Double basses are constructed from several types of wood, including maple for the back, spruce for the top, and ebony for the fingerboard. It is uncertain whether the instrument is a descendant of the viola da gamba or from the violin, but it is traditionally considered to be a member of the violin family. While the double bass has features which are similar to those found on other violin family instruments, it also has features which may be derived from the viols.
Like many other string instruments, the double bass is played either with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings (pizzicato). In orchestral repertoire and tango music, both bowing and plucking styles are used. In jazz music, the bass is mostly plucked, except for some solos which are performed with the bow. In most other genres, such as blues and rockabilly, the bass is plucked.
The double bass's proportions are dissimilar to those of the violin and cello; for example, it is deeper (the distance from top to back is proportionally much greater than the violin). In addition, while the violin has bulging shoulders, most double basses have shoulders carved with a more acute slope, like members of the viola da gamba family. Many very old double basses have had their shoulders cut or sloped to aid playing with modern techniques. Before these modifications, the design of their shoulders was closer to instruments of the violin family.
The double bass is the only modern bowed string instrument that is tuned in fourths (like viols), rather than fifths (see Tuning, below). The issue of the instrument's exact lineage is still a matter of some debate, and the supposition that the double bass is a direct descendant of the viola da gamba family is one that has not been entirely resolved.
In his A New History of the Double Bass, Paul Brun asserts, with many references, that the double bass has origins as the true bass of the violin family. He states that, while the exterior of the double bass may resemble the viola da gamba, the internal construction of the double bass is nearly identical to that of other instruments in the violin family, and is very different from the internal structure of viols.
Other terms for the instrument among classical performers are contrabass (which comes from the instrument's Italian name, contrabasso), string bass, or bass. Jazz musicians often call it the upright bass to distinguish it from the electric bass guitar. Especially when used in folk and bluegrass music, the instrument can also be referred to as an upright bass, standup bass, bass fiddle, or bass violin (or more rarely as doghouse bass or bull fiddle). Other colourful nicknames are found in other languages; in Hungarian, for instance, the double bass is sometimes called nagy bőgő, which roughly translates as "big crier", referring to its large voice.
In general there are two major approaches to the design outline shape of the double bass, these being the violin form, and the viol da gamba form. A third less common design called the busetto shape (and very rarely the guitar or pear shape) can also be found. The back of the instrument can vary from being a round, carved back similar to that of the violin, or a flat and angled back similar to the viol family.
The double bass features many parts that are similar to members of the violin family including a bridge, f-holes, a tailpiece, a scroll and a sound post. Unlike the rest of the violin family, the double bass still reflects influence and can be considered partly derived from the viol family of instruments, in particular the violone, the bass member of the viol family.
The double bass also differs from members of the violin family in that the shoulders are (sometimes) sloped, the back is often angled (both to allow easier access to the instrument, particularly in the upper range), and machine tuners are always fitted. Lack of standardization in design means that one double bass can sound and look very different from another. To see some of the variations and construction approaches discussed above visit the websites quoted below.
The double bass is closest in construction to violins, but has some notable similarities to the violone (literally "large viol"), the largest and lowest member of the viola da gamba family. Unlike the violone, however, the fingerboard of the double bass is unfretted, and the double bass has fewer strings (the violone, like most viols, generally had six strings, although some specimens had five or four).
An important distinction between the double bass and other members of the violin family is the construction of the pegbox. While the violin, viola, and cello all use friction pegs for gross tuning adjustments, the double bass has metal machine heads. The key on the tuning machine turns a metal "worm" which drives a worm gear that winds the string. While this development makes fine tuners unnecessary, a very small number of bassists use them nevertheless. At the base of the double bass is a metal rod with a spiked end called the endpin, which rests on the floor. This endpin is generally more robust than that of a cello, because of the greater mass of the double bass.
