Why are the two basses different?

Our Principal Bassist Max Kasper gives us the answer:

“This is a question that we often get asked by patrons. The answer lies in the history of the instrument. The double basses alone have a dual lineage that still shows up in their design to this day.

Before the rise of the violin family, there were viols (sometimes called gambas). This family of string instruments had flat backs and blunt corners, were tuned in fourths, and had frets. The bows were held underhanded.

The violin family, by contrast, had round backs and pointy corners, were tuned in fifths, and had no frets. Their bows were held with the hand on top of the stick. They had a more exciting sound and eventually became the dominant string instrument family.

Since a bass is a bass is a bass, and the chances of finding a player that had the “right” instrument were somewhat limited, it became only practical to have a 16 foot bass (our modern double bass) of any parentage playing with the group.

The shape and dimensions of the violin were very well defined almost 300 years ago by a group of violin makers in Cremona, Italy. (Stradivarius would be the most famous of these.) The Double bass has had no such defining group of makers. In fact, there are spectacular sounding instruments of all shapes and sizes, and to this day makers do not agree on what is the “best” size or shape. It seems that for us, it is not the form, but the skill of the instrument maker that counts.

Lena’s bass is mostly from the viol family lineage. Her bass has a flat back, blunt corners, and is tuned in fourths. She holds her bow, however, in the overhand (violin) manner. My instrument is like a big violin. It has a round back and pointy corners, and is tuned in fifths. I hold my bow in the underhand manner. Our equipment could not be more different, but it does not matter. Remember the old adage: “It’s not the size (or shape), it’s what you do with it that counts!””