OVER THE LAST SEVERAL DECADES, the technique, technology and musical applications of the double bass (contrabass, string bass, doghouse—call it what you will) have changed and expanded rapidly. In this and future columns, I will be exploring the evolving roles of the double bass in contexts where the instrument hasn’t typically been heard. If you’re curious to hear what all this sounds like, I have employed these and other approaches on recordings by Good For Cows, the Nels Cline Singers, Law of the Rope, and under my own name.
This month we focus on something very dear to me: metal. As long as I can remember, Black Sabbath has been my most consistent soundtrack. No matter what else has been going on in my life, Sabbath and their spiritual progeny have helped sustain and strengthen me in good times and bad. As a string bass nerd, I couldn’t help but want to harness some of that power on my instrument.
Here are a few examples of exercises to help develop your own approach to arco metal. Maybe you can try them out with a pickup and an amp in your next band practice, or with your string-geek buddies at your next chamber ensemble rehearsal. Or, write some solo bass accompaniment to all those Icelandic sagas you’ve been reading this winter!
These exercises can also assist bass guitarists in developing fluidity and accuracy in picking, since the bow in these exercises functions as a kind of giant pick. Note: Tempos are more or less variable on all of these. Be sure to stop and rest if anything above your fingertips is hurting; playing like this can be pretty vigorous work.
Example 1 combines straight eighths, eighth-note triplets, double stops (mainly in 5ths, 4ths, and octaves), and dissonant runs to create a chugging line like you might hear from the late-era Bathory. Try to keep the chords big and heavy, with the rhythms as accurate as possible, and try to play the lines at the end with fluidity.
Example 2 is a drone-based riff in the style of Darkthrone. It’s fun to explore the power of consonant and dissonant tones above the drones, and really feel those overtones going to work, hopefully evoking something of the power and mystery of a moonlit night in a wintry forest. In the last half of bars 6–8, the octave harmonic on the Dstring is played with the thumb under the upper-register line.
To hear more of the possibilities of arco metal, be sure to check out Trevor Dunn and Bill Tutton of the Geraldine Fibbers, who have both broken new ground on the rocking side of the bow. Next time, I’ll take a good hard look at playing punk rock on upright.