Double Bass Bowing Articulations: A Comprehensive Guide

The art of double bass bowing is a complex and nuanced skill that requires a deep understanding of various techniques and articulations. In this guide, we will explore the different ways to play the double bass, from arco to pizzicato, and delve into the intricacies of bow articulation.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

The double bass is a versatile and expressive instrument, capable of producing a wide range of sounds and emotions. Whether you’re playing with a bow (arco) or using your fingers (pizzicato), understanding the intricacies of bow articulation is essential for creating a captivating musical performance.

Arco and Pizzicato

The double bass can be played in two main ways: with a bow (arco) or with your fingers (pizzicato). Both techniques offer unique possibilities for expression and require different approaches to achieve the desired sound, and both are used in many styles of music.

To further explore the possibilities of pizzicato, we recommend watching a video from Discover Double Bass featuring Slick Joe Fick, where he demonstrates a variety of slap bass techniques that can be applied to the double bass.

The world of double bass pizzicato technique is vast. It’s incredible how deep Joe goes on slap technique alone!

In this article, we’ll be focusing on bowing styles and articulations commonly found in classical music. Many of these techniques are commonly used in jazz and other styles as well, though the terminology we cover here is most often used in classical music.

Anatomy of a Note

Before delving into the intricacies of bow articulation, it is crucial to understand the components that make up a note’s sound. A note consists of three basic components: attack, sustain, and the end of the note. Each component plays a significant role in shaping the overall sound and expression of the music.

  1. Attack: The attack of a note refers to the initial sound produced when starting a note. It can be compared to consonants in speech and adds clarity and definition to the beginning of the note.
  2. Sustain: The sustain of a note refers to the duration and intensity of the sound after the attack. It can vary from a complete sustain to crescendos and diminuendos, adding depth and expression to the music.
  3. End of the Note: The end of the note determines how the sound is released. It can range from a complete connection (legato) to partial release (détaché/portato) or total release (staccato/spiccato). The choice of release greatly impacts the overall phrasing and articulation of the music.

It is important to remember that many techniques used in instrumental playing are derived from the human voice. To achieve the desired sound, think about how you would sing or speak the music, with the technique serving as a means to achieve that sound. Markings provided by the composer act as cues to indicate the desired sound and technique.

Technique

Bow articulations and techniques can vary across different instruments, and musicians often borrow articulations from other instruments to enhance their playing. For example, wind ensemble conductors may instruct their players to think “upbow” or “downbow” during rehearsals. String players are often encouraged to emulate the sounds of horns, bassoons, vocalists, or even percussionists to add richness and variety to their playing.

Marking

When it comes to articulations, the available markings are limited compared to the vast array of sounds that musicians aim to produce. Typical markings include dots, lines, slurs, wedges (generally indicating spiccato), and a few other symbols. However, the interpretation of these markings can sometimes be ambiguous, leading to confusion for performers.

In actual musical examples, the ambiguity of markings becomes evident. A note with a dot, for example, may have different interpretations depending on the context. Similarly, a note with a line over it or a note with both a dot and a line may require careful consideration to determine the intended articulation. It is essential to rely on musical context, performance traditions, and the composer’s intentions to guide the interpretation of these markings.

Major Categories of Bow Articulation

Bow articulation can be categorized into various techniques, each serving a specific purpose in musical interpretation. Understanding these categories is crucial for musicians to effectively communicate their musical ideas and bring the composer’s intentions to life.

Major categories of bow articulation include:

  • Détaché
  • Legato
  • Staccato
  • Spiccato
  • Sautille
  • Accent
  • Marcato
  • Martelé
  • Sforzando
  • Sforzando-piano
  • Tenuto
  • Portato
  • “Effects” (Sul Ponticello, Sul Tasto, Col Legno, Tremolo)
  • Hooked Bowings

In the following sections, we will explore these categories in detail and discuss how to execute each technique with the bow to achieve the desired sound and expression.

A big kudos also to Lauren Pierce for her great articulation guide on Discover Double Bass. This was a huge inspiration for this article.

Détaché

Détaché is a fundamental bowing technique that involves playing each note separately, with a clear separation between them. It is often used for smooth and connected passages, allowing the player to articulate each note precisely while maintaining a legato quality. To learn more about détaché bowing and how to execute it properly, you can refer to this video tutorial.

Legato

Legato is a technique used to create a smooth and connected musical line. It involves playing notes in a flowing manner, without any noticeable breaks between them. The goal is to achieve a seamless transition from one note to another, creating a sense of continuity and expression. Practicing legato bowing exercises can help develop control and finesse in playing sustained passages.

