History of the Double Bass

by Rodney Slatford

Reproduced with the publishers’ consent from The New Grove Dictionaryof Music and Musicians® edited by Stanley Sadie, in twenty volumes, 1980, ©Macmillan Publishers Limited, London.


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 andconsequently in its stringing and tuning. The picture is further complicated by thesimultaneous 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 ismore important to look for an early double bass tuning rather than for any particularinstrument by shape or name. A deep (double- or contra-) bass voice is first found amongthe viols. There existed simultaneously two methods of tuning – one using 4ths alone, theother using a combination of 3rds and 4ths (’3rd-4th’ tuning). Agricola wrote of the contrabassodi viola as being the deepest voice available. He was referring to an instrumentcomparable with that made by Hanns Vogel in 1563 and now in the GermanischesNationalmuseum, 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 byPraetorius (Syntagma musicum, 2/1619) for a six-string violone (a name alsoconfusingly used in the 16th century to denote the bass of the viol family). He listedseveral other tunings, both high and low, for five- and six-string violoni. Mostinteresting 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.

Some fine basses, many of which were probably converted from their original form in tothree- 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 theKunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

During the early 17th century the five-string bass was most commonly used in Austriaand Germany. Leopold Mozart referred in the 1787 edition of his Violinschule tohaving heard concertos, trios and solos played with great beauty on instruments of thiskind. The earliest known playing instructions, by Johann Jacob Prinner (MusicalischerSchlissl, 1677, autograph US-Wc) are for an instrument tuned F’-A’-D-F#-B. Muchmore 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 thefingerboard. Michel Corrette’s 1773 Méthode throws much light on the basstechniques and tunings in use during the 18th and early 19th centuries when the bass wasenjoying 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, inview of the tunings required, were thought by early 20th-century authorities not to havebeen written for the bass at all. Later research revealed that the instrument has in thepast been tuned in some 40 or 50 different ways; although the repertory is quite practicalwith the tunings the composers envisaged (e.g. one of the ’3rd-4th’ tunings), much isunplayable on the modern conventionally tuned instruments. There are in fact numerous soloconcertos from this period.

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-stringbass tuned A’-D-G or G’-D-G was normal. It had no frets and with the growth of thesymphony orchestra it was logical that his more powerful instrument should supersedeearlier models. Not until the 1920s was the additional E’ string expected of mostprofessional players. Until then any passages going below A’ were transposed up an octave,resulting in the temporary disappearance of the 16′ line.