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Development of the Double Bass

With its sloping shoulders and tuning in Perfect 4ths, most scholars believe the double bass is a descendent of the violone, a member of the viol family. Because of the enormity of the instrument, the bass has been subject to considerable experimentation in size, shape, number of strings and tuning. Bass viols in the 16th century were tuned in a combination of 4ths and 3rds (much like the modern guitar) contained frets, and often had 5 or 6 strings. During the 1700s and 1800s, 3-string basses tuned in 5ths, 4-string basses tuned in 4ths, and 5-string basses tuned in a combination of 4ths and 3rds were all in use. Some instruments (particularly 5-string instruments) contained frets, others did not. Dragonetti is pictured playing a 3-string , non-fretted instrument. Berlioz advocated having a combination of 3- and 4-string basses in the orchestra: three stringers for their volume, and four stringers for their accuracy in pitch.

The orchestral tuning of E-A-D-G did not become common until around 1900, and experiments with tuning continue today. Four and five-string models are still in common use.

Some 4-string basses contain extensions (mechanical or fingered) attached to the E string, which allow the player to play down to a low C. This allows the bassist to double all of the music written for cello, which often goes down to the C, without needing to transpose notes up an octave.


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