What is a Contrabass?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The name contrabass refers to the lowest voiced instrument in a family. It is used in naming instruments in the woodwind, brass, percussion, and string families, sometimes with instruments that are named from the same schema (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), but not always.

A contrabass.
A contrabass.

In the woodwind family we can find contrabass recorders, clarinets, saxophones (also called tubax), and bassoons. In the brass family there is a contrabass bugle and a contrabass trombone. There is also a percussion instrument called a contra bass bar, an extension of the Orff-Shulwerk mallet instruments developed for music instruction in elementary schools.

But the instrument most commonly referred to as the contrabass with no other words attached is the large string instrument also called the double bass. The contrabass is an orchestral instrument in the same family with the violin, viola, and violoncello or cello. In the orchestra it often contributes to harmony, but there are also solo parts written for it. But the contrabass leads an alternative life as a jazz and dance band instrument, where it is primarily played pizzicato — i.e., plucked, rather than bowed.

The contrabass varies in size, shape, and number of strings. As a member of an orchestra, it normally it has four strings tuned E, A, D, G, but there are also 5-string contrabasses with a lower string added and tuned to B or C. Special tuning, called scordatura and raising the pitch of the instrument, is often used for solos.

Like other string instruments, the contrabass may be played arco — with the bow — or pizzicato — by plucking. The two styles of bow that are currently favored are known as the French bow and the German bow. In jazz, as mentioned above, pizzicato is used, but in addition, a special pizzicato technique called slap-bass is employed. This technique adds a percussive click or slap to the plucked sound of pizzicato.

Orchestral works with notable passages for contrabass include Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, Georg Telemann’s Trillensymphonie in D, written in 1730, may be the first work for solo contrabass. Today, the repertory includes over 200 concertos for contrabass. Famous players of orchestral bass include Domenico Dargonetti, Giovanni Battesini, Sergey Koussevitzky, Bertram Turetzky, and Duncan McTier. Well-known jazz bass players include Charles Mingus, Red Mitchell, Dave Holland, and Eberhard Weber are known both for their playing and their innovative approaches.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@andee - I love the sound of a saxophone. I never realized that there was a contrabass saxophone that was twice as big as a regular one.

I imagine that the large size and cost of this instrument is why it isn't seen too often.

The deep resonant sound of this saxophone must be so pleasing to listen to.


One day my son-in-law was playing around with his young daughter, and he started to pretend to play a guitar and he thumped the "guitar" and said "slap d'bass." We all started laughing.

Anyway, I got a lesson on what a contrabass is, how it sounds, and what it looks like. I've seen them in bands, but didn't know it.

I'm going to have to see if I can find a CD with a solo on the contrabass. I'd also like to hear a contrabass trombone, saxophone, and flute. Any suggestions?


The contrabass saxophone has one of the most richest sounds I have heard from a woodwind instrument. These saxophones are very expensive and very big. They are about twice as large as a regular saxophone.

Because of this, you don't see them very often when you see an orchestra or band playing. They are also very heavy, but the sound is wonderful.

I have always loved the sound of a saxophone, and when I hear the sound of a contrabass, it had a lower and richer sound than I had heard before.


I own a contrabass flute. It provides a much deeper sound than a regular flute, and the low notes are hauntingly beautiful. It is best used to play dramatic, slow pieces of music.

Though I am able to make high notes with this flute, the tone is not as strong as with a normal flute. Sometimes, that is a good thing, because high flute notes can be overly piercing at times.

The contrabass flute takes a lot of breath to play. I have to pause often to carry on with a song. Because a lot of music intended for this flute has long, low notes, pausing in between them does not sound strange at all.


I have seen the bass that jazz bands often use, but I did not know it was called a contrabass. When I first read the name, I thought it was a type of fish!

I have heard it actually called the slap bass before. I know that technically, this is the name of the technique used to play it, but some musicians refer to the instrument by that name.

I don’t think I have ever seen one played with a bow. Most often, I see plucking and slapping.

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