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Double Bass

This page is devoted to my double bass and how its tuned.  Both are unusual, so keep reading!

5ths Tuning - Fifth Tuning

Philip Bishop playing Malcolm Healey bass at Anna Lehair's birthday party 2012
Philip Bishop playing Malcolm Healey's double bass


I am very fortunate to be able to play on a really fine double bass made by Malcolm Healey (of M & J Healey Violins).

The design is based on the Lorenzo Storioni attributed corner-less double bass at Ken Smith Basses. I chose this instrument as a starting point mainly because the shape supports excellent tonal characteristics and ease of playing (particularly the shape of the upper bout) - and also because it looks good!

Dimensions and shape (including the depths of the bouts and curve of the rear plate were copied from pictures of the 'Storioni'. All dimensions were slightly scaled up to give a bass the same body length as Malcolm's own 5 string bass, but keeping all proportions the same as the 'Storioni'. Slight viol-shaped corners were added to together with a handle to help portability (at the insistence of Jane). The neck was proportioned to give Malcolm's preferred standard string length (shorter than the original 'Storioni", which has a very long neck and string length). The head shape of the original was followed as closely as possible.

Malcolm used finely figured wood seasoned over many years in his store. His meticulous craftmanship has resulted in a very fine bass which is very responsive, very comfortable to play and has an fine warm strong tone.

The double bass is fitted with:

machine heads: ebony turners with brass cogs from Ken Smith Basses
tailpiece: rosewood compensated, with synthetic chord from Mike Pecanic
endpin: wooden peg leg, fitted to a Rabbath style tilt block from K.C. Strings.

Malcolm Healey double bass front
Front view of Malcolm Healey double bass, inspired by the 'Storioni'

Malcolm Healey double bass side
Side view, showing the upper back profile with a slight curve

Malcolm Healey double bass back
Back view, showing fine flamed maple figures

Malcolm Healey double bass scroll
Scroll copied from 'Storioni' fitted with ebony turners with brass cogs from Ken Smith Basses

Malcolm Healey double bass scroll
Scroll, with Pirastro Evah Pirazzi strings

Malcolm Healey double bass f hole
F hole

Malcolm Healey double bass with Mike Pecanic tailpiece
Rosewood compensated tailpiece, with synthetic chord from Mike Pecanic

Malcolm Healey double bass end pin
Wooden peg leg end-pin, fitted to a Rabbath style tilt block from K.C. Strings

Malcolm Healey double bass side handle
Handle to help carry the base (very useful)


The strings are tuned in fifths (rather than 4ths) and are as follows:

A (high) - Pirastro Evah Pirazzi, Solo A, medium
D - Pirastro Evah Pirazzi, Orchestral D, medium
G - Pirastro Evah Pirazzi,Solo FIS (F sharp), medium, tuned up to G
C (low) - Pirastro Evah Pirazzi, B5, weich, tuned up to C

When B5 low string is tuned up to C, the extra tension counteracts the lighter guage giving a very responsive bottom string that is balanced with the other strings and blends very well.  The overall balance and responsiveness is really good, much better than I dared hope for! 

I like the response and sound of these Evah Pirazzi strings.  I play lots of orchestral music and the occasional solo, as well as jazz and big band gigs; the strings seem equally well suited to all these (conflicting) styles.

Also I'd like say a big thank you to Pirastro for their help in suggesting and providing strings to try out.

5ths Tuning

From the above, its clear my bass is unusual in that its tuned in fifths, the same as a cello. I started playing the double bass with normal 4ths tuning and continued that way for a number of years, during which time I tried out a 5 string bass and looked at extensions as a way to get the lower notes below bottom E.

None of these was really satisfactory and I finally investigated 5th tuning. A brief trial with my normal strings re-tuned showed it was possible and I spent 3 months learning to play fifth tuning on my 4 string bass (with the de-tuned strings) whilst playing gigs and orchestral sets on my 5 string bass with 4th tuning. At the end of 3 months (which coincidentally was 1 January) I could play all my practice exercises and music on the 5ths tuned bass pretty well, so I formally switched to 5th tuning.

A couple of days later at orchestra rehearsal was real eye-opener.  Trying to sight ready a relatively straight forward Brahms symphony was terrible - my brain just couldn't go fast enough. With perseverance, however, after another 3 months the fingering started to settle down as the benefits and limitations of 5th tuning became apparent. Most of these are well described by Joel Quarrington on his website.

For me the biggest benefit was to  make the instrument much more playable across its entire normal orchestral range.  Here's a few of the more interesting pros and cons:

+ range to low C is part of normal playing

+ notes on top (A) string two positions lower, a big plus for most playing!

+ bass sounds better with 5th tuning (more resonant)

+ tuning same as cello (good for small ensemble playing)

+/- the different finger/string positions aren't apparent when playing in a section

+/- harmonics are different (so some written harmonics don't work)

- overall, slightly more shifting

+ forced me to improve my technique

+ some music easier (eg Pictures Gnomus)

- some music harder (eg Beethoven's 7th symphony)

- it took me a couple of years to become really settled in 5th tuning

- to play other basses I need to revert back to 4th tuning

- teaching requires pupils learning in 4th tuning

To me, the benefits far out-way the disadvantages and its now become a totally natural way of playing.

How to reach me

Telephone 01372 454962 / 07950 235329


Copyright © 2006 Philip Bishop. All rights reserved.