double bass

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double bass
engl .:  double bass , ital .:  contrabbasso
classification Chordophone
string instrument
range Range contrabass.png
Template: Infobox musical instrument / maintenance / sound sample parameters missing Related instruments

Violin , viola , cello , viola da gamba , violone , electric bass

List of double bass players
Category: Double bass player
double bass

The double bass (Italian contrabasso ) is the deepest and largest string instrument in use . It has a wide range of uses, from modern symphony orchestras to jazz to original rock 'n' roll and rockabilly . A normal double bass has four strings . In the symphony orchestra, instruments with five strings are also used to expand the range downwards.

The double bass is often referred to simply as the bass , also popularly known as the bass violin . The name double bass is derived from the double octave , the tones of which can be generated with the instrument.


Since the double bass has the structural characteristics of both the violins and the viols , there is disagreement about family membership. The F-shaped sound holes ( F-holes ), the number of strings, the snail at the end of the pegbox and the fretless fingerboard speak for the violin family . The mostly sloping shoulders and the string tuning in quart intervals speak in favor of the viol family. There are double basses with a curved violin back and those with a flat viol back that is bent at the top. Italian models correspond more closely to the violin shape.

The tuning pegs , which are metallic worm gears in the double bass, are a special structural feature , see tuning mechanism .

The double bass is constructed with different lengths that are tailored to the height of the player. For children and young people there is the eighth, quarter or half bass with lengths of around 80, 90 or 97 cm. The three-quarter bass with a scale length of 104–106 cm is most widespread today for adults. In the orchestra you can also find the 4/4 bass with a length over 107 (to 110) cm.

Strings and tuning

Detail picture of the bridge and the strings

The four strings of today's double bass are mostly tuned in fourths ('E -, A - D - G). Since the instrument lacks four notes up to the Contra-C below the E string, which are often used in the symphony orchestra, double basses with a fifth string are also used there, which is tuned to Contra-C (in Germany also subcontra-B).

As an alternative to the five-string, instruments with an extension mechanism are also used in the USA and Canada: Using a lever mechanism, the vibrating part of the E-string can be extended into the pegbox in order to generate tones up to Contra-C ("C machine ").

Especially music from the later Romantic period (Wagner etc.) occasionally calls for tones below E, which can be generated by the scordature of the fourth string, later also with a five-string or on an instrument with the extension described above. In other music, such as B. Jazz or Pop, the double bass (like the electric bass) does not normally go lower than the 'E' and therefore does not need a five-string.

For playing the double bass solo , the solo tuning is often required: In this case, each string is tuned a whole tone higher than the orchestral tuning (, E -, A - D - G) (, F sharp -, B - E - A), which is one result in a brighter sound.

In the USA and Canada, a steadily growing group of double bass players is campaigning for the revival of the historic fifths tuning ('C -' G - D - A), which would make the lever mechanism superfluous. However, this also required a completely different fingering technique in the left hand, as this is too small to be able to grasp all notes (analogous to the cello) without changing the hand position (see “left hand” below). The fifth tuning with the outer strings A and C would not only expand the pitch range of a four-string up and down, but the solo tuning would probably also become dispensable with the high A string . A controversial topic is the use of fifths tuning to improve overtone behavior, a more even volume distribution in all registers and a more sensible mix of tones in the strings.

The string manufacturers offer suitable strings for the different tunings and for the extension mechanism. Most strings are steel strings (steel cables), but gut and plastic strings are also available. The core of the string is wound with a fine metal wire. The material of the wrapping is often chrome steel , but it can also, for. B. made of silver-plated copper or silver .

To avoid too many auxiliary lines, double bass parts, as is the case with the double bassoon , for example, are notated an octave above the actual sound. The double bass is thus a transposing instrument . The notation of a c (small c) means C (capital C). It is generally considered superfluous to specifically point out this fact in scores, for example in a preliminary remark or by placing an 8 under the bass clef .


Today's double bass had numerous predecessors with different names. One of them was the violone , whose family affiliation is just as unclear as that of the double bass, as it existed both as a "bass violin" (four-string, without frets, violin shape) and as a "bass viol" (five or six-string, with frets, viol shape) .

When Michael Praetorius found in Syntagma Musicum both a (1619) Contra Basso da gamba and a contra-bass fiddle . Both instruments have frets . In his experiment (1752) Johann Joachim Quantz also recommends frets for the contraviolon in order to promote the clarity of the tone.

In the time of the Viennese classical music , a five-string double bass with frets was common, with the tuning 'F -' A - D - F sharp - A ("third-fourth tuning" or "Viennese tuning"). Around forty solo concerts and an extensive repertoire of chamber music were written for the double bass tuned in this way (more on this below under "Repertoire").