The soundpost and bass bar are components of the internal construction. The materials most often used are maple (back, neck, ribs), spruce (top), and ebony (fingerboard, tailpiece). Exceptions to this include less-expensive basses which have laminated (plywood) tops, backs, and ribs, and some newer mid-range basses made of willow. These basses are resistant to changes in heat and humidity, which can cause cracks in spruce tops. Plywood laminate basses, which are used in music schools, youth orchestras, and in bluegrass, are very resistant to humidity and heat, as well to the physical abuse they are apt to encounter in a school environment.
All the parts of a double bass are glued together, except the soundpost, bridge and tailpiece, which are held in place by string tension, although the soundpost will usually remain in place when the instrument's strings are loosened or removed. The metal tuning machines are attached to the sides of the pegbox with metal screws. While tuning mechanisms generally differ from the higher-pitched orchestral stringed instruments, some basses have non-functional, ornamental tuning pegs projecting from the side of the pegbox, in imitation of the tuning pegs on a cello or violin.
Prior to the mid-20th century, double bass strings were usually made of gut, but since that time, steel strings have largely replaced gut strings, because steel strings hold their pitch better and yield more volume when played with the bow. Gut strings are also more vulnerable to changes of humidity and temperature, and they break much more easily than steel strings. Gut strings are nowadays mostly used by bassists who perform in baroque ensembles, rockabilly bands, traditional blues bands, and bluegrass bands Gut strings create the dark, "thumpy" sound heard on 1940s and 1950s recordings. The late Jeff Sarli, a blues upright bassist, stated that "[s]tarting in the 1950s, they began to reset the necks on basses for steel strings", and double bass players switched from gut strings to steel strings. Rockabilly and bluegrass bassists also prefer gut because it is much easier to perform the "slapping" upright bass style (in which the strings are percussively slapped and clicked against the fingerboard) with gut strings than with steel strings. (For more information on slapping, see the sections below on Modern playing styles, Double bass in bluegrass music, Double bass in jazz, and Double bass in popular music).
The change from gut to steel has also affected the instrument's playing technique over the last hundred years, because playing with steel strings allows the strings to be set up closer to the fingerboard, and, additionally, steel strings can be played in higher positions on the lower strings and still produce clear tone. The classic 19th century Franz Simandl method does not utilize the low E string in higher positions because with older gut strings set up high over the fingerboard, the tone was not clear in these higher positions. However, with modern steel strings, bassists can play with clear tone in higher positions on the low E and A strings, particularly when modern lighter-gauge, lower-tension steel strings (e.g., Corelli/Savarez strings) are used.
These two bows provide for different ways of moving the arm and distributing force on the strings. Proponents of the French bow argue that it is more maneuverable, due to the angle at which the player holds the bow. Advocates of the German bow claim that it allows the player to apply more arm weight on the strings. The differences between the two, however, are minute for a proficient player, and both bows are used by modern players in major orchestras.
The German bow (sometimes called Dragonetti bow) is the older of the two designs. The design of the bow and the manner of holding it are descended from the older viol family of instruments. With older viols, before screw threads were used to tighten the bow, players held the bow with two fingers between the stick and the hair to maintain tension of the hair. Proponents of the use of German bow claim that the German bow is easier to use for light bow strokes as staccato, spiccato, and detaché.
In comparison with the French bow, the German bow has a taller frog, and it is held with the palm angled upwards, as is done for the upright members of the viol family. When held in correct manner, the thumb rests on the side of the stick. The index finger balances the bow at the point where the frog meets the stick. The index finger is also used to apply an upward torque to the frog when tilting the bow. The little finger (or "pinky") supports the frog from underneath, while the ring finger and middle finger are used to apply the force to move the bow across the strings.
The French bow was not widely popular until its adoption by 19th-century virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. This style is more similar to the traditional bows of the smaller string family instruments. It is held as if the hand is resting by the side of the performer with the palm facing toward the bass. The thumb rests on the shaft of the bow, next to the frog while the other fingers drape on the other side of the bow. Various styles dictate the curve of the fingers and thumb, as do the style of piece; a more pronounced curve and lighter hold on the bow is used for virtuosic or more delicate pieces, while a flatter curve and sturdier grip on the bow provides more power for loud orchestral passages.
