The difference between a standard bass guitar and a double bass is obvious when you take a look at both of them side by side. For one, the bass guitar is much smaller than the double bass and the double bass can be played with a bow unlike the bass guitar.
Both instruments are very popular, however, it’s more common to find bass guitars although it depends on where you’re looking. Ultimately, they’re fairly similar but there are a few differences that are worth noting.
The difference between a bass guitar and a double bass is that the bass guitar is smaller, it’s held perpendicular to the player’s body, it’s often amplified via a bass amplifier, and it’s played with fingers or a pick. Double basses are larger, they’re stood upright, and they can be played with a bow.
Since the invention of amplification in the early 1960s, we have seen the standard bass guitar like Music Man’s Stringray from ZZounds replace the double bass in popular music. The standard bass had a slow start but quickly gained traction because of its lighter weight, mobility, and amplification capabilities. As I already mentioned, there are many differences between these two instruments that are worth exploring in more detail.
Bass Guitar versus Double Bass – What Are the Main Differences?
1) The Bass Guitar is Much Smaller Than the Double Bass
Just by looking at them, you can see they’re clearly different. The double bass is wide and quite tall. It sits on the floor on what is called a “Peg” and is held upright by the bassist’s hands and body. A bass guitar is usually a solid-bodied instrument, and it is hung around a bassist’s neck via a guitar strap.
According to the wikipedia page for double basses, the size of a full-sized double bass is generally 180 cm (6ft) from peg to scroll. They also come in size variations from 3/4, 1/2, or all the way to a 1/4 in size for smaller players. The sizes aren’t exactly relative to the main one either. For instance, a 1/2 double bass isn’t half the size of a regular double bass, even though it would make sense to think in this way.
A sizeable carved bridge extends out from the double bass’ body to attach the strings to the bottom tailpiece and up to the tuning pegs at the top in the scroll, making it quite wide. Wikipedia says the length of a standard electric bass is considered a long scale at 86 cm, but can also come in either short scale, 34 cm or shorter, or extra-long scale at 91 cm.
The shorter ones resemble the neck length of a guitar but still have a wider neck and much larger strings in addition to a body with f-holes on both sides. The longer standard bass guitar has an extended fret length, they are thinner and one solid piece of wood for the body; and more contoured to the body, so the player can walk around freely while performing.
2) The Shape of the Double Bass and Bass Guitar Are Much Different
While the concept of a stringed instrument is there, the shapes are very different which has to do with the family they’re originally from. For instance, the double bass is part of the viola family and is shaped like a giant violin. A standard bass is part of the guitar family, so its shape is more like a slightly bigger guitar.
A double bass – like Palatino’s 4-string double bass which can be found on Amazon – has a large soundbox that tends to resonate and amplify lower frequencies when the strings vibrate. This means that if you want the double bass to sound as low and as bassy as possible, you’ll want a bigger instrument. Modern double basses can have a smaller soundbox or none at all.
With the invention of the pickup, however, the soundbox is no longer as necessary. Although, a large double bass in addition to a pickup will certainly sound a lot beefier in terms of low-end frequencies than a smaller double bass with a pick-up.
The standard electric bass, like the guitar, comes either electric or acoustic. The electric form is much thinner than the double bass, making it lighter and easier to carry around on stage. Its shape comes from the electric and acoustic guitar; it’s just a little longer.
3) Double Basses and Bass Guitars Use Different Strings
When it comes to chordophones, also known as stringed instruments, the type of strings used are usually the most significant difference people don’t see right away which I’ve already explained before in my article about violins and guitar strings. A double bass will always use flat wound strings made for double bass specifically. A standard electric bass guitar has many options for strings including but not limited to flat-wounds, round-wounds, or even semi-flats.
Double Basses Often Use Flat Wound Strings
The double bass uses flat-wound strings made with core round wires wrapped in a flattened wire to give it a smooth finish. This type of string resonates in a much smoother and warmer way on the instrument to make the incomparable sound of a double bass. If you’ve ever heard the sound of a double bass guitar before, you know that it’s quite different from a bass guitar. Make sure to check out the video below.
