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how to play the Double Bass

The most important question of all: How do you play the Double Bass?

So you’ve purchased your Double Bass – what’s next? Learning how to play the Double Bass might be a good start… This section of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning the Double Bass’ will start you off in the right course.

How To Play The Double Bass

The Four Strings

“Well, you can’t play much on that”, said my mother the first time she saw my double bass. “It’s only got four notes.” Luckily, I was soon able to persuade her otherwise!

Of course, my mother was referring to the four strings on the front of the double bass. Like all bowed string instruments, double bass players create notes by pressing down the strings in different places with the fingers of their left hand. This makes the string shorter, and the notes higher in pitch.

Look carefully at the strings on the front of your double bass, and you will notice that they do not all look alike, but get progressively thicker across the instrument. The thinnest string is called G, the next thinnest D, after that A, and finally, the thickest string is E. The name of each string is the note it makes when you play it without pressing any fingers down at all. This is also called an open string.

There are many ways of remembering the names of your four open strings. Remember always to travel from the thinnest string towards the thickest:

Green Dragons Are Evil

Greedy Dogs Always Eat

or, and my personal favourite:

Good Daleks Always Exterminate

How To Play The Double Bass

Making Your First Sounds

Now place your right thumb on the side of the fingerboard, next to your E string. Reach across with either your index or second finger (whichever you find easier) and pluck the strings, in turn, be sure always to keep your right thumb securely against the fingerboard.

Listen carefully to the sound of each string as you go. What do you notice? Which sound is your favourite?  Hopefully, you will soon realise that the G string makes the highest sound, and each string gets gradually lower after that until you reach the lowest, E. Don’t worry if you find the E string difficult to hear at first. It is one of the lowest notes on any instrument!

Thinking back to what we talked about in the first section, you may also have noticed that the thinner strings make a higher sound, with the thickest strings sounding lowest. This is true of all stringed instruments, including the piano and harp.

The Left Hand

How To Play The Double Bass

Make your left hand into the shape of a capital C using your thumb and first finger. Put your thumb on the back of the neck of the double bass, behind the strings, and then press down your first finger on the D string about 4 inches down from where the strings go into the pegbox. I sometimes call this a “double bass sandwich” between your finger and thumb. 

Now pluck the D string while holding your first finger down, and you should hear a higher sound than when you play the open D string. This new, higher, note is called E. It shares its name with your lowest open string but the two are not to be confused! Practise alternating between E and D (finger on/finger off but always plucking the D string) until you are confident with the movement. You might sound a little like a fire engine!

Once you are confident with your first finger, put all four of your fingers onto the D string in a row and press them down. You will realise that you have made the string shorter still, and therefore the new note will be even higher. It is called F sharp

Practise playing F sharp, E, and D. It should sound like the tune to Hot Cross Buns. If some of the notes sound off at first then you may need to move your hand slightly up or down the fingerboard to make them sound better.

Once you can play the first part, you can practise the whole piece!

F sharp- E- D

F sharp- E- D


F sharp- E- D

Try repeating the pattern on the other strings. You will find the lower strings harder to press down but keep building your strength!

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Holding The Bow

If your bow is brand new, make sure it has rosin on it! The horsehair on the bow creates friction as it travels along the string, which causes the vibration we need to produce sound. However, without rosin, there will be no friction and no sound! Rub the hair of your bow across your block of rosin until it is coated; this may take a while the first time.

Your bow has three main components: the hair, the stick, and the frog which is usually made of black wood or fibreglass and sits between the stick and the hair and the heavier end of the bow. This end of the bow is called the heel, and the other end- where the hair is joined directly to the stick- is called the tip.

Double bass players always hold the bow in the right hand. Place your fingers onto the front of the bow, keeping them at a 90-degree angle to the stick with a little space between each. Your index finger may reach forwards onto the leather or silver lapping that covers the stick. Your thumb sits gently behind them, on the other side of the frog. You may wish to hold the stick of the bow in your left hand while you get your right hand organised.

Place the hair of the bow on the D string, below the bottom of the fingerboard but above the bridge, and draw the bow back and forth across the string taking care to keep it travelling horizontally as much as you can.

Once you can make a clear sound on the D string, try bowing the other strings. Then return to your left-hand notes and try to play Hot Cross Buns with your bow!

How To Play the Double Bass - Summary

By now, you should be able to:

  • Name your four open strings, describing which is lowest and highest and why
  • Pluck the strings with your right hand in a good position
  • Make first and fourth finger notes on all strings
  • Know that first finger on D is called E, and fourth finger F sharp
  • Hold and draw the bow correctly
  • Play Hot Cross Buns plucking and bowing

Great work! Now it’s time to improve your technique…

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