Upright Bass vs Double Bass (Clearing Up The Confusion)

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  • What is the difference between Upright and Double Bass?
  • How do you play a double bass?
  • How do you tune a double bass?
  • While you’re here, check out our separate post on double bass vs electric bass.

Double bass? Upright bass? Wait, there’s even a Doghouse? I get it.

Believe me when I tell you that I was one confused electric bass player when I first started out.

Getting to grips with all things double bass can sometimes get a little dizzying. So much to look out and listen for and so much new terminology.

What is a bow? How do you use it? Is there a difference between upright and double bass? How do you even play this thing?

Buckle up, low-end lovers, and let’s talk about this glorious instrument for a minute.

What is the Difference Between Upright and Double Bass?

The good news? There is no difference between Upright and Double bass.

They are different names for the same instrument. The double bass has also been known as the Contrabass, the Bass Violin, and the String Bass.

There are also terms for the double bass that are genre specific. For example, a bluegrass player might refer to their Doghouse Bass or Bull Fiddle.

The Double Bass Story

Let’s start off with a journey through just a short bit of double bass history.

Like other string instruments, the Double Bass has been around far, far longer than you might think.

The earliest records we have of Double Basses as we know them today come from Italy, specifically Cremona. The earliest double basses date to the 1500s.

The instrument has undergone many developments and changes over the centuries, finally developing into the instrument we know today.

The double bass has moved from being a purely classical instrument to being heard in genres spanning blues, jazz, country, and many others.

The largest member of the string instrument family, the double bass’ large size allows it to have the lowest pitch among stringed instruments.

How is Double Bass Played?

Traditionally, the double bass is played exactly like any other string instrument, whether a violin or a cello.

A bow is dragged across the strings to produce a note. Playing with a bow is called playing “arco.”

However, the upright bass can also be plucked with one or two fingers.

Playing the upright with your fingers gives that classic double bass thump. Plucking the strings like this is called playing “pizzicato.”

What is Double Bass Tuning?

Good news for electric bass players making the switch here. You are going to find the tuning of the upright very familiar.

The strings on the double bass are tuned from lowest to highest E – A – D – G.

Like your bass guitar. The precision bass was named for the “precision” of its frets, which made it easier for guitarists to switch to bass after all. So it makes sense that they would share the same tuning.

That tuning makes the double bass unique amongst the orchestral strings.

While the traditional tuning interval of other string instruments, like the violin, viola, or cello, is tuned in fifths.

The double bass is tuned in fourths, making it far more accessible to electric players than it may seem initially.

What Kind of Strings Does the Double Bass Use?

The choice of strings you make is going to be important.

Because the double bass is an acoustic instrument, how the string interacts with your bass will affect the sound you get heavily.

There are three main types of double bass strings:

Orchestral Strings

The strings are designed to be played with a bow, and as such, they have a fast response time.

And while they can be played pizzicato, they do not sustain as well as other string types. 

Jazz Strings

The slower response of jazz strings makes them less than ideal for arco playing, although they can be played that way.

The increased sustain and slower response make them ideal for pizzicato.

That is why you will most likely encounter this type of string on a jazz player’s bass, and if that is where you are headed, you better start out with these.

Slap Strings

These are sometimes called weed whackers.

They are not suitable to play with a bow and often have a nylon core that makes them perfect for slap styles like rockabilly and bluegrass. Do not buy these if you need a versatile string.

What are the Different Double Bass Sizes?

Now, if you are like me and… um… not exactly tall, then I understand looking at this gigantic instrument and just feeling dwarfed by it.

But I can say from experience that it isn’t that scary, and the bass I have now is a ¾ size that I get around just fine.

But I know bodies are not all the same, and the double bass comes in various sizes to cater to players of different proportions and ages.

The smallest size double bass is the ¼ size. The ¼ double bass is 61.5 inches long, while the ½ size is 65.5 inches.

The ¾ size I mentioned earlier comes in at 71.5 inches, and a 4/4 or Full-Size double bass is a towering 75 inches.

There is a bass out there to suit every body type. As I said, I am not a tall man, and I am very comfortable on my ¾ double bass.

I did take my time before I bought my bass, though, and I would advise you to do the same.

Play as many different basses as you can before you commit. There are variations in the feel on the instruments that will affect how you play.

The neck on a smaller-size bass may feel much more unwieldy than the one you found intimidating.

Get out there and play as many basses as you can until you find the right fit for you.

How are Double Basses Made?

There are three main types of double bass construction: the laminated bass, the fully carved bass, and the hybrid type.

Laminated basses are made, as the name suggests, using sheets of laminated maple.

To make the sides, the plywood is shaped and pressed into a mold to form the back and sides, while the top and back are constructed by pressing them into shape.

Carved double basses tend to be significantly more expensive than their plywood brethren.

The top and back are carved in these instruments, while the sides are made from solid wood.

Hybrid basses combine the two and usually have a back and sides made from plywood, while the top is carved.

This construction keeps the price point of these instruments at a much more manageable level.

Why are Double Basses so Expensive?

Double basses are expensive because they are constructed using expensive materials.

Tonewoods are costly, and even with a plywood bass, the volume of material you use to make an instrument that size will be impressive.

No matter how a bass is made, it will also require the work of a professional luthier.

Whether the luthier is there to hand carve an entire instrument or do multiple setups, the labor involved is intensive and costly.

If you are just thinking about switching to double bass, but the thought of investing that kind of money even in getting started makes your blood run cold, then fear not; there are some options!

You can start off by renting a student-level instrument and find out if you even want to continue playing before investing more money.

Once you have decided on bass or no bass, start scouring online second and music groups and marketplaces.

I found my bass in a mildly battered state but reasonably priced. They are out there; I promise.

Is Upright Bass Harder than Bass Guitar?

No, I don’t think double bass is harder than bass guitar. They are very different, though.

While you don’t need to worry as much about intonation on a fretted instrument, it will be critical for one that doesn’t have frets.

If you have ever played a fretless electric, you will know precision is critical.