The double bass bow is strung with either white or black horsehair, or a combination of the two (known as "salt and pepper"), as opposed to the customary white horsehair used on the bows of other string instruments. Some bassists argue that the slightly rougher black hair "grabs" the heavier, lower strings better. As well, some bassists and luthiers believe that it is easier to produce a smoother sound with the white variety. Red hair is also used by some bassists.
The lowest note of a double bass is an E1 (on standard four-string basses) at approximately 41 Hz or a B0 (when five strings are used) at approximately 31 Hz. This is slightly above the lowest sound the average human ear can perceive as a distinctive pitch, at 20 Hz. The highest notes are almost down at the bridge. Five string instruments either use the additional string tuned to a low B below the E string, or to a C above the G string. In many double bass concertos harmonic tones are used. The use of natural harmonics (a technique often used by Giovanni Bottesini) and sometimes even artificial harmonics, where the thumb stops the note and the octave or other harmonic is activated by lightly touching the string at the relative node point, extend the double bass' range considerably.
The double bass parts from most orchestral music rarely exceed three octaves. However, a virtuoso solo player could cover five or six octaves in solo bass repertoire, using natural and artificial harmonics. Since the range of the double bass lies largely below the standard bass clef, it is notated an octave higher (hence sounding an octave lower than written). This transposition applies even when reading the tenor and treble clef, which are used to avoid excessive ledger lines when notating the instrument's upper range.
Much of the classical repertoire has notes that fall below the range of a standard double bass. Notes below low E appear regularly in double bass parts in the Baroque and Classical eras, when the double bass was typically doubling the cello part an octave below. In the Romantic era and the 20th-century, composers such as Mahler, Beethoven, and Prokofiev also requested notes below the low E. There are two common methods for making these notes available to the player. Major European orchestras generally use basses with a fifth string, tuned to B three octaves and a semitone below middle C.
In the United States, Canada and United Kingdom, most professional orchestral players use four-string double basses with a "C extension" which extends the lowest string down as far as low C, an octave below the lowest note on the cello (more rarely, this string may be tuned to a low B). The extension is an extra section of fingerboard mounted up over the head of the bass. There are several varieties of extensions. In the simplest version, there are no mechanical aids attached to the fingerboard extension. To play the extension notes, the player reaches back over the pegs to press the string to the fingerboard. The simplest type of mechanical aid is the use of wooden "fingers" that can be closed to press the string down and fret the C#, D, Eb, or E notes. This system is particularly useful for basslines that have a repeating pedal point such as a low D, because once the note is locked in place with the mechanical "finger", the lowest string then sounds a different note when it is played "open" (e.g., a low D). Please do know that the double bass is not related to the Violin, but is a member of the bowed instrument family. The bass is originated from the Viol.
The most complicated mechanical aid for use with extensions are mechanical lever systems nicknamed "machines". These lever systems, which superficially resemble the mechanisms of reed instruments such as the bassoon, include levers mounted beside the regular fingerboard (near the nut, on the "E" string side) which remotely activate metal "fingers" on the extension fingerboard. The most expensive metal lever systems also give the player the ability to "lock" down notes on the extension fingerboard, as with the wooden "finger" system. One criticism of these devices is that they may lead to unwanted metallic clicking noises.
A small number of bass players tune their strings in fifths, like a cello but an octave lower (C-G-D-A low to high). This tuning was used by the jazz player Red Mitchell and is increasingly used by classical players, notably the Canadian bassist Joel Quarrington. In classical solo playing the double bass is usually tuned a whole tone higher (F-B-E-A). This higher tuning is called "solo tuning," whereas the regular tuning is known as "orchestral tuning." String tension differs so much between solo and orchestral tuning that a different set of strings is often employed that has a lighter gauge. Strings are always labelled for either solo or orchestral tuning, and published solo music is arranged for either solo or orchestral tuning. Some popular solos and concerti, such as the Koussevitsky Concerto are available in both solo and orchestral tuning arrangements.
A variant and much less-commonly used form of solo tuning used in some Eastern European countries is (A-D-G-C), which uses three of the strings from orchestral tuning (A-D-G) and then adds a high "C" string. Some bassists with five string basses use a high "C" string as the fifth string, instead of a low "B" string. Adding the high "C" string facilitates the performance of solo repertoire with a high tessitura (range).