Bass Guitars Can Use Flat Wound, Round Wound, and Many Other Strings
The standard bass traditionally would use a flat wound string but now has many options for choosing strings for tonal purposes. A round-wound or semi-round will give more attack and is used in a lot of modern bands. This is very similar to electric guitars, which are also the same way. A guitar player can use almost any kind of string, including flat wound, round wound, coated strings, nylon strings, nickel-wound strings, etc.
4) They Double the Octave of Two Different Instruments
The idea behind bass is it extends the octaves down to create more room and movement in music. It would “double” the bass line of an ensemble, helping the ensemble to reach lower octaves. The double bass was initially added to an ensemble to be a contra octave to the cello, making it “double the bass” of a cello.
Being such a uniquely useful instrument, the double bass paved its way up to being a vital role in smaller ensembles too. A standard bass, on the other hand, doubles the octave of a guitar, giving more range to an ensemble that uses guitars.
Ultimately, these two bass instruments serve the sole purpose of filling out the much-needed low-end, which adds a ton of warmth, soul, and character to a song. Without low-end frequencies, the music wouldn’t be nearly as impactful.
5) Bass Guitar and Double Bass Have Different Tones
Most musicians play music with the idea of tone on their mind, which is important for capturing and then communicating the proper feeling or vibe. While they’re similar, the double bass and the bass guitar have distinguishably different tones. With this in mind, it makes sense why one is used more in one genre than the other.
While a double bass is mostly used in symphonies and orchestras because of its smooth, low tone, it is also a staple in Bluegrass, Punk, Jazz, Blues, and Rockabilly. With the invention of the pick-up, a magnet wrapped in wire to amplify sound, modern versions of the double bass now are found in synth orchestral bands and even some types of metal.
A standard bass guitar, on the other hand, is used in music with guitars usually because it extends the range of the guitar, so guitarists typically love writing and performing with a standard bass as they are practically made for each other. Another reason why people use bass guitars is because they’re just way easier to take with you on the road (which I touched on a bit more in my article on the origins of the P Bass). Double bass guitars are quite large.
At one point in time, bass guitars were better to use because of volume issues, however, as it was noted above, double basses can be amplified the same way nowadays, so this isn’t so much of a factor anymore. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that it appears that bass guitar is chosen over double bass simply due to aesthetic and the cumbersome size of the double bass.
6) A Double Bass Often Uses a Bow, While The Standard Bass Does Not
A bassist uses a pick or fingers to play a standard bass and a bow or “finger plucking” to play the double bass. Each playing style has its own tonal value that contributes to the song. A bassist will use one or a combination of them to get the desired tone from their instrument. A standard bass often uses a ‘pick’ or plectrum – a very small and thin device used by string players to give them more “attack.”
This means the bass’s sound easily cuts through the mix and is more easily recognized in the recordings. A pick combined with round wound strings has a distinct heavy sound that will stand out the most. Using one’s fingers, on the other hand, tends to produce a slightly softer sound and it’s really up to personal preference.
There’s no doubt that using one’s fingers has a distinct sound that is often softer and fuller. Finger plucking is done on both the bass guitar and double bass whereas hybrid picking is a technique that combines both techniques. For a double bass, it would be played with a bow and finger plucking, while a standard bass will often be played with finger plucking and a pick.
Can a Bassist Play Both a Double Bass and A Bass Guitar?
It’s possible for bassists to know how to play both instruments, of course, but more often than not, you’ll run into bassists who know how to play one but not the other, and there are a few reasons for this. The reason is usually that there are no frets on the double bass, and that can be very confusing because the neck has different interval lengths than the bass guitar.
Fortunately, both instruments are tuned the same, in 4ths starting with G, making it easy to transition if you wanted to play one or the other. It would just take a little practice to get used to it. A double bassist that has been playing for a long time would most likely have great relative pitch, so they could easily transition to a fretted or a non-fretted bass.
A standard bass player would have to learn how to pluck and use the bow for proper technique while playing the standup bass. The positioning would also be a little tiring initially as they are not generally in a locked position with their instrument and cannot move around too easily. Another thing that a bass guitar player would have to get used to is the fact there are no frets on the double bass.
1) Sterling StingRay Ray35HH Electric Bass (on zZounds)
2) Palatino Upright Double Bass (from Amazon)