Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the double bass? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

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How much progress will I make?
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The Double Bass

Family: String
Cost: from £449 (the lowest price we could find for a new instrument, VAT included)
Best age to start: 11 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes
Easy to find a teacher? Not very

The double-bass is an instrument we would like to encourage: it's not very difficult to start with, it's a very versatile instrument welcomed in many different kinds of ensemble, and there are never enough double-bass players around. Insruments have actually got cheaper recently. It's also quite good fun to play!
The double-bass is a sort of giant violin, although actually it's descended from an older form of instrument called the viol, which is one reason why it has sloping shoulders instead to the very round shoulders of the violin or 'cello (the other reason is that the rounded shoulders would get in the way when you play it). It has four thick steel strings tuned to E below the bass clef, then A, D and G. The bow is short and heavy compared to a 'cello bow. As on the violin you rub the rosined bow across the strings to make the sound, and obtain different notes by stopping the strings against the fingerboard with the fingers of your left hand.
Double bass music is written in the bass clef, like the left hand of the piano. It is, technically, a "transposing instrument" whose notes do not sound as they are written. In fact, the top open string of the bass, written as G at the top of the bass clef, actually sounds like the G an octave (eight notes) lower. In practice players can ignore this, though, as notes an octave apart are pretty well interchangeable in all music.
Some people play the bass standing up behind it or beside it, but most teachers don't like this as it can lead to an awkward left hand shape which will, in time, inhibit the fingering action. A good alternative is to stand behind the bass with your left foot up on a chair, but on the whole it is usually better to sit on a tall stool with the instrument leaning between your legs. The stool is one thing you should buy straight away. It needs to be very tall for an adult, but for young people there is a good alternative in the adjustable bar stools with a big wooden screw mechanism sold cheaply by Ikea and other furniture chains (the Ikea one is called the "Ringo" Bar Stool and costs about £22).
You also need something like a 'cellist's "mushroom" to hold the spike at the bottom of the instrument, preventing it from slipping and protecting the floor. A piece of wood with a little divot in it for the spike, and a piece of string to tie it to the leg of the stool, is cheaper.
Double basses can be obtained in different sizes. Most people start on a 1/2 size (although there is a smaller "mini-bass" available) which can be managed well by the average 12-year-old. A 3/4 size bass will last you the rest of your educational life, and in fact some players never bother to move up to a full-size bass - these can be very big indeed, and terribly unwieldy. You can start playing the bass as soon as you are big enough, with the help of a small instrument and a big stool, to reach the fingerboard comfortably. Many young players start at 11 or 12, but there is also quite a tradition of players coming to the bass fairly late, perhaps transferring from another instrument when they realise that there are more opportunities on the bass.
The double-bass is not a difficult instrument to start on, although once you get up to Grade 4 or 5 and have to do a lot of "shifting" (i.e. moving your whole left hand up and down the fingerboard to obtain different combinations of notes instead of just your fingers) it's just as hard as anything else. It is not just a big 'cello, though - a fact that some 'cello teachers seem to overlook.
The fingering system is different from any other string instrument for three reasons:
• because the strings are tuned in fourths instead of fifths as on violin, viola and 'cello
• because the thickness of the strings makes them difficult to "stop", so most bass players use the fourth finger and the pinkie together. In effect, they have only three fingers instead of four, though strangely they number them "1", "2" and "4"
• because the large size of the instrument means that the notes are physically further apart on the fingerboard, so the left hand has to move about more.
The bowing is a little different, too. The bow is short and heavy, and a good bass player pays far more attention to the "bite" of the bow - the way it digs into the string, grips it and then releases it to start the note - than other string players who are used to a more gentle stroking motion. Double bassists are required to play "pizzicato" (plucking the strings instead of bowing them) more often than other string players.
The double bass can be useful in most kinds of ensemble. It is essential in an orchestra, is often used on the bass line in a wind band, is essential to a traditional jazz band and desirable in almost every other kind of jazz, and can often find a place in folk and pop groups. The bass also takes very well to being amplified with a little microphone fixed to its woodwork. As there are never enough young bass players around, you don't have to be very advanced before you will find yourself becoming quite popular!
The double-bass is a very tough instrument (we used to sit on ours at railway stations) and damage is rare. When it does occur, the local violin repairer will be able to help. One of the most alarming faults is when the neck comes adrift at the joint with the body. This looks disastrous but is not difficult or expensive to repair. Many cheaper instruments are made of plywood which is a very strong method of construction. If you are offered a plywood bass, don't turn your nose up at it. Occasionally you will be lucky enough to find a plywood bass that sounds absolutely beautiful - no-one knows why - and most of them are entirely suitable for a beginner.
Double-basses do not have hard cases (they do exist but are dreadfully heavy and expensive) so one uses a soft cover instead - try to get a padded one which will protect the instrument from knocks. Strings are made from chrome steel, are enormously expensive (between £25 and £40 each for cheap ones) but almost never break. We know one double bass that had the same set of strings for over twenty years.
Bows need rehairing from time to time, and need coarser hair than the others, but this should still not cost more than £15 - £20. Double bass bows need a special kind of rosin, coarser than that used by violinists or 'cellists. Beware a type called "Bear Brand" - this is very sticky indeed, and some players find it difficult to live with.
The only real drawback to this wonderful instrument is the difficulty of transporting it. A young player does need patient, supportive parents preferably with a large car! That said, you'd be surprised how small a car will accommodate a full-size bass if you know how. Would you believe a Mini? A bass is mostly thin air so it's not enormously heavy, just big and awkward to handle. When you have to carry your bow, your stool, your spike-holder and your music as well, you really need a permanent assistant! The best way to store a double-bass is either standing up and leaning into the corner of the room, with its strings facing the wall, or lying down on its side. Some basses have flat backs, and some curved. If yours is curved, never leave it lying on its back for long. It may sag out of shape eventually. After all, it is only a big empty box and has virtually no interior support.
A new 1/2 or 3/4 size double-bass of "student" quality will cost from about £500. Very small ones and full-size ones are more expensive. Really good instruments, when you reach that stage, can cost many thousands of pounds. See the page on Upgrading your instrument. Before buying, check to see if your school, your teacher, the local Music Service or even the local Youth Orchestra, can lend you one.
The bass is one instrument it is possible to learn without a teacher, especially if you already have some musical experience on another instrument. We know this for a fact because that's exactly what we did ourselves, many years ago. People often need to do this because it's so hard to find a suitable teacher, and if you are in the same situation we suggest you have a look at A Tune a Day for String Bass. It's fairly old and may no longer be the best tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable for lone students.
In case it makes your decision easier, you might like to listen to a couple of CDs that show just what the bass can do. You can buy them online - Double Bass Parade features the solo bass, while London Double Bass Sound is a whole orchestra of basses - very exciting!
• Moderately expensive instrument
• Fairly easy to start
• Quite hard to find a teacher
• Excellent opportunities for group music-making
• Not particularly prone to damage, and easy to repair
• Difficult to transport


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005