The violin family’s largest bowed string instrument is the double bass. It includes four (or less commonly five) strings tuned in 4ths. It sounds an octave lower than its smaller orchestral partner, the cello. The double bass is best known for its contribution to the orchestra in western repertoire. It provides not only strength and weight but also fundamental rhythmic structure.

Although less common than other instruments, a surprisingly large repertoire, including over two hundred concertos, exists for the double bass. It’s usually played in pizzicato and is an essential member of jazz and dance bands. Military and concert bands in some countries use it as well.

Double bass history

The double bass history begins simultaneously and in the same place as that of other bowed instruments: in northern Italy, about five centuries ago. A somewhat confusing array of different construction, sizes, and tunings through time riddle the story.

Instruments of similar size and appearance were first depicted in the early 16th century. All these early portrayals show one single large bass instrument in a viola da braccio family ensemble. Often, a trombone or another brass instrument supported it.

The double bass hadn’t found its place in the orchestra until around 1700. The men responsible for this were Giuseppe Aldovrandini (1673–1707), and Marin Marais (1656–1728). Construction modeled to the cello proved to be the most suitable as the instrument’s construction developed.

Most double-basses had three strings by the mid-18th century, and it stayed this way until just before the end of the 19th century. Then, an additional string was added, and the sound became more mellow, smoother, and weaker. It’s range in the lower register, however, was larger (down to E1). For the performance of 20th-century pieces, five-stringed double-basses had already become common. The five-stringed double bass has the advantage of a range that goes as down as B0. This note has proven necessary in certain repertoire.

Materials and construction

The fingerboard is curved, for the same reason the bridge is curved. A bassist would not be able to bow the inner two strings individually were it not for this reason. Because of the curved bridge and curved fingerboard, the bassist can align the bow with any of the four strings and play them individually.

Unlike the violin and viola, but similar to the cello, the bass fingerboard flattens out underneath the E string (the C string on a cello). Performers can’t adjust the fingerboards on the vast majority of double basses. Any adjustments must be made by a luthier. A very small number of expensive basses for professionals have adjustable fingerboards. In these, a screw mechanism raises or lowers its height. 

Double bass construction uses diverse materials. The type used by professional orchestra bassists and soloists has maple for the back, neck, and ribs, spruce for the top, and ebony for the fingerboard, and tailpiece. The tailpiece construction may also use other types of wood or non-wooden materials.