When using more than four strings, the player generally must choose between adding a higher or lower-tuned string, as construction of a six-stringed instrument is generally regarded as impractical. With the additional string, fingerboards must be made wider, and the tops must be made thicker in order to deal with the extra tension and stress from the additional string. Some five-stringed instruments are converted from ones originally constructed to utilize fewer strings, where the fingerboards have not been widened (often making for awkwardness and difficulties in fingering and bowing). Generally, however, there is no way around having a thicker top when an additional string is present.
When playing in the instrument's upper range (above the G below middle C), the player shifts his hand out from behind the neck and flattens it out, using the side of the thumb to press down the string. This technique is called thumb position and is also a technique used on the cello. While playing in thumb position, the fourth (little) finger is not used, as it is too short to produce a reliable tone.
Despite the size of the instrument, it does not project a loud volume, because its range is so low. When the bass is being used as an ensemble instrument in orchestra, usually between four and eight bassists will play the part in unison; in the largest orchestras, the bass section may have as many as twelve bassists. When writing solo passages for the bass in orchestral or chamber music, composers typically ensure that the orchestration is light so it will not obscure the soloist's sound.
In many non-orchestral settings, amplification via a specialized amplifier and loudspeakers is employed. In bluegrass and jazz, less amplification is used than in blues, psychobilly, or jam band-music. In the latter, the high overall volume due to other amplifiers and instruments may lead to acoustic feedback, a problem that is accentuated by the bass's large surface area and interior volume. Performing on the bass can be physically demanding because the strings of the instrument are larger and thicker than those of smaller stringed instruments. Also, the spacing between notes on the fingerboard is larger due to the bass's size. This means that bass players have to shift positions more frequently. The increased use of playing techniques such as thumb position and modifications to the bass, such as the use of lighter-gauge strings at lower tension, have eased the difficulty of playing the instrument. Bass parts have relatively fewer fast passages, double stops, or large jumps in range.
As with all unfretted string instruments, performers must learn to place their fingers precisely to obtain the correct pitch. Again, due to the instrument's size, more frequent hand movement is required, increasing the likelihood of intonation errors. For bassists with smaller hands, the large spaces between pitches may present a significant challenge, especially in the lowest range, where the spaces between notes are largest.
Until the 1990s, child-sized double basses were not widely available, and the large size of the bass meant that children were not able to start playing the instrument until their hand size and height would allow them to play a 3/4-size model (the most commonly available size). Starting in the 1990s, smaller half, quarter, eighth and even sixteenth-sized instruments became more widely available, which meant that children could start at a younger age.
The double bass's large size, combined with its relative fragility, causes some difficulty in safely transporting the instrument. As hard cases are both expensive and heavy, many bassists use soft cases, often referred to as "gig bags," to protect the instrument. Some players use wheeled carts or endpin-attached wheels to assist in transporting the instrument.
The earliest known concerto to exist for the double bass was written by Joseph Haydn ca.1763, which was presumably lost in the fire at the Eisenstadt library. The earliest concertos that exist today are by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, who composed two concertos for the double bass and a Sinfonia Concertante for viola and double bass. Other composers that have written concertos from this period include Johann Baptist Vanhal, Franz Anton Hoffmeister (3 concertos), Leopold Kozeluch, Anton Zimmermann, Antonio Capuzzi, Wenzel Pichl (2 concertos), and Johannes Matthias Sperger (18 concertos). While many of these names were leading figures to the music public of their time, they are generally unknown by contemporary audiences. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's concert aria, "Per Questa Bella Mano", K.612 for bass, double bass obbligato, and orchestra contains impressive writing for solo double bass of that period. It remains popular among both singers and double bassists today.
