Recording Studio: the History of the Double Bass I

Recording Studio: Research into the evolution of the double bass reveals a tangled web of several hundredyears of changes in design and fashion in the dimensions of the instrument and consequently in its stringing and tuning.
The picture is further complicated by the simultaneous use during any one period of different forms of bass in different countries.The earliest known illustration of a double bass type of instrument dates from 1516 but in1493 Prospero wrote of ‘viols as big as myself.’ Planyavsky (1970) pointed out that it is more important to look for an early double bass tuning rather than for any particular instrument by shape or name. A deep (double- or contra-) bass voice is first found among the viols.

Recording Studio: Early Double Bass

There existed simultaneously two methods of tuning – one using 4ths alone, the other using a combination of 3rds and 4ths (’3rd-4th’ tuning). Agricola wrote of the contra-bassodi viola as being the deepest voice available. He was referring to an instrument comparable with that made by Hanns Vogel in 1563 and now in the Germanisches National museum, Nuremberg. This ornately and beautifully decorated bass is fitted with gutfrets like other viols and tuned G’-C-F-A-d-g. This high ’3rd-4th’ tuning was given by Praetorius (Syntagma musicum, 2/1619) for a six-string violone (a name also confusingly used in the 16th century to denote the bass of the viol family). He listed several other tunings, both high and low, for five- and six-string violoni. Most interesting of all is the low tuning D’-E’-A’-D-G, only one step removed from the modernE’-A’-D’-G instrument. Orlando Gibbons scored for the ‘great dooble base’ in two violfantasias. Whether a low ’3rd-4th’ tuning was used or a higher one cannot be certain.

Recording Studio: How many Strings?

Some fine basses, many of which were probably converted from their original form in to three- or later four-string instruments, date from the late 16th century and early 17th. Anotable three-string bass, originally built as such, is that by Gasparo da Salò, owned byDragonetti and now in the museum of St. Mark’s, Venice. A beautiful six-string violone ofmuch lighter construction by Da Salò’s apprentice Giovanni Paolo Maggini is in theHorniman Museum, London. This is of violin shape, with a flat back, and makes interestingcomparison with the viol shaped violone by Ventura Linarol (Padua, 1585) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.