Thomann's Cool Online Guides: Double Basses

2. History & Design

The double bass is the largest and lowest pitched instrument in the string, or ‘violin’ family, a group of four closely related instruments - the violin, the viola, the ‘cello (short for violoncello, hence the apostrophe) and the double bass. It is also known as the string bass or the contrabass though, for simplicity, we will refer to it as the ‘bass’ for the rest of this guide. Its most striking characteristic is its sheer size - in the line-up of a standard symphony orchestra, it is pretty much the only instrument that is larger than its operator!

The design and dimensions of the other members of the violin family have become largely standardised over the years – not so the bass, which stands apart from its siblings in a number of ways. For a start, there is considerable variety in the shape of basses – some of them have completely flat backs, while others are more curved in the manner of violins and ‘cellos. In addition, it is not uncommon to see basses with the top of the back angled forward to make them easier to play – given the vast depth of the instrument’s body, anything that allows the players to get closer to the strings and fingerboard is no bad thing. Another major area of variation is the shape of the shoulders - though there are basses with high shoulders along the lines of the rest of the string family, many have shoulders with a pronounced slope which, again, make the instrument rather easier to Play.


Basses also vary in size. Though many modern examples are known as ¾ size and generally tend to be a little smaller than their seventeenth and eighteenth century predecessors, there is no real standard size, and there are even accounts of a thirteen foot bass built as late the middle of the nineteenth century – it needed two musicians to play it!

The strings themselves are another area that can vary from bass to bass. While the rest of the violin family all have four strings each, there are basses around with anything from three strings to six. Admittedly, most have four, but there is no real ‘norm’. The bass is also the only instrument in the ‘family’ to tune each of its strings a ‘fourth’ (four notes) apart - violins, violas and ‘cellos all tune their strings a ‘fifth’ (five notes) apart.

Despite its size, the bass is not a loud instrument, in fact many people are surprised just how gently voiced it is when heard in isolation. Consequently, it is not uncommon to see twelve or more basses in a full symphony orchestra, particularly for larger scale Romantic repertoire. It is generally accepted that the violin and ‘cello are proportionally very similar in terms of the ratio between their size and pitch. The viola and bass by comparison though, would both need to be un-playably large to maintain this ratio. However, far from being a fault, this is what gives them their gentle, mellow character.

In terms of repertoire, the bass has tended to be left rather on the back burner in the field of classical music. Until the end of the Eighteenth Century, no-one really considered it a melodic instrument until two Italians changed all that: Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini - who between them straddled most of the nineteenth century - were the first real bass virtuosi, and they forced both composers and audiences to re-assess the instrument. All the subsequent bass solo repertoire stems from the sea-change brought about by these two men. Even so, most of this repertoire is still relatively unknown to the modern concert-hall audience. However, if we move into the world of jazz and blues, the tables are comprehensively turned. Here, the bass is an absolute essential – the only string instrument to make it into the standard line-up. In this field, it tends to be plucked ‘pizzicato’, rather than bowed, as this enables the instrument to be heard better, and also gives it a more percussive sound which drives the music along in partnership with the drums. Consequently, a whole repertoire of pizzicato styles has grown up in this genre, which has also given the bass much more of a solo spotlight alongside its traditional bass-line duties.

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Double Basses overview

Line6 Helix HX Effects Epiphone Joe Bonamassa 1958 "Amos" Zoom F1-LP Focusrite Clarett 8Pre USB Warm Audio WA73-EQ Yamaha DXS15 MKII Bose QC 35 II Wireless BK Fender SQ Jaguar Special SS IL CAR Palmer PWT 12 MK 2 Fender Squier Mini Strat V2 TR IL Zoom F1-SP Mackie Bag Thump12 A/BST
Line6 Helix HX Effects

Multi effect pedal More than 100 HX effects, Of which up to 9 effects can be used simultaneously, Import of own Impulse Responses (IRS), Parallel stereo signal paths, Inputs can be switched between line / instrument level, Two assignable...

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Epiphone Joe Bonamassa 1958 "Amos"

Electric Guitar Joe Bonamassa model, Body and neck: Korina, Fretboard: Certified blackwood, Neck profile: 1958 Rounded C, 22 Medium jumbo frets, Pickups: Epiphone Probucker 2 (neck) and Epiphone Probucker 3 (bridge), Lock Tone ABR-1 Tuneomatic bridge, Including case, certificate,...

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Zoom F1-LP

Field Recorder and Lavalier Microphone Set Two-channel audio recorder, Compatible with zoom microphone capsules, Supports WAV formats up to 24bit / 96kHz or MP3 formats on microSD / microSDHC card (up to 32GB), USB audio interface for PC and...

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Focusrite Clarett 8Pre USB

USB 2.0 audio interface 24-bit / 192 kHz, 18 inputs and 20 outputs, 8 Clarett mic preamps with Air mode model and the classic ISA mic preamp sound, Low noise (-128dB ON), Up to 118 dB dynamic range, Switchable...

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Warm Audio WA73-EQ

Warm Audio WA73-EQ; 1-channel Mic-Preamp; British 1073-style; fully discrete Class A; Carnhill Transformers; 80dB of Gain (stepped gain switch); Tone Button (changes input transformer impedance); Polarity switch; +48v phantom power; Inductor based 3 band EQ: Low Band Boost/Cut (35, 60,...

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Yamaha DXS15 MKII

Active Subwoofer Equipped with: 1x 15" woofer, 1020 Watt Class-D power amp, Frequency range: 40 - 150 Hz, Maximum output level: 135 dB, Black plywood housing with speaker grille that protects entire front and the front edges, XLR inputs/outputs,...

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Bose QC 35 II Wireless BK

Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II Wireless Black Noise Cancelling headphone - Acoustic Noise Cancelling, around-ear design, swiveling ear cups, volume optimized EQ, Google Assistant, up to 20 h running time, includes audio cable, USB charging cable and etui, colour: black

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Fender SQ Jaguar Special SS IL CAR

Electric Bass Body: Agathis, Neck: Maple, Fretboard: Indian Laurel (Laurel), Neck profile: C, 20 Frets, Scale: 762 mm (30"/ Short Scale), Nut width 38 mm, Pickups: 1 J-Style and 1 Split single coil, Black 3-ply pickguard, Colour: Candy Apple...

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Palmer PWT 12 MK 2

Multi power supply for effect pedals 4 Outputs - adjustable from 9 to 18V, 2 Can be interconnected with the supplied Y-cable and deliver up to 36 V output voltage, The maximum capacity of the 9 V outputs is...

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Fender Squier Mini Strat V2 TR IL

Fender Squier Mini Stratocaster V2 TR IL e-guitar, mini stratocaster, scale 578mm, nut width 40,6mm, poplar body, maple neck, indian laurel fretboard, 20 medium frets, 3x standard single coil pickups, vintage style bridge, 5 way switch, finish torino red,

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Zoom F1-SP

Field Recorder and Shotgun Microphone Two-channel audio recorder, Compatible with zoom microphone capsules, Supports WAV formats up to 24bit / 96kHz or MP3 formats on microSD / microSDHC card (up to 32GB), USB audio interface for PC and Mac...

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Mackie Bag Thump12 A/BST

Speaker Bag Bag for Thump 12 A and Thump 12 BST, Protects against rain and dirt, Outer fabric: Coated polyester fabric, Inside lined with foam, Robust zip fastener, Cable bag with hook-and-loop fastener on the outside, Two comfortable straps...

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