The double bass eventually evolved to fit the needs of orchestras that required lower notes and a louder sound. The leading double bassists from the mid- to late 18th century, such as Josef Kämpfer, Friedrich Pischelberger, and Johannes Mathias Sperger employed the "Viennese" tuning. Bassist Johann Hindle (1792-1862), who composed a concerto for the double bass, pioneered tuning the bass in fourths, which marked a turning point for the double bass and its role in solo works. Bassist Domenico Dragonetti was a prominent musical figure and an acquaintance of Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. His playing was known all the way from his native Italy to the Tsar of Russia and he found a prominent place performing in concerts with the Philharmonic Society of London.
Beethoven's friendship with Dragonetti may have inspired Beethoven to write difficult, separate parts for the double bass in his symphonies which do not double the cello and the impressive passages in the third movement of the Fifth Symphony and last movement of the Ninth Symphony. Dragonetti wrote ten concertos for the double bass and many solo works for bass and piano. During Rossini's stay in London in the summer of 1824, he composed his Duetto for cello and double bass for Dragonetti the cellist David Salomons. Dragonetti frequently played on a three string double bass tuned G-D-A from top to bottom. The use of only the top three strings was popular for bass soloists and Principal bassists in orchestras in the 19th century, because it reduced the pressure on the wooden top of the bass, which was thought to create a more resonant sound. As well, the low "E" strings used during the 19th century were thick cords made of gut, which were difficult to tune and play.
In the 1970s and 1980s, new concerti included Nino Rota's Divertimento for Double Bass and Orchestra (1973), Jean Françaix's Concerto (1975), Einojuhani Rautavaara's Angel Of Dusk (1980), Gian Carlo Menotti's Concerto (1983), Christopher Rouse's Concerto (1985), and Henry Brant's Ghost Nets (1988). In the 2000s, new concerti include Kalevi Aho's Concerto (2005), John Harbison's Concerto for Bass Viol (2006), and André Previn's Double Concerto for violin, double bass, and orchestra (2007). Krzysztof Penderecki and Wolfgang Rihm are currently writing concertos for the double bass .
Reinhold Glière wrote and Intermezzo and Tarantella for double bass and piano, Op. 9, No. 1 and No. 2 and a Praeludium and Scherzo for double bass and piano, Op. 32 No.1 and No.2. Paul Hindemith wrote a rhythmically-challenging Double Bass Sonata in 1949. Giacinto Scelsi wrote two double bass pieces called Nuits in 1972, and then in 1976, he wrote Maknongan, a piece for any low-voiced instrument, such as double bass, contrabassoon, or tuba. Vincent Persichetti wrote solo works for many instruments which he calle "Parables"; he wrote Parable XVII for Double Bass, Op. 131 in 1974. Sofia Gubaidulina penned a Sonata for double bass and piano in 1975. Queen's John Deacon played a double bass for Brian May's song '39. Jacob Druckman wrote a piece for solo double bass entitled Valentine. US double bass soloist and composer Bertram Turetzky (born 1933) has performed and recorded more than 300 pieces written by and for him. He writes chamber music, baroque music, classical, jazz, renaissance music, improvisational music and world music
US minimalist composer Philip Glass wrote a prelude focused on the lower register which was scored for timpani and double bass. Italian composer Sylvano Bussotti, whose composing career spans from the 1930s to the 2000s, wrote a solo work for bass in 1983 entitled Naked Angel Face per contrabbasso. Fellow Italian composer Franco Donatoni wrote a piece called Lem for contrabbasso in the same year. In 1989, French composer Pascal Dusapin (born 1955) wrote a solo piece called In et Out for double bass. In 1996, the Sorbonne-trained Lebanese composer Karim Haddad composed Ce qui dort dans l'ombre sacrée ("He who sleeps in the sacred shadows") for Radio France's Presence Festival. Renaud Garcia-Fons (born 1962) is a French double-bass player and composer, notable for drawing on jazz, folk, and Asian music for recordings of his pieces like Oriental Bass (1997). In 2005, Mario Davidovsky wrote an electro-acoustic work called Synchronisms No. 11 for contrabass and magnetic tape.
