Instruments related to the violin: The contrabass

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The contrabass plays a very important role in providing solid lower register support for the stringed instruments occupying the front of the orchestra. However, there is one aspect in which the contrabass differs significantly from the violin, viola, cello, and other stringed instruments. The contrabass was originally a relative of the viola da gamba, a completely different kind of stringed instrument. Instruments in the viola da gamba family were often in use until the second half of the 18th century. They differ from instruments in the french violin family in that fingerboards are fretted and their bows are held differently when playing. The “violone,” the largest instrument in the viola da gamba family, was responsible for playing in the lower register. It is also the instrument that the contrabass ultimately developed from.

The contrabass was originally a member of the viola da gamba family, so the number of strings varied from three to six even after the turn of the 19th century, and there were many varieties of these instruments of roughly the same size as a cello. Modern instruments tend to have four or five strings tuned in fourths. When playing the contrabass, either a French bow or a German bow is used. French bows resemble violin bows and are gripped similarly, while German bows (used in Germany and Austria) developed from viola da gamba bows and are held with an underhanded grip.

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