Playing technique


Umberto Buldrini (1879–1942), principal double bass with the New York Philharmonic (1917).

The double bass is played while sitting or standing.

To play while seated, the double bass player needs a high chair or stool. In professional orchestras, ergonomically designed high chairs are available whose seat height and footrests can be individually adjusted. The double bass player sits upright with his left leg bent and right leg stretched out. The double bass leans diagonally with the floor on the inside of the bent leg. The lower leg of the right leg touches the lower frame of the instrument.

When playing while standing, the double bass is adjusted to the size of the musician by means of a height-adjustable stand ("spike") attached to the lower frame and made of a metal tube. The sting is pulled out so far that the upper saddle is approximately at eye level. The player lets the double bass fall slightly against him. The edge of the top frame and bottom rests against the player's hip and the left knee touches the lower part of the bottom.

The disadvantage of playing while standing is the necessary compromise between stability and a healthy posture. If both legs are equally loaded and the knees and hips are loosened, as a natural posture requires, the double bass is unstable. There is a risk that the left hand cannot move completely freely, but is also used to hold the instrument . The music can suffer, especially when playing with the bow . On the other hand, attempts to stabilize the double bass by pinching it between the knees lead to an unnatural posture and can result in serious damage to health.

In areas of light music, where the conspicuous double bass is also used for show effects, musicians sometimes adopt acrobatic postures. Popular with rockabilly double bass players is z. B. surfing, with the musician standing on the inclined instrument like on a surfboard, or riding, with the musician sitting astride the double bass lying on the frame. The instruments are specially prepared and stabilized for such visual tricks. This can damage a normal double bass.

right hand

A bow for playing the double bass (German type)

When playing the arco, the strings are bowed with a bow. Different types of lines are used depending on the character of the music . The bow is held either in the upper grip (Italy, France, England, partly USA, partly Switzerland) or in the lower grip (Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, partly Switzerland), similar to the cello. ( Bow hold )

The arco style of playing is most common in classical music. But jazz double bass players like Jimmy Blanton , Paul Chambers , Slam Stewart and Renaud Garcia-Fons also use the bow in their solos with virtuosity.

Jazz musician ( Robert Landfermann ) playing pizzicato on a five-string double bass

When playing pizzicato , the strings are plucked with your fingers. The pizzicato playing styles in classical and jazz are different. In classical music, the index and middle fingers stand almost vertically on the string, pull them to the side at a 90 ° angle and ideally create a bell-like sound. In jazz the tearing finger is guided almost parallel to the string. Ambient noises are often desirable. Cultivated as “dead notes” (tearing noises without recognizable pitch) and “drops”, they enliven the rhythmic flow of the bass line.

The slap technique developed into a special way of playing the double bass since the 1910s. The strings are torn with the closed fingers to make them bounce back onto the fingerboard. In traditional jazz, the double bass player can achieve a higher volume, and the actually rather dull and round sound gets a percussive element. Since the change from two-beat to four-beat (walking bass) accompaniment, the slap technique no longer plays a role in jazz. However, it was further developed in the field of rock'n'roll, rockabilly and psychobilly and is widespread there.

Left hand

The position of the fingers of the left hand determines the pitch of the bowed or plucked strings.

The most widespread is the fingering system of the so-called Prague School. This goes back to the Prague double bass teacher Wenzel Haus and his student Josef Hrabě . It became popular worldwide through the double bass school of Hrabe's student Franz Simandl , which is why the playing technique is also known as the "Simandl technique". The left hand is in a whole tone tension, i.e. H. There is a large second between the index finger and the little finger and accordingly a small second between the index and middle finger and between the middle and little finger. The ring finger is only used in higher positions and when playing with the thumb attachment. This system is also known as the three-finger technique or 1-2-4 fingering.

As a variant of this, the 1-3-4 fingering, which uses the ring finger instead of the middle finger and leaves out the second finger, is also common in southern European countries.

A predefined hand position is characteristic of these two traditional systems, with which a high stability of the tone is achieved. The whole tone tension is constantly maintained, which results in frequent changes of position and thus technical disadvantages compared to other string instruments.

