As confusing as this title may be, any bass player today confronted with performing and holding down the low notes of the rhythm section knows all to well that there is not just one instrument for the job.
Historically there were simpler times with the bass, but not really. Before the standard orchestral style bass (bass Viol) became the norm there was the viola de gamba from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Here is a link to a great article regarding its history. After reading it you will find that the viola de gamba had many configurations strings and even tunings over the years. In addition like today, the “bass player” could be found wearing many hats from supportive roles in addition to playing higher strings for melodic functions.
What is significant in the modern bass actually has to do as much with string technology and electricity when we consider what is still commonly used to hold down the low end of most music today. -The electric bass, and upright, string bass or double bass.
Most of the Earlier Double basses only had three strings tuned in 4ths A, D & G. The problem with the low E was that the gut used in string making could not be made thick enough to produce the low frequency without being floppy and just plain to thick. The string length could not practically be made any longer than 43 inches for a man to play practically. Once the technology of wrapping the gut with copper or silver was invented for string instruments, the density of this wrapping made the core gut size smaller, thus a string could be tuned to at a proper tension producing the pitch with out being floppy or too thick. Hence to Lower E string was added making the “double bass” typically an octave lower than the viola de gamba. This I am sure made the composers and conductors to the “modern orchestra” happy to be able to fill out the big halls with plenty of bottom end for the rest of the instrumentation to stand on. I believe the longer string lengths found on the modern double bass are a direct result with attempts to go lower in the register. -thus the longer string, as the short string would be to floppy and or thick to play on the traditional Viola de gamba of earlier times.
The 4 string has reigned supreme for over a century. When ampeg introduced the first electric “baby bass” it followed to 4 string format both in tuning string length and was played upright. Within a decade or two Leo Fender broke all the rules and decided to use the same tuning but with a 34″ scale and have it played more like a guitar. You can thank both steel core wound strings and the amplifier for this. -without them the Fender Bass or for that matter the baby bass would not exist. Nor would rock and roll. On another note however, the Mexicans had been playing “bass” for centuries with instruments such as the Bajo Sexto, tuned differently than the fender bass, but none the less these instruments had the same function in a group and played more like “guitars”.
Ah, but then just like in the days of the viola de gamba, musicians being as they are enjoy challenges. Many musicians confined to the low register out of necessity for the music and group, often find themselves wanting to play melody or play higher notes because they can. Dragonetti, Jaco and Scott Lafaro perhaps three bassists know for their work to push the bass into melodic roles all paved the way for the modern bass construction and repertoire.
In the past few decades makers such as Ibanez, Fender, Spector, and ESP to mention a few have all created both 5 & 6 string basses. Perhaps the most common 5 strings have a low B, giving more low end and liked by many rock, funk and dance band performers. Also the 6 String bass has become popular with many jazz artists for the high register extension with the high C string.
Furthermore, many Classical bassists in Europe prefer a 5 string bass often tuned with the low B string rather than playing a traditional 4 string bass with a low B extension. It has been my finding that American classical players are more traditional with the 4 string bass.
Finally makers such as Zeta, Azola, NS Design and Yamaha to name a few have re-invented the upright bass into the “electric upright”, which has the same feel and strings as its acoustic brother, but has become an instrument class on its own. For example it is hard to argue the role of the electric upright in a good latin band. For modern Samba and Salsa sounds the big distinctive sound with rather tight notes at higher volumes is really only obtainable by the electric upright bass.
So, 4 string, 5 string, 6 string acoustic, electric bass…upright around the neck. Go figure, I guess it is really what you need to do or want to do. BirdlandMusic.NET has a full selection of double basses and Bass guitars for whatever you need or want to do.
So enjoy the bottom as a brethren of the low end junkies!
Bill Trotman, Bass Player