Sydney Recording Studios: During the early 17th century the five-string bass was most commonly used in Austria and Germany. Leopold Mozart referred in the 1787 edition of his Violinschule to having heard concertos, trios and solos played with great beauty on instruments of this kind. The earliest known playing instructions, by Johann Jacob Prinner (Musicalischer Schlissl, 1677, autograph US-Wc) are for an instrument tuned F’-A’-D-F#-B.

Sydney Recording Studios: Double Bass Early Tunings

Much more usual, however, is the tuning F’-A’-D-F#-A cited in 1790 by Albrechtsberger, for aviolone or contrabass with thick strings and frets tied at every semitone round the fingerboard. Michel Corrette’s 1773 Méthode throws much light on the bass techniques and tunings in use during the 18th and early 19th centuries when the bass was enjoying some popularity as a solo instrument. Many of the virtuoso pieces from theViennese school of that period and later abound with passages of double stopping and, in view of the tunings required, were thought by early 20th-century authorities not to have been written for the bass at all. Later research revealed that the instrument has in the past been tuned in some 40 or 50 different ways; although the repertory is quite practical with the tunings the composers envisaged (e.g. one of the ’3rd-4th’ tunings), much is unplayable on the modern conventionally tuned instruments. There are in fact numerous solo concertos from this period.

Sydney Recording Studios: Double Bass Evolution

In Italy an early tuning (cited by Planyavsky, 1970) is Adriano Banchieri’s of 1609 forhis ‘Violone in contrabasso’, D’-G’-C-E-A-d. Later the number of strings was reduced, andthree-string instruments were preferred. Even during the early 18th century a three-string bass tuned A’-D-G or G’-D-G was normal. It had no frets and with the growth of the symphony orchestra it was logical that his more powerful instrument should supersede earlier models. Not until the 1920s was the additional E’ string expected of most professional players. Until then any passages going below A’ were transposed up an octave, resulting in the temporary disappearance of the 16′ line.