A well-known chamber work that includes the double bass is Mozart's Serenade for strings in G major, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" K.525, which is scored for two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. The work is more often performed today with more than one player to a part, such as by a chamber string orchestra. Mozart also included the double bass in addition to 12 wind instruments for his "Gran Partita" Serenade, K.361 (370a). One of Beethoven's most famous pieces during his lifetime was his Septet in E flat major, Op.20 for violin, viola, clarinet, horn, bassoon, cello, and double bass. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the common group to play at dance functions was two violins and a double bass. Beethoven also composed Six Minuets, WoO9 and Six Ländlers, WoO15 for this instrumentation.
Gioacchino Rossini composed six string sonatas for two violins, cello, and double bass at age twelve over the course of three days in 1804 which remain his most famous instrumental works. Luigi Boccherini, whose father was a double bass player, composed three string quintets for two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. Antonín Dvořák also used the string quartet with double bass for his String Quintet in G major, Op.77 as did Darius Milhaud for his second quintet for strings, Op.316. Franz Schubert's Trout Quintet is scored for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The piece is thought to have been influenced by Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Quintet for piano and strings, Op. 87 which uses the same instruments. The instrumentation was used again in the 20th century by Ralph Vaughan Williams for his Piano Quintet. Felix Mendelssohn wrote a Sextet for piano and strings, Op.110 using piano, violin, two violas, cello, and double bass.
During the 20th century, the double bass was used in a variety of chamber works including Erwin Schulhoff's Concertino for flute/piccolo, viola, and double bass; Paul Hindemith's Octet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, two violas, cello, and double bass; and Serge Prokofiev's Quintet, Op.39 for oboe, clarinet, violin, cello, and double bass. The double bass continues to be used in chamber music by more contemporary composers. Examples of such pieces include Fred Lerdahl's Waltzes for violin, viola, cello, and double bass; Mario Davidovsky's Festino for guitar, viola, cello, and double bass; and Iannis Xenakis's Morsima-Amorsima for piano, violin, cello, and double bass.
The double bass in the baroque and classical periods would typically double the cello part in orchestral passages. A notable exception would be Haydn, who composed solo passages for the double bass in his Symphonies No.6 “Le Matin”, No.7 “Le midi”, No.8 “Le Soir”, No. 31 “Horn Signal, and No. 45 “Farewell”, but who otherwise would group the bass and cello parts together. Beethoven paved the way for separate double bass parts which would become more common in the romantic era. The scherzo and trio from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a famous orchestral excerpt as is the recitative at the beginning of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
While orchestral bass solos are somewhat rare, there are some notable examples. Johannes Brahms, whose father was a double bass player, wrote many difficult and prominent parts for the double bass in his symphonies. Richard Strauss assigned the double bass daring parts, and his symphonic poems and operas stretch the instrument to its limits. "The Elephant" from Camille Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals is a satirical portrait of the double bass. The third movement of Gustav Mahler's first symphony features a solo for the double bass which quotes the children's song "Frere Jacques", transposed into a minor key. Sergei Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kijé Suite" features a difficult and very high double bass solo in the "Romance" movement. Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra contains a prominent passage for the double bass section.
Ensembles made up entirely of double basses, though relatively rare, also exist, and several composers have written or arranged for such ensembles. Gunther Schuller and Jacob Druckman both composed quartets for four basses. Larger ensemble works include Galina Ustvolskaya's Composition No. 2, “Dies Irae” (1973), for eight double basses, piano, and wooden cube, Jose Serebrier's George and Muriel (1986), for solo bass, double bass ensemble, and chorus, and Gerhard Samuel's What of my music! (1979), for soprano, percussion, and 30 double basses.
Active double bass ensembles include L'Orchestre de Contrabasses (6 members), Bass Instinct (6 members), Bassiona Amorosa (6 members),, the Chicago Bass Ensemble (4+ members), The Bass Gang (4 members), and the ensembles of Ball State University (12 members) and the Hartt School of Music. The Amarillo Bass Base of Amarillo, Texas once featured 52 double bassists,, and The London Double Bass Sound, who have released a CD on Cala Records, have 10 players.
