A Bass By Any Name Is Not … Quite Agreed Upon

I remember reading Gary Karr’s Article in Double-Bassist that was about the unresolved disagreement about what our type of bass is called. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the orchestral genre of bass, Gary Karr is a virtuoso solo bassist. His story and solo bass in the orchestral genre can’t be covered easily in a few sentences, so suffice to say that a certain segment of bassist jaws drop at what he can play on a bass. This article was written about 10 years ago and now that the upright bass has reemerged in popularity, it looks like things have sorted themselves out.

Let’s recall the names:

upright bass
double bass (with no dash)
string bass
bass violin
bass viol
standup bass
Contra Bass

Talk about subjective subjects, it’s one that I’ve struggled with when people ask me what “the thing” that I play is. Of course, I just call it a bass, but if people ask me to elaborate my answer might depend on what day of the week it was. In other words, it depended on what type of music I was playing at that time:

Double-bass (orchestral)

Upright bass (For anything else)

The term “upright” used to sound goofy to me and I preferred “string bass” over it, but I’m just relieved that there are less names to deal with. It seemed as if since we couldn’t agree on a name, the music merchants industry worked it out for us. Marketing people need one name for a product as do the Web designers. I saw a pivot point when there were links on music store websites and tags on instruments labeled “upright bass”. If an Upright Bass is what I play, so be it. Now the name has finally grown on me.

However, it seems that there are still those two names left on the list. Orchestral people call it Double-bass, which has been written on orchestral scores for centuries, because in early music, basses played cello parts and doubled it since it plays an octave below what is notated. For everyone else, that name makes no sense since functionally we rarely double anything except maybe on a few notable tunes for a few bars. Even anything past the baroque period has independent bass parts, so we deviated from that. It never sounded right to me calling it a double bass in a jazz or miscellaneous setting.

With a large majority bassists (including people who play bass guitar) calling it an upright, maybe at some point in the future I’ll have to get used to the term Upright Bass even in an orchestra. For now I liken it to Fiddle vs Violin; what genre it’s in determines what it’s call. Life is easier just calling it a bass.

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