Double Bass Scale Systems: Finding Your Perfect Match

This guide provides an in-depth exploration of various double bass scale systems, including the Simandl, Rabbath, Boardwalkin', and many others.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

When it comes to playing the double bass, having a solid understanding of scales is essential. Not only do scales help improve technique and fingerboard knowledge, but they also enhance musicality and overall performance.

However, with various scale systems available, it can be challenging to determine which one is the best fit for you or your students. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the factors to consider when selecting a double bass scale system and provide valuable insights to help you make an informed decision.

Scale System vs. Method Book – is there a difference?

A double bass scale system and a method book share similarities in that they both provide a structured approach to mastering the instrument. Both offer a systemized progression through different technical and musical elements of playing the double bass, typically starting with simpler concepts and gradually introducing more advanced techniques. They serve as comprehensive guides, laying out step-by-step instructions, exercises, and sometimes even pieces to practice. Therefore, a scale system can be seen as a part of a method book, or a method book can incorporate a particular scale system, both aiming to enhance a learner’s understanding and performance on the double bass.

Why Scale Systems Matter

Before diving into the selection process, it’s crucial to understand why scale systems matter. A well-designed scale system can provide a structured approach to learning and mastering the double bass. It helps develop finger strength, dexterity, and coordination, while also training the ear to recognize intervals and improve intonation. Additionally, scale systems serve as a foundation for improvisation, composition, and exploring different musical genres.

Assessing Your Needs and Goals

The first step in choosing the best double bass scale system is to assess individual needs and goals. Are you a beginner looking to establish a solid foundation? Are you an advanced player seeking to expand your technical abilities? Do you primarily focus on classical music or are you interested in exploring other genres? Understanding your specific needs and goals will guide you in finding a scale system that aligns with your musical journey.

Exploring Different Scale Systems

There are a ton of different scale systems out there for double bass that aren’t covered here, including great systems by Bille, Nanny, and many others.

This post tackles the ones with which I’ve had the most experience in this post, but there’s a lot of other great material out there. Let us know your favorite scale system, and if we didn’t cover it here, hopefully, we can work it into a future post!

1. The Simandl Method

The Simandl Method, developed by Franz Simandl, is one of the most widely used scale systems for double bass. It emphasizes a systematic approach to fingerboard mastery, focusing on fundamental techniques such as shifting, finger placement, and bowing control. The Simandl method is highly recommended for beginners and those seeking a solid technical foundation.

This method divides the bass into a series of positions that ascend the neck in half-step increments. The result is a method that, while somewhat dry, facilitates fingerboard familiarity.

In addition to the popular first volume, there is a less popular second volume devoted to thumb position and integrating it into the lower positions.

Bonus: Simandl reimagined for the jazz bassist

Cole Davis is a jazz bassist and educator in New York City, and he has adapted the Simandl Method, focusing on staying in position and crossing strings (vertical motion) rather than shifting up and down the bass (horizontal motion).

This imaginative adaptation of the Simandl Method re-fingers the original Simandl method to fit a more modern context of playing. As opposed to the half-position to G string method, Cole’s New Simandl utilizes the entire bass.

2. Nouvelle Technique by François Rabbath

Created by the revolutionary double bassist and teacher François Rabbath, his highly influential Noueville Technique offers a unique and innovative approach to double bass playing. It emphasizes a more ergonomic and relaxed technique and organizes the double bass fingerboard into six positions.

Each volume of Rabbath’s Nouvelle Technique addresses a different aspect of double bass technique, offering up countless rewards in the process.

There’s a lot of material in these Rabbath books, and without a teacher well-versed in the Rabbath Technique, it can feel a bit overwhelming to the neophyte. With persistence, nearly every double bassist can benefit from the wonderful materials in this groundbreaking library.

Integrating both Simandl and Rabbath in your approach to the double bass

At first, it may seem like these two approaches are wholly incompatible, but in reality, these two systems can easily co-exist, providing advantages for certain playing contexts. Simandl is great for developing sight reading and a solid left-hand technique, while Rabbath is great for mapping out the entire fingerboard and developing a supple and wide-ranging technique.

3. Boardwalkin’ by Hal Robinson

Hal Robinson is the former principal bassist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and also teaches bass at the Curtis Institute of Music. He has also created several wonderful instructional materials for double bassists, including The Quad, Strokin’, and Boardwalkin’.

In Boardwalkin’, Hal takes all 12 major scales and maps them across the bass, ascending and descending through the six Rabbath positions. This is an incredible way to develop intonation, versatility, speed, and creative fingering for all styles of bass playing.

4. Ron Carter’s Comprehensive Bass Method

Ron Carter’s Comprehensive Bass Method is an essential resource for the jazz bassist, often referred to as “THE book” by the author himself. Unlike other bass lesson books that focus on arco techniques and classical orchestra audition preparations, this book takes a unique approach. It provides insights into how the bass functions, detailing hand positions and locations on the instrument to help players find and produce beautiful notes.

