrument in jazz, blues, rock and roll, country, bluegrass, tango and folk music.
Like its smaller cousin, the cello, the bass generally has four strings, which can be played with a bow or plucked. However, the bass is the only stringed instrument tuned in fourths rather than fifths, with strings usually tuned (from the bottom up) to E, A, D and G.
Traditionally used in ensemble settings, today the bass can equally be viewed as a solo instrument, as standards of playing have improved in recent decades, matched by more ergonomic instrument designs.
What does the double bass look like?
A full-size bass stands at around six feet (180cm), though smaller instruments can be made to accommodate the player’s stature and hand size. It is typically made from several pieces of wood, including an ebony fingerboard. Like the violin and cello, the bass has a wooden, carved bridge to support the strings, two f-holes, a tailpiece, an ornamental scroll and pegbox, and an internal soundpost, which transmits the vibrations from the top of the instrument to the hollow body.
Despite being a member of the modern violin family, the bass also has characteristics of the older viol family (bowed, fretted, stringed instruments), including sloped shoulders, which allow the performer to reach further down the fingerboard to play notes in the higher register.
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Double bass bows come in two forms. The ‘French’ bow is similar in design to the cello bow and is held with an ‘overhand’ position, while the ‘German’ bow tends to be broader and shorter, and is held in a ‘hand shake’ position.
Rinat Ibragimov, former principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra, performs Bach's Third Cello Suite arranged for bass
What is the difference between a cello and a double bass?
At around six feet tall, the double bass is larger than the cello, which stands at around five feet. While both instruments generally have four strings, cello strings are tuned in fifths and double bass strings are tuned in fourths. The bass also has a deeper sound, with a range one octave lower than the cello. While both instruments are typically made from wood, and feature a bridge to support the strings, two f-holes, a scroll, pegbox, tailpiece, ebony fingerboard and an internal soundpost, the double bass often features sloped rather than rounded shoulders. Cellists generally play their instrument while seated in a standard chair whereas the double bass is played either standing up, or seated on a high stool.
How is the double bass played?
The player stands or sits on a high stool, and leans the instrument against their body, turned slightly inward to enable them to better reach the strings.
The double bass is most often played with a bow or by plucking the strings with the right hand. Classical bass students learn very similar bowing styles to those used by the rest of the violin family, including legato, staccato, spiccato and détaché. Bass players also use vibrato, a rocking left-hand technique designed to add warmth and expression to the tone.
In jazz, blues and folk settings, the bass is mostly plucked, using a variety of different, sometimes complicated, pizzicato techniques.
When was the double bass invented?
The bass is generally thought to be descended from European stringed instruments of the 15th century. Many older basses had only three strings, rather than four or five. The instrument’s lineage, though, is still a matter of debate – while some scholars believe it is a direct descendent of the viol family, others believe it originated from the violin family.
Why is it called the double bass?
The names 'contrabass' and 'double bass' describe the instrument’s range – one octave lower than the cello, so a ‘doubling’ of the cello range. In classical settings the double bass can also be called ‘string bass’ to differentiate it from lower brass and wind instruments, or simply ‘the bass’.
In genres outside classical music, the bass is sometimes called the ‘upright bass’, ‘standup bass’ or ‘acoustic bass’ to distinguish it from the bass guitar. In folk and bluegrass music, the instrument is also referred to as a ‘bass fiddle’ or ‘bass violin’.
Photo: Jazz musician Caris Hermes with her double bass
Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.