Someone studying the history of the Double bass would soon see that two basic factors determined our instrument’s evolution. First and foremost was the influence of composers and their drive for the low “C”. The other was the technology of string making and what pitches were achievable with materials of the day. In this century we have made some sense of what was happening pre-1850 with regard to the role of the Double bass.

Over the years various methods of realizing low C have come about:

  • Tuning the bass in fifths (CGDA)
  • Using a five string Double bass ((B)CEADG)
  • Using mechanical devices (C extension)
  • Tuning the bass a fourth lower (BEAD)
  • Scordatura (de-tuning) of the bottom string

With regards to tuning in fifths, consider what Paul Brun wrote in his book[1] entitled History of the Double Bass:

Fifth tuning would be both logical and rational, were it not for the resulting fingering difficulties, which had already caused its rejection at about the end of the 18th century. It was tested again in 1895 by Viseur, a professor at the Paris Conservatory. Although he succeeded in convincing several other bass players to take up this system of tuning, it was once again abandoned soon after his death. In Germany, piano maker and Double bass player Gustav Bushman attempted to reintroduce the bass in fifth tuning. In spite of encouragement by Wagner, Von Bulow and Nikish, he had to give it up because of fingering problems.

The technical difficulties linked with the fifth tuning are of less importance for jazz musicians, who have no printed art to follow. This is why it is sometimes used by jazz bassists, such as the American Red Mitchell, who explains in a Newsletter of the International Society of Bassists that he finally settled on this system because it seemed the most natural solution to the problem of obtaining low C without the awkwardness of an extension or a five-string instrument. According to him, the fifth tuning makes it easier to play certain double stops such as tenths at the expanse of losing some ease of playing in the smaller intervals (seconds and thirds in particular). Scale passages tend to be played up the strings, and this tuning facilitates open positions triads.

Italian virtuoso Isaia Bille found this system “more sonorous, ampler in its vibrations and more perfect in its acoustic and didactic proceeding” than the EADG type of bass. He rejected its use, however, owing to the frequent left-hand shifting it caused.

Mr. Bille certainly had the right appreciation of fifths, but with all due respect, he was wrong about the “frequent left-hand shifting.” In theory, it is natural to assume this to be the case as a player in fifths becomes much more sensitive to the keys works are played in, however the reality seems to be a slight increase in shifting that in my opinion does not make “frequent left-hand shifting” a reason to not play in fifths. I will grant this though: to play in fifths requires a solidly developed technique. A player who uses a rigid fingering system “a la Simandl” for instance, would find the difficulties overwhelming at times and injury a very real threat. An ability to play in all positions and strings of the instrument would be a definite advantage!

Fingering solutions are a fascinating aspect of fifth tuning and sometimes call for clear lateral thinking that can be rewarding and amusing because the answer might be so far removed from anything you were ever taught! I would like to mention that although I did start out in this tuning in order to obtain a low C, it is not the reason I continued after I learned how difficult it would be to re-learn everything I knew. (Indeed, re-learning how to read music was the most difficult part. I play everything at pitch now.) No, the reason I continued was that for the first time in my career, I understood the intonation of the other instruments in the orchestra and the other stringed instruments in particular. I suppose I had always tried to play a sort of “tempered” intonation, especially with piano, but suddenly I had an instrument whose intonation is determined by harmonic function and response to itself, and a whole new world of intonation opened up to me. It was clear to me there was no way to turn back. This was too exciting!