In addition, the double bass sections of some orchestras perform as an ensemble, such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Wacker Consort. There is an increasing number of published compositions and arrangements for double bass ensembles, and the International Society of Bassists regularly features double bass ensembles (both smaller ensembles as well as very large "mass bass" ensembles) at its conferences, and sponsors the biennial David Walter Composition Competition, which includes a division for double bass ensemble works.
Beginning around 1890, the early New Orleans jazz ensemble (which played a mixture of marches, ragtime, and dixieland music) was initially a marching band with sousaphone (or occasionally bass saxophone) supplying the bass line. As the music moved into bars and brothels, the double bass gradually replaced these wind instruments. Many early bassists doubled on both the "brass bass" and "string bass," as the instruments were then often referred to. Bassists played "walking" basslines, scale-based lines which outlined the harmony.
Because an unamplified double bass is generally the quietest instrument in a jazz band, many players of the 1920s and 1930s used the slap style, slapping and pulling the strings so that they make a rhythmic "slap" sound against the fingerboard. The slap style cuts through the sound of a band better than simply plucking the strings, and allowed the bass to be more easily heard on early sound recordings, as the recording equipment of that time did not favor low frequencies. For more about the slap style, see "Modern playing styles," below.
Double bass players have contributed to the evolution of jazz. Examples include swing era players such as Jimmy Blanton, who played with Duke Ellington, and Oscar Pettiford, who pioneered the instrument's use in bebop. The "cool" style of jazz was influenced by players such as Scott LaFaro and Percy Heath, whose solos were melodic. Paul Chambers (who worked with Miles Davis on the famous Kind of Blue album) achieved renown for being one of the first jazz bassists to play bebop solos in arco (bowed) style.
Free jazz was influenced by the composer/bassist Charles Mingus (who also contributed to hard bop) and Charlie Haden, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman. Beginning in the 1970s, some jazz bandleaders such as saxophonist Sonny Rollins and fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius began to substitute the electric bass guitar for the double bass. Apart from the jazz styles of jazz fusion and Latin-influenced jazz, the double bass is still widely used in jazz. The sound and tone of the plucked double bass is distinct from that of the fretted bass guitar. The bass guitar produces a different sound than the double bass, because its strings are usually stopped with the aid of metal frets. As well, bass guitars usually have a solid wood body, which means that the sound is produced by electronic amplification of the vibration of the strings.
Early pre-bluegrass traditional music was often accompanied by the cello; Natalie Haas points out that in the US, you can find "... old photographs, and even old recordings, of American string bands with cello." However, "the cello dropped out of sight in folk music and became associated with the orchestra". The cello did not reappear in bluegrass until the 1990s and 2000s. Some contemporary bluegrass bands favor the electric bass, because it is easier to transport on tour that the large and delicate upright bass. However, the bass guitar has a different musical quality than the plucked upright bass. The slower attack and the percussive, woody tone of the upright bass gives it a more "earthy" or "natural" sound than an electric bass, particularly when gut strings are used.
Common rhythms in bluegrass bass playing involve (with some exceptions) plucking on beats 1 and 3 in 4/4 time; beats 1 and 2 in 2/4 time, and on the downbeat in 3/4 time (waltz time). Bluegrass bass lines are usually simple, typically staying on the root and fifth of each chord throughout most of a song. There are two main exceptions to this "rule". Bluegrass bassists often do a diatonic "walkup" or "walkdown" in which they play every beat of a bar for one or two bars, typically when there is a chord change. In addition, if a bass player is given a solo, they may play a walking bass line with a note on every beat or play a pentatonic scale-influenced bassline.
An early bluegrass bassist to rise to prominence was Howard Watts (also known as Cedric Rainwater), who played with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys beginning in 1944. One of the most famous classical bassists, Edgar Meyer, has frequently branched out into newgrass, Old Time, Jazz, and other genres.
Bluegrass bassist Mark Schatz, who teaches slap bass in his Intermediate Bluegrass Bass DVD acknowledges that slap bass "...has not been stylistically very predominant in the music I have recorded." He notes that "Even in traditional bluegrass slap bass only appears sporadically and most of what I've done has been on the more contemporary side of that (Tony Rice, Tim O'Brien)." Schatz states that he would be "... more likely to use it [slap] in a live situation that on a recording - for a solo or to punctuate a particular place in a song or tune where I wouldn't be obliterating someone's solo.". Another bluegrass method, Learn to Play Bluegrass Bass, by Earl Gately, also teaches bluegrass slap bass technique.
