The double bass (or contrabass) is the lowest-pitched member of the string section, as well as being one of the tallest and bulkiest of all instruments (at over 6 feet in height). Occasionally, you may see a double bassist carting this enormous instrument, complete with stool, onto a train. If, as a child, you made the decision to play a smaller instrument like a flute or violin, you may feel a wave of relief at this sight. You may also ponder the many investments that double bassists have to make, such as an estate car, appointments with chiropractors and other back specialists, as well as having to arrive early to find a parking spot near the concert hall. . .
I’m a recent convert to the mellow and woody sound of a well-played double bass. It is something that really adds an extra dimension to a string orchestra. The range of the instrument is wide, with the upper two strings being within the compass of a cello (the strings are tuned in fourths, with a top G string, then a D, A and finally a bottom E string). It is often the lower range though, that makes the biggest difference to the sonority of a string orchestra, providing a weight and tonal anchor that completes the broad spectrum of sound. It is not always compatible within the confines of a rock or pop track though, as the bass guitar often inhabits the same territory. If you are looking for strings to complete an already full track, then maybe it is best to concentrate on the upper strings (violins and violas) to give that extra blanket of sound, or add a high counter melody. If however, you have a more orchestral sound in mind (with less percussion and guitars) then the double bass can really ‘fill out’ the sound brilliantly. There’s nothing like that low resonance to send a shiver down your spine (particularly when blended with other instruments in a similar range, like the contrabassoon or bass tuba).
In the twentieth century, the double bass came into its own right, as an essential member of the smaller jazz ensembles. In this capacity, the instrument is often played almost continuously to give a running bass line, in a similar way to the continuo player of baroque times. The jazz double bassist spends the majority of his or her time plucking the strings (pizzicato) and occasionally surprises the audience by bowing some passages of music. There is however, scope for double bass solos and many eminent virtuosos of the past (including the wonderfully named Bottesini and Dragonetti) have written concertos for the instrument.
The double bass is not the easiest of instruments to play, due to the large gaps between semitones. This makes the constant change of left hand position a necessity, and an adept player will have developed a very fluid left hand which facilitates this constant movement up and down the neck of the instrument.
The bowing technique of many bassists also differs from the rest of the string family. This is due to the two different designs of bow, one from Germany and the other from France. The German bow is the oldest and necessitates a hold with the palm of the right hand angled upwards (just like the hold of a viol player). The French bow more closely resembles the bows of cellos, violas and violins and is held with the palm facing towards the instrument. As in all walks of life, there are those who propound the virtues of one above the other to the extent of creating factions. Many a lively double bass discussion in a pub after a concert has revolved around these two ways of holding the bow (do you favour a pint or half a litre?)…However, most orchestral double bassists these days are adept enough to use both bows and proficient enough to render the advantages or disadvantages of one type over the other as rather miniscule!
A lot of players nowadays have an extension, which permits the playing of a low D (and sometimes even a low C) at the bottom of the range. Many twentieth century composers have exploited this bottom register, but it may be worth asking an individual session musician about this when scoring parts for the instrument and booking a player!