The double bass with a scale length of more than one meter is the largest instrument of the violin family. Yet looking at its origin it cannot really be called a family member. Forerunners of today’s double bass, which arose in Germany at the end of the 16th century originated in the family of the violas da gamba (picture left). At first glance violas da gamba resemble violins but they differ in some of their most important features. Gambas are also bowed but are kept between one’s knees while being played. This is why they are also called knee violins. Partly they had frets made of gut strings bound around the neck and the fingerboard. There were a lot of different variants in regard to tuning, string length and the amount of strings. In the course of the centuries they were replaced by the violin, the viola and the cello and are only of historical significance today. Some features of the gambas however have been preserved until today: the sloping shoulders, the flatback and the so-called German bow being held from below. In Italy around 1600 double basses developed which resembled violins in regard to their form. They had a curved bottom and pointed corners at the center (C-) bout typical for violins.
The development of the double bass got an important impulse around 1650 when wound gut strings appeared for the first time. This development made it possible to produce strings with a diameter less extensive than before enabling the player to grip and bow more easily. From now on it was not necessary for the instruments to have such an enormous size in order to produce the desired sound volume. This made the double basses really playable.
While frets were completely disappearing around 1800 it lasted until the twenties of the 20th century until the four string double bass and the E-A-D-G tuning became successful. Until then double basses only had three strings. A lot of older double basses which are still played today were re-equipped from three to four strings. Besides the ordinary standard, the so-called orchestra tuning (E-A-D-G) you can also find the solo tuning today. It is put also up of fourths but a whole tone higher (F#-B-E-A) and is used above all in the field of classical music. Moreover there are some double bass players (Joel Quarrinton, Jazz bassist Red Mitchell and others) who tune their double bass in fifths as it is usual with the cello, violin and viola.
In order to extend the range of the sound some double basses have even five strings – a low B- string or a high c-string. Alternatively there are special fingerboard extensions reaching above the nut helping to extend the vibrating string length (picture left). The tone E is then fingered at the nut. Some of these extensions are equipped with an additional mechanism to finger the strings.
In comparison to other string instruments the double bass appears in a lot of varieties in regard to its shape. Although a lot of luthiers copy well-established shapes and measures developed by old masters the sizes and proportions are less standardised than you can find them with violins and celli. Until today the shapes of the violin and the viola da gamba has been preserved. In addition to this there are variants such as the Busseto shape ore more seldom the shape of the pear or guitar. After the WWII some manufacturers (e.g. German manufacturer Framus, picture below) made double basses with a cutaway in order to make it easier to play in higher positions similar to the jazz guitar.
Independent of the shape of the body double basses have either a flatback deriving from the viola da gamba or a curved back which is typical of the violin. Both have their advantages and disadvantages – but flatbacks are less expensive to make. In regard to bows there are also two shapes which have been established: The German bow which is held from the bottom as it is with the viola da gamba and the French bow which is held from the top as it can be found with the cello.
The standard size which is common today is the 3/4 size. This corresponds to a body length of about 114 cm and of (swinging) string length between 104 cm and 108 cm. Further sizes which are common are besides 4/4 also 7/8, 5/8 and 1/2. A double bass of 1/2 size is however not half as big as a 4/4 double bass but it has a body length of about 96 cm.
Double bass sizes (cm; as found by Henry Strobel)
vibrating string lengths (as found by different string- and doublebassmakers):
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Besides the use of the characteristic wood – spruce for the belly, maple for the rips, neck and back – today new experiments are made with other woods as alternative material. So besides spruce for the belly you can also find cedar and pine being occasionally used, and the ribs and the bottom are sometimes made of wood of poplar and beech.
Again and again experiments with completely different material than wood are made. In the USA of the 1930s double basses were made of aluminium. They were meant for military orchestras and similar occasions. (More about aluminium instruments at www.condino.com/aluminum.html)
In recent times graphite or carbon composite fiber have appeared. Besides fingerboards and bridges you can find meanwhile also complete double basses and bows out of composit material. But only bows made of carbon composite have reached the status above being an odd thing.
Electric Upright Basses
With the appearance of electrical amplified instruments in the 1920s and 1930s the first electrical double basses were produced, commonly called Electric Upright Bass or EUB (picture: a Rickenbacker EUB prototype from 1936, with amp). These double basses merely have a reduced, mostly massive body. This makes them less sensitive in regard to feedback and are also easier to transport. The idea is already older: already in the past centuries there were “mute” double basses or violins without a full sounding body.
With the means of the electronic sound reproduction however musicians as well as the manufacturers of instruments developed new possibilities. For a long time the quality of sound of the EUBs left a great deal to be desired because it took some decades until pickups and double bass amplifiers had matured. Meanwhile there are a lot of manufacturers who produce EUBs as special orders or in small series. While some people only see in a EUB a comfortable alternative to the acoustic double bass easily to be transported, it became for a lot of others a new independent instrument. The various approaches to their construction differ therefore a lot: whereas some EUBs orientate towards an acoustic double bass in regard to its sound and how to play it and are getting very close to it (e.g. the Eminence Portable Upright), other EUBs deliberately tread new paths.