Now we’ve had a preview of some of the things you’ll be looking at when learning double bass, let’s see how we go about it. Learning the instrument may seem blindingly obvious to some, but others (of which I was one, back in my student days) often fail to understand what they’re working towards with all those exercises and pieces. Let’s go back to first principles, which probably apply to all stringed instruments.
We start off with open strings, learning how to bow in different directions, make a great sound, and practise string changes with both up and down bows. Okay so far. Now, as soon as we bring the left hand into play, we’re adding extra notes to our musical vocabulary; remember that Victor Wooten has perceptively described the development of technique in this way. We learn more notes in order to be able to express ourselves on our chosen instrument. The more notes and music we know, the more we can say.
So we start with the half position, and the notes on each of the four strings. This gives a window of notes that are immediately available under the hand. Once we’ve got comfortable with that, and playing pieces that fit this position (F and Bb keys work very well here) we can then go on up a semitone to first position. Now you repeat the process, learning the next window of notes and keys.
Now the important bit, which will be echoed all the way up the neck: learning to move between positions. While half and first positions cover all the semitones between strings – covering what Steve Bailey calls ‘the area of the neck that pays the rent’ – eventually you’re going to explore higher positions all the way up the fingerboard. So on we go, expanding our range all the time. Add 2nd, 2 and 1/2, 3rd, 3 and 1/2, 4th and so on. New positions give you the option of playing exactly the same pitch at different points on different strings, and you get to choose which is the right one for you.
A slight digression here: one of the reasons I distrust tab so much is that it doesn’t encourage you to think for yourself, although it can be useful for fingering exercises. However, it’s not the be-all and end-all some folks claim it to be.
As we add more positions, many of the exercises in the books will have you tearing up and down the neck like a mad person: you may wonder why it’s like pulling teeth. What is not explained in most bass methods is what any particular exercise is designed to do. Invariably it’s designed to develop your muscle memory in position shifts that could be anything from a semitone to an octave or more, and all on the same string. Once the move is stored in the subconscious, you don’t have to look at the neck to see where you are and lose your place in the music, or eye contact with other musos. It all comes down to muscle memory, as you don’t have frets to help you, which is the whole point of learning these exercises. They’re a workout for hands, eyes, co-ordination and brain. They’re good for you.
In my column in BGM 87 I stated that I was uncertain how positions of the double bass were named and developed. Well, that issue had hardly hit the doormat when I had a phone call from a reader, Mark Meggido. In fact we ran across each other in the late 70s and early 80s during my time with Diz Disley, so you never know when your past is going to catch up with you. Mark is a spiffing guy who has provided the answer to my conundrum. Mark was told many years ago by his teacher that the position numbers are related to the diatonic notes of C major on the G string, but starting with B. If you think of the fourth finger in each of the whole numbered positions, it will correspond with the naturals in the scale like this: 1st/B, 2nd/C, 3rd/D, 4th/E, 5th/F, 6th/G, 7th/A. In the last two positions you’ll be using your 3rd finger instead, but you get the idea. The half positions therefore each deal with the sharps or flats between the naturals.