The book also incorporates QR codes that link to video demonstrations, allowing learners to watch the Maestro himself perform the exercises. This resource empowers learners to emulate Carter’s nightly routines, such as playing rhythm changes, creating wonderful blues choruses, or consistently playing pieces like Little Waltz, keeping them fresh and new each time.

5. Scale Skills by Andy Moritz

Scale Skills by Andy Moritz serves as a comprehensive guide for using major scales to impart the skills needed for proficient double bass playing. This manual provides a “Bass Playing Operating System” that effectively codifies the majority of the mechanics required to play the instrument. The book came to fruition when Moritz noticed a trend while working as an orchestra director. Students, particularly the inexperienced or those in need of remedial help, were often assigned scales to pass off a graded assignment, but there was no strategic reasoning behind the selection of specific scales. The primary focus was on ensuring students knew the fingerings to pass the test.

Moritz realized that simply providing fingerings wasn’t enhancing students’ improvement as they didn’t comprehend how to move their hands to the correct positions while producing a good sound. He developed a sequence of scale studies that efficiently cataloged and presented the mechanical skills necessary for high-level bass playing. The system’s effectiveness was demonstrated by its repeatability – it consistently worked for every student and every situation. This success led to regular requests from other orchestra directors for his fingerings. However, Moritz understood that it’s not as simple as just providing the fingerings to bass players, highlighting the importance of a comprehensive guide such as Scale Skills.

6. Scales, Scales, Scales by Lauren Pierce

Scales, Scales, Scales by Lauren Pierce is a comprehensive resource that uses scales as a foundational tool for growth and exploration on the double bass. This book offers an effective method for daily scales practice while also guiding learners to gradually increase their skill level over time. Starting at a beginner level with one-octave major scales, the book progresses to more advanced levels, including two-octave thumb position scales and two-octave “up the string” scales. Designed for learners to work at their own pace, it encourages revisiting and repeating as many sections as needed, facilitating long-lasting improvement rather than fleeting success.

Its detailed explanations of each section, thoughtfully designed layout, and focus on specific aspects of playing before each scale practice led to more productive practice sessions. The book also provides an “area of focus” that helps students concentrate on their playing aspects before practicing each scale. Furthermore, Lauren’s straightforward language aids in identifying what to listen for and how to overcome difficulties with specific exercises, making it feel as if she’s present during the practice session.

7. Progressive Repertoire and Vade Mecum by George Vance

George Vance was a highly influential double bass teacher who made significant contributions to double bass pedagogy. His Progressive Repertoire series is a multi-volume collection that takes bassists from the absolute beginning to a high level of proficiency. The series is based on the philosophy of François Rabbath, and it provides a systematic and comprehensive approach to double bass playing.

These books start with simple melodies on open strings and gradually introduce more complex elements, such as shifting and playing in different positions. The pieces selected are musically engaging and cover a wide range of styles, providing ample opportunities for musical growth and exploration. Furthermore, each piece comes with detailed practice and performance instructions, making the series a valuable resource for both self-learners and teachers.

To complement his Progressive Repertoire series, Vance also created Vade Mecum. This book fills in some of the technical gaps that are not fully addressed in the repertoire books. It provides a systematic approach to scale study, presenting scales in all keys in a variety of formats. By working through the Vade Mecum in conjunction with the Progressive Repertoire series, bassists can develop a solid technical foundation and a comprehensive understanding of the double bass fingerboard.

Supplementary Materials

In addition to the materials listed above, there is a wide array of materials that explore specific skills on the double bass. These materials are more targeted and can be used to develop techniques and capacity for specific skills.

1. The Thumb Transition Zone by Chris Kosky

For intermediate and advanced bassists, The Thumb Transition Zone tackles the fingering quagmire of the middle area of the Double Bass fingerboard.

This method turns awkward into easy by providing exercises and etudes that give the bassist’s left hand the options needed to play effortlessly and more musically around the shoulders of the instrument.

Advanced players will find a solution to fingering in this traditionally tricky part of the fingerboard, while intermediate-level bassists, those just getting near and into Thumb Position, can learn an easier way around right from the beginning.

2. Fractal Fingering by David Allen Moore

Fractal Fingering by David Allen Moore is a valuable resource for both intermediate and advanced double bassists seeking to improve their fingering techniques and overall performance. The method provides a comprehensive structure that encourages musicians to view the bass fingerboard as a fractal, a pattern that repeats itself at different scales. This innovative approach simplifies the navigation of the instrument, making complex patterns and sequences more manageable and intuitive.

For advanced players, Moore’s method offers a new perspective on mastering the double bass, presenting unique exercises that challenge and expand their technical capabilities. Meanwhile, intermediate players can benefit from the structured approach, which provides a solid foundation for more complex techniques as they progress. Both groups will appreciate the book’s focus on fostering a more musical and expressive approach to playing the double bass.

3. Incredibly Useful Exercises by Dennis Whittaker

Incredibly Useful Exercises by Texas double bass educator Dennis Whittaker is an invaluable resource for any double bassist. The 17-volume set offers a comprehensive collection of guided practice routines designed to address every aspect of double bass technique. This includes areas such as bow control, shifting, intonation, stamina, speed, and finger dexterity. Each volume focuses on a specific area, allowing for targeted and efficient practice sessions. The exercises are thoughtfully structured, gradually increasing in complexity to challenge players at every level.