In 1951, Leo Fender independently released his Precision Bass, the first commercially successful electric bass guitar. The electric bass was easily amplified with its built-in pickups, easily portable (less than a foot longer than an electric guitar), and easier to play in tune, thanks to the metal frets. In the 1960s and 1970s bands were playing at louder volumes and performing in larger venues. The electric bass was able to provide the huge, highly-amplified stadium-filling bass tone that the pop and rock music of this era demanded, and the double bass receded from the limelight of the popular music scene.
The upright bass began making a modest comeback in popular music in the mid-1980s, in part due to a renewed interest in earlier forms of rock and country music. In the 1990s, improvements in pickups and amplifier designs for electro-acoustic horizontal and upright basses made it easier for bassists to get a good, clear amplified tone from an acoustic instrument. Some popular bands decided to anchor their sound with an upright bass instead of an electric bass. A trend for "unplugged" performances further helped to enhance the public's interest in the upright bass and acoustic bass guitars.
The double bass is also favored over the electric bass guitar in many rockabilly and psychobilly bands. In such bands the bassist often plays with great showmanship, using slapping technique, sometimes spinning the bass around or even physically climbing onto the instrument while performing; this style was pioneered c. 1953 by Marshall Lytle, the bassist for Bill Haley & His Comets, and modern performers of such stunts include Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats, Scott Owen from The Living End and Jimbo from Reverend Horton Heat. Primus's Les Claypool used an upright bass for the song "Mr. Krinkle," from Pork Soda, and for the song "Over the Falls," from the Brown Album. Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam uses a double bass in the song "Nothing as It Seems," on the album Binaural. Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers uses a double bass for the song "Cabron," on the 2002 album By the Way.
An unamplified acoustic bass' tone is limited by the frequency responsiveness of the instrument's hollow body, which means that the very low pitches may not be as loud as the higher pitches. With an amplifier and equalization devices, a bass player can boost the low frequencies, which evens out the frequency response. As well, the use of an amplifier can increase the sustain of the instrument, which is particularly useful for accompaniment during ballads and for melodic solos with held notes.
In traditional jazz, swing, polka, rockabilly, and psychobilly music, it is sometimes played in the slap style. This is a vigorous version of pizzicato where the strings are "slapped" against the fingerboard between the main notes of the bass line, producing a snare drum-like percussive sound. The main notes are either played normally or by pulling the string away from the fingerboard and releasing it so that it bounces off the fingerboard, producing a distinctive percussive attack in addition to the expected pitch. Notable slap style bass players, whose use of the technique was often highly syncopated and virtuosic, sometimes interpolated two, three, four, or more slaps in between notes of the bass line.
"Slap style" may have influenced electric bass guitar players who from about 1970 developed a technique called "slap and pop," where the thumb of the plucking hand is used to hit the string, making a slapping sound but still allowing the note to ring, and the index or middle finger of the plucking hand is used to pull the string back so it hits the fretboard, achieving the pop sound described above.
In the experimental post 1960s eras, which saw the development of free jazz and jazz-rock fusion, some of the influential bassists included Charles Mingus (1922–1979), who was also a composer and bandleader whose music fused hard bop with black gospel music, free jazz and classical music; free jazz and post-bop bassist Charlie Haden (born 1937) is best known for his long association with saxophonist Ornette Coleman and for his role in the 1970s-era Liberation Music Orchestra, an experimental group; and fusion virtuoso Stanley Clarke (born 1951) is notable for his dexterity on both the double bass and the electric bass. In the 1990s and 2000s, one of the new "young lions" was Christian McBride (born 1972), who has performed with a range of veterans ranging from McCoy Tyner to fusion gurus Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, and who has released albums such as 2003's Vertical Vision. For a longer list, see the List of jazz bassists, which includes both double bass and electric bass players.