Staccato

Staccato is a technique where notes are played with a short and detached sound. It adds a sense of crispness and articulation to the music. There are various interpretations of staccato depending on the style and period of the music. For example, in the classical tradition, staccato might involve playing the note for half its written length, followed by a rest of equal duration. To learn more about staccato and its different interpretations, you can refer to this Wikipedia article.

Spiccato

Spiccato is a technique that involves bouncing the bow off the string to produce a short and lively sound. It is commonly used to create a sense of lightness and agility in fast passages. The bow is controlled with a combination of wrist and forearm movements, allowing it to bounce naturally and effortlessly. Developing a consistent and controlled spiccato technique requires practice and coordination.

Sautille

Sautille is a bowing technique that produces a rapid and controlled bouncing motion, creating a continuous stream of sound. It is often used in virtuosic passages to achieve a smooth and energetic sound. Sautille requires a combination of bow speed, pressure, and contact point to maintain a consistent bounce. Developing a reliable sautille technique takes time and patience.

Accent

Accents are used to emphasize a specific note or group of notes within a musical phrase. The execution of accents can vary depending on the musical context, style, and personal interpretation.

Marcato

Marcato is a technique that involves playing notes with a strong and accented attack, followed by a slight decay in volume. It adds a sense of emphasis and weight to the music, making certain notes stand out within a phrase. Marcato can be achieved by using a combination of bow speed, pressure, and contact point to create a distinct and powerful sound.

Martelé

Martelé is a technique that combines elements of both détaché and staccato. It involves playing each note with a strong and accented attack, followed by a quick release of the bow. Martelé adds a sense of clarity and precision to the music, allowing for crisp articulation and dynamic contrast.

Sforzando

Sforzando, often abbreviated as “sfz,” is a dynamic marking that indicates a sudden and strong accent on a note or chord. It is used to create a dramatic and powerful effect, emphasizing specific moments in the music. Sforzando can be achieved by increasing the bow speed and pressure on the accented note, creating a sudden burst of sound.

Sforzando-piano

Sforzando-piano, abbreviated as “sfzp,” combines the sudden accent of a sforzando with an immediate decrease in volume to a soft and delicate level. It creates a striking contrast between the accented note and the surrounding music, adding depth and expression to the performance.

Tenuto

Tenuto is a marking that indicates a sustained and full-value note. It requires the player to give each note its full rhythmic duration and maintain continuous sound throughout. Tenuto notes are often played with a slightly increased bow pressure and a sense of weight, creating a rich and resonant sound.

Portato

Portato is a technique that involves playing notes with a slight separation between them, while still maintaining a sense of connection. It is achieved by using a combination of bow speed, pressure, and contact point to create distinct articulation between each note. Portato adds a subtle rhythmic emphasis and clarity to the music.

“Effects”

Certain bowing techniques are considered “effects” and are typically marked explicitly by the composer. These effects add unique timbral qualities to the music, creating distinct textures and colors. The most common effects include:

  • Sul Ponticello: Playing near the bridge to create a glassy and metallic sound.
  • Sul Tasto: Playing over the fingerboard to produce a soft and ethereal sound.
  • Col Legno: Using the wooden side of the bow to create a percussive and rhythmic effect.
  • Tremolo: Rapidly moving the bow back and forth across the string to create a trembling and shimmering sound.

These effects should be approached with care and executed according to the composer’s instructions, as they can greatly enhance the expressive qualities of the music.

Hooked Bowings

Hooked bowings are techniques that involve using a specific technique to achieve a wide variety of articulations. These include short hooked, portato hooked, martele hooked, and others. By referencing techniques from other instruments, string players can add versatility and color to their playing.

Conclusion

Mastering the art of double bass bowing articulations requires dedication, practice, and a deep understanding of musical expression. By exploring the various techniques and categories of bow articulation, you can unlock a world of possibilities to enhance your playing. Remember to approach each articulation with attention to detail, musical context, and the composer’s intentions. With time and patience, you will develop the technical skills and musical sensitivity needed to create captivating and expressive performances on the double bass.

For more tips on phrasing and musical expression on the double bass, you can refer to our article here.

We hope this comprehensive guide has provided you with valuable insights and techniques to elevate your double bass playing. Remember to embrace experimentation, continue learning, and enjoy the journey of discovering the limitless possibilities of bow articulations.

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