What makes Incredibly Useful Exercises particularly valuable is its approach to practice routines. Whittaker emphasizes the importance of consistency, repetition, and mindful practice in achieving technical mastery. The exercises are designed not merely to be played through but to be integrated into daily practice routines, serving as a tool for continuous improvement. The volumes also provide helpful tips and insights on how to practice effectively, making this series more than just a collection of exercises. It’s a guide to developing effective practice habits, fostering a deeper understanding of the instrument, and continuously improving as a double bassist.

4. Simplified Higher Technique by Franco Petracchi

Franco Petracchi’s Simplified Higher Technique is a groundbreaking work in the realm of double bass pedagogy, revolutionizing the way double bassists approach higher positions. This book introduces a systematic method for navigating the thumb position, an area of the bass that often presents technical challenges. Petracchi’s method divides the thumb position into a series of precise zones, similar to the way lower positions are arranged. This organized approach eliminates guesswork and fosters accuracy, allowing bassists to play in the thumb position with greater confidence and precision.

The book is not only innovative but also immensely practical. It includes a comprehensive set of exercises designed to familiarize bassists with thumb position playing, enhancing their speed, agility, and intonation. The exercises cover a wide range of techniques and musical contexts, making the book suitable for bassists at different skill levels and with varying musical interests. By integrating Petracchi’s method into their daily practice, bassists can significantly improve their technical abilities and expand their musical possibilities.

5. Tao of Bass by Marcos Machado

Tao of Bass by Marcos Machado is a comprehensive resource that amalgamates numerous fingering systems and exercises into one expansive encyclopedia. It provides a structured methodology for mastering the double bass, with a vast array of exercises designed to improve technique, speed, accuracy, and overall musicianship. The book meticulously covers a wide range of technical aspects, offering bassists a holistic approach to learning and mastering the instrument.

The beauty of Tao of Bass lies in its integration of various scale systems, presenting them in a coherent and logical manner. This approach allows bassists to gain a broader perspective on the instrument, enhancing their understanding of the fingerboard and facilitating more efficient and effective practice sessions. The book’s structured yet flexible format enables players to tailor their practice to their individual needs and goals, making it an invaluable resource for bassists of all levels.

6. Strokin’ by Hal Robinson

Strokin’ by Hal Robinson is an invaluable resource for any double bassist seeking to improve their bowing technique. The book features a series of carefully designed exercises that systematically target the unique challenges of double bass bowing. These exercises help improve bow control, promote better sound production, and enhance the player’s ability to execute a variety of bow strokes with precision and ease. Through consistent practice of the exercises in “Strokin’”, bassists can develop a more efficient and expressive bow arm, which is critical for achieving a high level of musicianship on the double bass.

Moreover, Strokin’ goes beyond mere technical exercises. It encourages players to approach bowing technique as an integral part of their musical expression. Robinson’s method emphasizes the importance of listening attentively to the sound produced with each bow stroke, fostering a deep awareness and understanding of how different bowing techniques can influence the tone, quality, and expressiveness of the sound. As a result, “Strokin’” not only improves technical proficiency but also cultivates musical sensitivity and artistry in double bass playing.

Factors to Consider when Choosing Scale Systems and Supplementary Books

When selecting these technical materials, several factors should be taken into consideration:

1. Technical Focus

Different scale systems emphasize various technical aspects, such as fingerboard geography, bowing techniques, or left-hand flexibility. Assess your technical strengths and weaknesses to identify the scale system that can help you overcome challenges and strengthen your abilities.

2. Musical Style

Consider the musical style you primarily focus on or aspire to play. Some scale systems have a stronger foundation in classical music, while others incorporate elements of jazz, contemporary, or world music. Choosing a scale system aligned with your preferred musical style can enhance your overall musicality and interpretation.

3. Learning Style

Take into account your preferred learning style and how well a particular scale system aligns with it. Some learners thrive with a systematic and structured approach, while others prefer a more flexible and intuitive learning environment. Finding a scale system that matches your learning style can significantly enhance your progress and enjoyment.

4. Time Commitment

Different scale systems require varying levels of time commitment and dedication. Consider your available practice time and the amount of effort you are willing to invest. Select a scale system that suits your schedule and allows for gradual progression without overwhelming you.

Customized Approach

While established scale systems provide a structured framework, many/most players end up combining elements from different scale systems and also incorporating additional exercises and repertoire to address individual challenges and goals.

Working with a knowledgeable teacher or mentor can greatly assist in developing a personalized scale system.

Final Thoughts

Choosing the best double bass scale system is a crucial decision that can greatly impact your musical journey. By assessing individual needs and goals, exploring different scale systems, and considering factors such as technical focus, musical style, learning style, and time commitment, you can make an informed decision. Remember, the best scale system is the one that aligns with your aspirations, enhances your musical abilities, and sparks joy in your playing. Happy practicing!

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