In order to get by with fewer changes of position, the four-finger technique was developed, which is similar to that used on the violoncello. All fingers grip the string at semitone intervals. In contrast to the hand tension in the Simandl technique, the hand is open and the fingers reach the target point by moving. This technique is older than the Prague School and is seldom played and taught (in Germany: HMT Rostock and UdK Berlin, in the Netherlands: Conservatories Rotterdam and Arnhem, in Canada: Royal Conservatory Toronto, in the USA: American School of Double Bass as well at several universities). The reasons for this lie in the higher technical requirements that a fluid mobility of the hand brings with it. Opponents of the technique cite the higher risk of uncleanliness, especially in faster passages and inconsistent fingerings in the double bass groups of the orchestras when using both playing systems at the same time. In addition, due to the widely spaced semitones, a range is required that many double bass players cannot safely grasp with the little finger. This can make the sound unstable. The four-finger technique is used by Joel Quarrington, Rodion Azarkhin, Michael Barry Wolf , Guy Tuneh , Hans Roelofsen, Silvio Dalla Torre and, in the field of jazz, by Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen .

As with the violoncello, the thumb attachment is used for playing in higher registers.

With vibrato , the left hand is moved slightly up and down, but slower than with the violin, depending on the lower pitch of the double bass, in order to liven up the tone through controlled pitch fluctuations and timbre changes and thus give the music more depth of expression.

Areas of responsibility and repertoire

In the classical string orchestra, the first and second violins (soprano and alto), violas (tenor) and cellos (bass) form a four-part set , the lower part of which is doubled by the double basses in the octave to round off the overall sound - this doubling of the octave makes a significant contribution to the orchestral sound. Usually cellos and double basses are notated together in a single system; It was not until the late Classical and Romantic periods that a separation between cellos and double basses in separate staves became more common.

There are also a number of solo concerts for double bass and orchestra. Such double bass concertos have been composed by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf , Johann Baptist Vanhal and Franz Anton Hoffmeister , among others . Also Joseph Haydn wrote a bass concert, which is not obtained. Double bass virtuosos have composed other concerts for their instrument, including Johann Matthias Sperger , Domenico Dragonetti , Giovanni Bottesini and Sergei Alexandrowitsch Kussewizki .

Most composers of that time preferred the cello to the double bass as a solo instrument, because a cello is much more agile and manoeuvrable and, with its sound richer in overtones, is better suited for solos; In addition, there is a higher degree of intonation security, as fewer changes of position are necessary.

Another exception is jazz, where plucked, solo-like interludes are not uncommon.

The composer Bertold Hummel wrote a Sinfonia piccola op. 66 for eight double basses. There are quartets for four double basses by Hartmut Schmidt and Claus Kühnl, among others .

Special forms


In the 19th century, there was also an attempt in French orchestras with an enlarged design of the double bass (about 3.5 meters high): the three-string octobass , which, however, was only supposed to expand the range by a major third down to the counter C. Tuning Contra C, Contra G, and capital C. The inventor J.-B. Vuillaume is not primarily concerned with an expansion of the tonal range, but with an increase in the volume of the tone. H. Berlioz praised the sound of this instrument and recommended its use in the orchestra. The strings were not pressed down with the fingers, but with levers and pedals. Vuillaume built three instruments of this type.

Electric double bass

A modern variant is the electric double bass (Electric Upright Bass), which has no or only a greatly reduced body. The vibrations of the steel strings are picked up by a pickup , electrically amplified and reproduced by a loudspeaker .


The Berda is a contrabass-like instrument in South Slavic and Hungarian folk music.


  • Didi Beck: Rockabilly Slapbass . Artist ahead, Walldorf 2009, ISBN 3-86642-004-8 .
  • Josef Focht: The Viennese double bass. Playing technique and performance practice, music and instruments . Schneider, Tutzing 1999, ISBN 3-7952-0990-0 .
  • Jonas Lohse: The Double Bass Book . ISBN 978-3-00-060798-1
  • Adolf Meier: Concert music for double bass in the Viennese classical music. 2nd ed., Musikverlag Emil Katzbichler, Munich a. a. 1979, ISBN 3-87397-004-X .
  • Alfred Planyavsky : History of the Double Bass. 2nd edition with the collaboration of Herbert Seifert . Schneider, Tutzing 1984, ISBN 3-7952-0426-7 .
  • Friedrich Warnecke: Ad Infinitum. The double bass. Its history and its future. Problems and their solution for enhancing the double bass playing. Reprint. Edition intervalle, Leipzig 2005, ISBN 3-938601-00-0 .
  • Michael Barry Wolf: Basics of the double bass technique . Schott, Mainz a. a. 2007, ISBN 978-3-7957-8732-5 .

See also

Web links

Commons : Double bass  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Duden online: Bass
  2. Duden online: Bass violin . In addition, there used to be the designation “large bass violin” to distinguish it from the cello , the “small bass violin”.
  3. Solution for C-Extension , numerous illustrations for the "C-Machine"
  4. Technical Info Bass , overview by the manufacturer Pirastro of strings for different tunings and extension mechanisms