Instrumentation notes – Double Bass

  • Lowest voice of the strings choir
  • Sounds an octave lower than written; only transposing string instrument
  • Four strings are:
    Double bass open strings
  • Tuned in 4ths and large distances between pitches as the instrument is more than 6ft tall
  • Playing range for each string:
    Pitch notation
    E string: E2-B3
    A string: A2-E4
    D string: D3-A4
    G string: G3-C6
  • Each string played as an open string (without fingering) has a unique quality:
    E string: lowest; very dark, sombre, dull & foreboding
    A string: more buzz but ponderous and bland
    D string: more mellow, reedy and rich
    A string: rich, large and full of expression
  • Sometimes lower notes are required beyond E; a fifth string is tuned to C gives the solution; an extra strong replaces the E string. Has mechanism with 4 levers on it, each controlling a metal finger that stops the string. Four keys are for E, E-flat, D & D-flat. Takes 2-3 seconds to lock / release and if 1 key is depressed, it’s almost impossible to stop another string; limits the possibilities, restricts multiple stops to double stops with the E string and the open A string
  • Too high passages written in tenor clef, very high passages in treble clef.
  • All passages are written an octave higher than the sound (except for harmonics in treble clef, which are notated at the sounding pitch to avoid ledger lines)
  • Bow is short and heavy, gives the right mass to set large strings into vibration – shortness of bow requires frequent direction changes
  • Pizzicato best asset; warm, full, well sustained
  • Size of instrument perfect for artificial harmonics – a node a perfect 5th, 4th and major 3rd above the stopped note is touched
  • Sometimes a pulled or bent harmonic is created; a natural harmonic is made by touching and stretching a string at node point. As its distended, the pitch of the harmonic goes up portamento-style
  • Double stops only available and best with an open string
  • Like cello, fingering needs thumb position notes higher than a tenth above an open string are played; makes multiple stops including triple stops playable
  • Sul ponticello and sul taste  very effective
  • Please the bass line or doubles the ensembles’ bass an octave lower.

Blatter, A (1997). Instrumentation & Orchestration. 2nd ed. USA: Schirmer. Pgs 67-69



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