Recording Studio: Double Bass

The recording studio 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.

Recording Studio: Origins of the Double Bass

Forerunners of today’s recording studio double bass, which arose in Germany at the end of the 16th century originated in the family of the violas da gamba. 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 in the recording studio. 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 recording studio 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.