It’s All About da’ Bass–Yes In Concert Band!
It’s an Instrument with Many Names…
Jazz or country groups tend to refer to it as a string bass, an upright bass, or a bass violin. Other names for the double bass are contrabass, bass fiddle and bull fiddle. The double bass is usually about six feet tall with a body that’s about four feet long and weighs between 30 and 40 pounds. There are (broadly) three levels of quality: carved (all spruce and maple), hybrid (carved top and plywood back) and plywood. It usually has four large-gauge strings tuned in fourths from low E to G. I often compare carrying the double bass around to carrying your coffee table around… banging into doors, dinging it here and there. But I truly love the instrument.
Basses are typically found in symphony orchestras and an orchestra may have up to eight double bassists. The bass instrument goes back to the 16th century and was an integral part of symphonic orchestrations. The bass range is an octave lower than the cello and often plays in unison with the cello. (It doubles the cello one octave lower—hence double bass.)
But Not Just for Orchestras Any More!
Jazz groups and country bands typically have one bass player and the bass was really a substitute for the tuba back in the 20s and 30s playing mostly roots and fifths of the chord.
Bass players who play in symphonies play with a bow called arco, while bass players in jazz groups or country bands play by plucking the strings with their fingers called pizzicato. Great jazz bassists like Ray Brown and Charles Mingus raised the instrument to new heights in jazz.
Playing in a Concert Band
I have just begun spending my winters in Naples, Florida. I have been playing double bass for decades, primarily in orchestras and jazz groups and was looking around for a group to play with. A friend of mine who plays clarinet mentioned the Naples New Horizons Concert Band. However, as far as I was concerned, double basses didn’t belong in a concert band. Concert bands were brass, winds and percussion—no strings. So I hesitated to approach the band director.
In the meantime, I did some research. It turns out that there’s a long history of double basses (and more recently, electric basses) being used in concert bands. The 1938 University of Illinois Concert Band, for example, had two double basses. While string basses are not commonly found in concert bands, they are found—usually one, sometimes two.
So I Contact my Local Naples New Horizons Band, led by Dr. Ken Carper and asked Ken if he was interested in having a double bass in his group. At first, I felt a little hesitation on his part but he was open to trying it out. I went to one rehearsal before Christmas break. He seemed to like the different sound that the bass produced and we decided to go forward. However, all he had was tuba music (of course). So I took the music home for the month break and transcribed the book for the bass register (which I have since discovered is what many bassists have to do if they want to play in a band).
Now I have been to a few rehearsals and a couple of concerts and have received many compliments about how the bass adds a lot to the group. I usually play arco to add volume to the sound and will probably have to amplify the bass to make the sound fuller. But there are spaces and registers in the music that the bass definitely enhances and I can feel it when it happens. And, I think the others feel it too because every once in a while someone turns around and smiles when that beautiful deep string sound jumps out in a particular bar.
My Advice to Double Bass Players
Don’t hesitate to approach your local New Horizons band director and ask to play in the group, and by all means invite a double bass player into your concert band if you know one. You’ll both be glad you did!