The double bass, or the standup bass, or is it the upright bass? Whatever it’s called, the upright bass is one of those instruments that has truly crossed over in terms of musical styles and genres. Because the standup bass is used in so many different kinds of music, some people are left wondering, “Is there a difference between the double bass and the upright bass?” Let’s look at the double bass vs upright bass debate.
How the bass is referred to in each genre of music is simply a matter of lingo and terminology. Double bass, upright bass, and stand-up bass are all the same instruments. They just have different names depending on the style of music, group, or situation that they’re being played in.
The double bass is a fixture in the minds of many, from the concert halls of Vienna to the country-western bars of urban Austin, Texas. Even in popular culture, we find this commanding instrument – think Tom and Jerry, the Solid Serenade episode.
The Earthy, dark sound of the double bass is capable of many moods and feelings. It can take you from lush, somber, and expansive, to menacing, dense, and heavy.
Because so many different kinds of music use the upright bass, some people also wonder, “When was the double bass invented?”
A little double bass history
The double bass is not a recent piece of musical gear. In fact, it’s been around for centuries. The modern-day double bass, like most instruments, is an evolution from its earliest ancestors. It draws on bits of innovation as the centuries went by.
The origin of the double bass dates back to around the 15th century when scholars believe that it developed from the viol da gamba. Viols were a separate family of string instruments that fell out of use by the late 1700s. However, in his book A New History of the Double Bass, Paul Brun claims that the ìnternal construction of the bass is much more similar to the violin family than previously thought.
The first known workshops that started making the earliest forms of the double bass were in Italy in the towns of Brescia and Cremona in the early 1500s. As the costs of making a double bass were high, there was less interest in the instrument.
By the mid-18th century, luthiers in Milan began to produce double basses at a lower cost. As its popularity spread, so did the amount of music written for it and its more permanent presence in orchestras.
Some double basses sported as many as six strings. But, as composers began to write more for the instrument in orchestras across Europe, four strings became the standard. Unlike the other string instruments, the double bass design never became fully standardized. There are even rare examples of pear-shaped basses and changes in rib heights.
Most scholars and players agree that the modern double bass is a hybrid of both viol and violin families. Whichever preference one takes, the modern-day double bass can project a full, dark tone that makes it vital to many musical settings.
Double bass vs upright bass facts
Here are some surprising facts which you might not know about the double bass:
- Largest stringed instrument in a symphony orchestra.
- The largest double bass ever built was made by Swiss luthier Gigezunft Doppleschwand in 2006. It measured 5.55m (18ft 2.7 in) tall and 2.13m (7ft) wide.
- Like any other string instrument, it’s either bowed or plucked
- A standard (4/4) sized double bass is roughly six feet tall from end to end.
- Similar to the cello, the double bass is also made in several other sizes to accommodate smaller players.
- The notes of the strings are the same as a normal electric bass.
- It’s the only member of the string family where the strings are tuned in fourths.
- Some double basses can have five strings instead of four. A fifth string pitched in C helps access higher notes.
- On certain double basses, an extension on the E string allows players to hit a low C.
- A typical symphony orchestra needs between four and eight double basses to fill out the low end of the orchestra.
- Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf wrote the earliest known surviving double bass concerto.
- in 1762
- Double bass strings were once made from animal intestines from sheep or cattle.
How do bassists play the upright bass?
The upright bass has many musical traditions that require a different touch depending on the style of music. Players can be as formal as they like, diving into the classical technique methods of Simandl, Rabbath, and Petracchi. The more jazz inclined can opt for methods books published by Ed Barker and Ron Carter. Or, they can simply go at it alone.
In the classical world, double bass players are much more likely to use a bow while playing. Jazz musicians, though they occasionally use a bow, mostly pluck the strings with either one or two fingers. The same is true for people coming from backgrounds such as country, rockabilly, and other genres.
Unlike most electric basses, the double bass has no frets. Players need to use their ears plus good hand positions to find the correct notes. Some players add marks along the fingerboard to help them find the right notes when they’re learning. Intonation can be very tricky when you’re a beginner.
The fingerboard on double bass is much longer and wider than the electric bass. So, players need to practice wider finger stretches to hit the correct pitch. The double bass is a physically demanding instrument. And, that does not include carrying it around from gig to gig.
Upright bass jazz players
Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960) is a pioneer in the history of jazz bass. He was one of the first prominent bebop bassists. Pettiford expanded the technical application and tonal nuances capable of the upright bass in the jazz idiom. During his short life, he performed and recorded with legends of jazz, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and a host of others.
Pettiford helped build the foundations of the modern jazz sound we know today. Pettiford’s most important contribution was his time in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, where his compositional skills flourished. Some of his compositions like “Bohemia After Dark” have become jazz standards today.
Heard on some of the most successful jazz albums of the 20th century, Paul Chambers (1935-1969) is one of the finest upright bass players of his generation. Chambers is most famous for his long association with the great Miles Davis. Chambers was featured on Davis’s 1959 hit album Kind of Blue.
Not long after that session, Chambers teamed up with another jazz legend, John Coltrane, to record another landmark album in jazz history – Giant Steps. Paul Chambers had a sense of tempo and lyricism on the bass which helped define a whole era in jazz. He pioneered technical innovations such as chromatic figures, pitch inflections, and micro-tones.
