All about the jazz bass? This guide to the jazz double bass for beginners will explain the stringed instrument and its accessories and give you some tips on where to start when it comes to learning the upright bass.
The double bass is one of the iconic instruments of jazz and it is present on most recordings. Also called the upright bass or string bass, it is usually played by plucking the strings while in classical music it is mostly played with a bow.
Although the double bass is cumbersome, physically demanding to play and surprisingly quiet in volume compared to its cousin the electric bass, there is nothing quite like its rich, percussive sound.
The name ‘double bass’ reflects the instrument’s principal role in the orchestra, to ‘double’ the cello part an octave lower. It is tuned in fourths, E-A-D-G low to high, like the bottom four strings of a guitar. The double bass is a transposing string instrument, the notes sounding an octave lower than written. It is used in many styles of music, including country and bluegrass.
If you’re looking for some help in getting started on the double bass, you’re in the right place. Read on to find out more about learning how to play the bass, buying a new or second-hand instrument, set up and maintenance, accessories and a few listening recommendations.
How Easy is it to Start Learning Double Bass?
It is quite easy to learn the rudiments of the instrument and begin playing with other musicians, especially if you have some musical training already. Beginners start to play the open strings and gradually learn the notes on the fingerboard while developing a consistent plucking or bowing action.
To learn good habits and make good progress, it is best to take bass lessons. With poor technique, even playing for short periods can result in hand cramps and blisters.
A good jazz teacher should be able to teach you a good playing technique, how to compose walking basslines, reading music in bass clef and other essential skills.
Many of the jazz greats studied with classical players to develop their technique and knowledge of the instrument, also using method books such as Simandl. The principle of using the natural weight of each arm to hold down the strings and draw sound from the instrument applies to both classical playing and jazz.
Some of the top players have published method books, including Ray Brown and Ron Carter. Music courses and bass lessons are available online too.
To play jazz well requires ear training and knowledge of music theory, and this can be learned from any good musician, such as a pianist or saxophonist.
Jazz courses and summer schools are a great way to learn and start playing with other musicians, but the recorded history of jazz is the best learning resource of all.
Experienced bassists often transcribe music from recordings to adapt and incorporate into their own playing.
Buying a New or Second-Hand Double Bass for Beginners
You can buy a new double bass with a bow and a soft padded case for less than $1,000. This will be an instrument made out of durable laminated wood (plywood). Laminated basses generally come from a factory in Eastern Europe or China.
For around $3,000 you can buy a new instrument that is fully carved, usually from solid pieces of maple and spruce with an ebony fingerboard. These make a richer and more detailed sound.
More expensive instruments are made with more care and attention, using better quality wood and fittings. You can easily spend $20,000 on an upright bass handmade by a luthier (violin maker).
Between these price points, there are lots of well-made second-hand instruments available, including German and French instruments from the late 19th and 20th century.
Many of the classic jazz recordings were made on instruments like these, probably because they were the ones available. It is generally accepted that basses improve with age, as the wood dries and vibrates more freely.
If you decide to look for a second-hand double bass, there is always a chance that you will stumble across a bargain, particularly if someone is looking to get rid of a bass that is not being played and is taking up space at home.
Set-up and Maintenance
The double bass is so big that if parts are poorly fitted or out of alignment, the instrument becomes very difficult to play. Setting up is a vital job and includes adjustments to the bridge height, soundpost and other areas.
A new double bass will most likely need a set up by a luthier before it sounds its best and is comfortable to play. In contrast, a second-hand double bass that has been used and well-maintained might not need a set-up. An old neglected instrument may need some restoration work and a set-up.
Carved instruments can suffer cracks, which need to be glued. It is best to get an instrument checked by a luthier before you buy it.
What About Bass Rental?
Renting a bass is a good way to start while you get a feel for the instrument and decide whether it really is for you. Many music shops and education providers rent instruments for a small monthly fee.
Types of Double Bass
Basses vary in shape and size. The instrument was developed in the 15th century as a bass instrument in the violin family and some basses resemble other string instruments in the family like the violin, viola or cello.
However, there are variations in shape and size, which show the influence of another family of stringed instruments, the viols. Some have a rounded or ‘swell’ back and some have a flat back.
There is no standard size, although most adults play what is considered to be a 3/4 size instrument, with a scale (length of the vibrating string) of about 42 inches or 106cm maximum.
Bass players use various accessories to meet the needs of the playing that they do. A bow (French or German-style) is essential for playing classical music.
To make the bass more audible in a band setting, most players amplify the double bass using a bridge-mounted pickup, fed to a small amplifier. At concert halls, the sound engineer might put a microphone on the bass to amplify its natural sound through the PA system.
A double bass will easily fit in most hatchback cars with the back seats down. A bottom-mounted wheel is handy for moving the instrument around. Many players perform standing but it is very useful to have a stool for the option of sitting down while you play.
Many of the classic jazz recordings were made using gut strings, an animal product. Metal and hybrid metal-wrapped plastic strings are now the most popular types of string.
Strings can last for at least a year before the sound quality deteriorates and players are known to use metal strings for several years.
Listening Guide: Double Bass For Beginners
There are plenty of legendary jazz bass players to get inspired by.
For many, Ray Brown and Ron Carter are the personifications of taste and swing. Jimmy Blanton and Scott LaFaro were virtuoso players who died tragically young.
Charles Mingus was a great bass player and one of the finest composers in jazz. Dave Holland, Christian McBride and John Patitucci are some of the modern greats.
We hope you found this guide to the double bass for beginners helpful. A double bass can be an expensive purchase so we recommend renting before buying an affordable instrument and getting it set up well. Remember also to invest in tuition to develop your playing ability and get the most enjoyment out of playing.
Find out more about the greatest double bassists in jazz. Head over to our articles on jazz-funk icon and bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius or learn more about the Miles Davis collaborator Paul Chambers in our roundup of his greatest albums.