Get to Know the Double Bass

The double bass plays an important role in more music than you might think. Styles like jazz would be unthinkable without the double bass, but this plucky and versatile instrument even appears in a lot of pop music, bringing a unique, deep-diving sound that’s entirely its own.

Get to Know the Double Bass
Photo: Gerard Burgers

The Origin of the Double Bass

The double bass, which is sometimes also called the upright bass, is a part of the string instrument family. But this is no oversized violin or cello – even though it has a lot of the same characteristics. The double bass actually stems from the viola and viol side of the family, which is reflected in the body shape, characterised by the ‘hanging shoulders’ – a classic trait of the viol family (see the image below) but not something to be seen in the violin family. Another striking difference is the tuning. Instruments that form part of the violin family are tuned in fifths (steps of five notes between each string), while the instruments included in the viol family (including the double bass) are tuned in fourths (steps of four notes between each string). From low to high, the double bass is tuned in E, A, D and G, which is the same standard tuning as an electric bass guitar, which is logical, since the bass guitar is essentially the grandchild of the double bass.

As jazz orchestras (especially big bands) started to get even bigger during the Second World War, unamplified upright bassists had a tough time trying to gain enough volume to compete with the fast-growing brass section. While you could mike-up a double bass to amplify it, it often resulted in a lot of problems with feedback. The first electric bass guitar was invented to solve exactly this problem.

In 1951, Leo Fender designed the Precision Bass, which is still built to this day and is considered the grandmother of all electric basses, and which went on to help shape early pop and rock. It is true that, using the technology on offer today, you can easily amplify a double bass and make it sound great, however, the bass guitar is still far more compact and easy to lug around than a big and hefty upright bass – which Leo Fender used to refer to as a ‘doghouse’ of an instrument.

Get to Know the Double Bass
Photo: Gerard Burgers

Swing & Walking Bass

Michael Bürger, bassist and double bassist, started his bass-based career at a young age and quickly fell head over heels for the double bass. “My love for the double bass grew alongside my love for jazz. Of course, you can play jazz with a bass guitar, but when it comes to swing, the double bass is simply the better tool. In swing, you have the walking bass which just sounds delicious on an upright.”

While the upright bass is often bowed in classical music, when playing a walking bass line the strings are plucked. This is called pizzicato. “That’s what gives the sound some wallop, which you can’t produce with a bow,” comments Michael. When blues emerged and jazz followed quickly after, the double bass was the obvious candidate when it came to filling out the low end. The double bass has a sound that’s entirely its own: “The tone is almost more resilient than the sound of a bass guitar,” explains Michael. “That’s probably because the tone is still building up as you hear it. The response of a bass guitar is a lot faster, so the notes are more immediate. But when you’re playing a double bass, you really need to pay attention to your timing because the response is slower.” Also, there’s the fact that double basses have no frets as a rule, so you can easily slide from one note to the next and create a certain effect that you can only partially mimic with a fretless bass guitar.

Get to Know the Double Bass


Playing any bass without frets takes a lot of practice, good technique and an even better ear. With no frets, it’s your fingers that adjust the length of the string and therefore dictate the note, meaning that it’s the bassist who intonates the strings by pressing them against the fingerboard at precisely the right spot to ensure the perfect pitch. “This is exactly why it’s also worth learning to play with a bow,” advises Michael. “It’s far easier to tell if a note is in tune or not when it’s bowed. When you’re plucking the strings, it gets harder to tell if your intonation is on point.”

“Playing the upright bass is definitely harder than playing a bass guitar,” admits Michael, who plays both. “This is because the double bass gives you no visual clues about where you need to put your fingers so, weirdly, the rule of thumb is to just let go and not look at all. By playing blind and not looking at the fingerboard, you can focus on your tuning.” However, you can’t use the same slap techniques that you can with a bass guitar. Rockabilly bassists do use a playing technique that looks really similar to slap bass, but they’re actually ‘hitting’ the strings. “You can get some brilliant drive out of the instrument using this technique,” says Michael. “Lee Rocker from The Stray Cats is a master of this technique.”

Affordable Beginnings

Deciding to pick up the double bass is, undeniably, an artistic choice simply because its distinct sound fits better in certain styles of music or the vibe and atmosphere of a certain song demands the singular sound of a double bass. But if the price is likely to dictate your decision, then a bass guitar can be a cheaper option. For a little cash, you can even pick up a complete starter pack. But if you really want to go for a double bass, then things get a bit more expensive. “But that shouldn’t stop you from starting to play. You could always hire an upright bass rather than buying,” says Michael. “And, if you really get into it, then you can often buy your rental double bass at a discount.”

“Picking the right double bass is particularly important for children,” advises Michael. “Since they need an instrument that’s going to grow with them. I recommend starting to learn from around seven years old and up and going with a ⅛-sized double bass before making the step up to a ¼-sized model, then a ½-sized model, a ¾-sized model and finally a full-sized upright. To be honest, most double bassists don’t even make that last step up, because the ¾-sized double bass is actually the most comfortable for most people. It’s also worth noting that double bass strings are a bit more expensive than bass guitar strings, but they do last a long time.” The double bass is also a pretty big instrument. “Yeah, you will need access to a couple of things before you can really commit to playing the double bass,” Michael concedes. “However, my double bass fits in almost any car. Even my first Volkswagen Beetle.”

Get to Know the Double Bass

Good to Know

Amplifying the Double Bass

Amplifying a double bass with a microphone raises the risk of feedback, which was exactly the problem that double bassists came up against in the 1950s. But, thanks to current sound tech, you can easily amplify a double bass and gain great live stage sound. The key is to use a piezo pickup, which can simply be mounted on the bridge. Micheal uses a Fishman Full Circle (see the image below) and is more than satisfied with the performance, however, some double bassists swear by a piezo pickup and microphone combo.

Get to Know the Double Bass
Photo: Gerard Burgers

Strings & Bows

There are plenty of different types of strings to choose from for double basses. You can get strings with a nylon core or steel strings with a steel core. Strings that feature a steel core are ideal for plucking techniques, while strings with a nylon core are better for bowed techniques. Then, you get the pick of two different types of bow: the French bow and the German bow. The French bow (on the left in the image below) has the same design as violin and cello bows and is played overhand. The German bow (seen on the right in the image below) has a larger frog (handle) and is played underhand.

Get to Know the Double Bass
Photo: Gerard Burgers

The Double Bass Greats

The world has seen countless legends when it comes to the double bass, but to narrow things down a bit for us, Michael Bürger has made his own list of the names that he considers ‘required reading’:

In early blues you have Willie Dixon, who added essential depth to the sound of B.B. King and also composed some well-known songs of his own. Then you have the unmissable jazz standards: Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, George Duvivier, Ray Brown, the virtuoso Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Avishai Cohen and Esperanza Spalding. In rockabilly, you have Lee Rockker from the Stray Cats and, when it comes to jazz rock electric upright bass, we have Eberhard Weber. Classical double bass players of note include Gary Karr and Bertram Turetzky, and Renaud Garcia Fons has made a big mark on world music.

See also…

» Double Basses
» Electric Double Basses
» Double Bass Bows
» Double Bass Stands
» Double Bass Strings
» Double Bass Microphones
» Double Bass Pickups
» Double Bass Bags & Cases
» Double Bass Maintenance Gear
» Fretless Bass Guitars
» All Bass Guitars & Accessories
» Hire Musical Instruments

» Top 10 Songs With A Smashing Bass Intro
» How do I become a bassist?
» What is the best bass guitar for me?

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