A genius composer, as well as a supreme figure in jazz bass and piano, Charles Mingus (1922 – 1979), was a musical force seldom matched by his contemporaries. His complex compositions and fiery performances influenced a whole generation of artists.
After his work with Duke Ellington, Mingus’s compositional ideas and styles changed and adapted in every musical project he fronted. Mingus’s 1959 album Mingus Ah Um is an example of his compositional daring and brilliance on the upright bass. His composition “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat” is a popular jazz standard today.
Ray Brown (1926-2002) was one of the great virtuosos of upright bass and a prominent figure in the jazz scene for decades. His work led him to join forces with many great jazz artists. He played with the likes of Duke Ellington, Milt Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, and his long association with pianists Oscar Peterson and Gene Harris.
Brown spent many years in Los Angeles where he worked as an arranger and composer, including being in demand as a bassist for studio sessions. He received many awards during his career, including the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award.
A three-time Grammy award winner, Ron Carter has been one of the most in-demand upright bassists in the music industry. To date, Carter is the most recorded jazz bassist in history, appearing on 2221 recording sessions.
His bass tone and melodic inventiveness make him a pinnacle figure in jazz upright bass. Carter is still engaged in education at age 85. He has released several books on bass technique. He’s also released over 40 solo albums, including Spanish Blue (1974), A Song for You (1978), and Etudes (1982).
Dave Holland (born October 1st, 1946) is one of the foremost upright bassists during the jazz fusion and avant-garde era of the 1970s and 1980s. Since his career began in 1964, he has worked with many notable jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, and Anthony Braxton to name a few.
Holland studied at the famous Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Afterward, he made a name for himself in London before moving to the United States in 1968 to join Miles Davis. Some of Holland’s best albums include Conference of the Birds (1973) and Points of View (1998).
Charlie Haden (1937-2014) enjoyed an over 50-year career as a prominent bassist, both in modern jazz and free jazz. Haden pushed the boundaries of harmonic capabilities on the upright bass and displayed technical mastery while finding inventive ways to compliment soloists.
He worked with the likes of Keith Jarret, Paul Motion, John McLaughlin, Carla Bley, and free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. One of his most famous releases is the 1970 album Liberation Music Orchestra.
Eight-time Grammy award winner Christian McBride (born 1972) is one of the most in-demand bassists today. He has appeared on over 300 recordings and maintains a busy schedule as a performer and an educator. McBride has produced small group and big band albums, with some of his notable albums being Family Affair (1998) and Live at Tonic (2006).
Other famous upright bass players
Since bursting onto the music scene in 2006, Grammy Award-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding has cemented her name as one of the most original and virtuosic performers and composers of the 21st century. Spalding can take her complex musical ideas, poetic lyrics, and formidable bass playing and package them into commercially attractive sounds.
Spalding was the youngest instructor to teach at the famous Berklee College of Music at age 20 and has released several genre-defining albums including Radio Music Society (2012), Emily’s D+Evolution (2016), and the Exposure (2017), created impressively in just 77 hours during a Facebook live stream.
French-born bass virtuoso and composer Renaud Garcia-Fons is often referred to as the “Paganini of the double bass.” Whether it’s classical or jazz, Garcia-Fons’s strong melodic sense carries through all his musical projects. He has released several successful albums, including Alboreá (1995) and Fuera (1999) collaborating with accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier.
American bassist Missy Raines (born 1962) is a highly acclaimed songwriter and bluegrass performer. Raines has won 10 International Bluegrass Music Awards (IBMA) for the bass player of the year. She’s also the first woman to win the IBMA Bass Player of the Year Awards.
Her 1998 solo album My Place in the Sun achieved wide acclaim and an IBMA Instrumental Recording of the year. She has worked with other notable bluegrass artists, such as Jim Hurst and the Claire Lynch Band.
Danish upright bassist Patricia Day is the bassist and lead singer of the rockabilly band the HorrorPops. After forming the band in 1996, the group produced some of the most forward-thinking sounds in rockabilly. Their critically acclaimed albums like Hell Yeah (2004) and Kiss Kiss Kill Kill (2008) are not to be missed.
Adam Ben Ezra
Israeli bassist and multi-instrumentalist Adam Ben Ezra takes the double bass into many different musical settings. From jazz to rock and even world music, he seems to do it all.
After catching the attention of record labels in 2008, Ezra has gone on to perform all over Europe and the US. In 2015, Ezra released his debut album Can’t Stop Running. He continues to perform with a myriad of artists and bands.
How many strings does a double bass have?
The double bass has four strings. They’re tuned E, A, D, and G. Some double basses come with a fifth string tuned to C to play higher notes. But, that is far less common.
When was the double bass invented?
The invention of the double bass originated around the 15th century in Europe. The earliest illustration of a double bass dates back to 1516.
What does the double bass sound like?
The double bass is the lowest of the orchestral string family. Its sound is low, dark, earthy, and heavy, with many overtones and tone colors.
Double bass vs upright bass: Final thoughts
The double bass goes by many names depending on where it’s played and who you talk to. Either way, the double bass is not only one of the most versatile instruments in western music but a crucial driver in the development of new genres and styles.
Where would jazz be without a strong, swinging walking bass line played on a deep upright bass?
Throughout the centuries, the double bass has been in the background, laying down the low-end wherever it’s played. And, it continues to inspire and enthrall both listeners and players alike.