Best bass guitar for Viola da Gamba music?

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by edwardthewave, Oct 10, 2017.

  1. I know, I know...wierd question.

    The viola da gamba is a completely different instrument from the bass guitar. One is plucked - the other is bowed. One plays current music - the other plays early music. One is a guitar, the other is a Viol.

    But I see a connection between the instruments. Viola da Gambas were fretted and tuned similarly to the modern guitar. And they were also played in small consorts, with other viols - like guitars today, accompanying voices or other instruments. They also had 5, 6 or even 7 strings...sound familiar?

    Viol - Wikipedia

    And then I discovered players like Jordi Savall and Paolo Pandolfo and I was just amazed.

    But alas, perhaps the viola da gamba wasn't meant for me. I play the electric bass guitar, keys, and synthesizer, and while these are fine instruments for contemporary music, they don't quite sing or have the intimate feel of the viola da gamba.

    Good quality viols are rather expensive, and good luck finding someone to teach you the instrument.

    So the main questions are, as a lover of early music, but as someone who does not have the time and money to devote to learning and playing a completely new instrument, even one as beautiful sounding as bass viols -

    How would you go about playing this music on the electric bass guitar?

    And what instrument would be suitable for capturing the nuances that this music requires?
    design and Londo Molari like this.
  2. GretschWretch

    GretschWretch Supporting Member

    Dec 27, 2013
    East Central Alabama
    Early music was composed for early instruments, for their pitch compass and inter-string tuning. What lies out as playable on a gamba may be impossible on a standard tuned electric bass. Be prepared to use some alternate tunings.
  3. This is true. But for us bass players seem to have no problem playing cello music like Bach's Cello Suites, so what about the Bass Viol or Viola da Gamba?

    Actually, this brings me to my next point. How and why did Bach's Cello Suites become so popular for bass guitar players in the first place?

    You can scarcely throw a stone, so to speak, without stumbling across some player's interpretation of the first movement of the first cello suite - they never bother to learn any other movements or the rest of Bach's suites.

    bach bass - YouTube

    The viola da gamba repertoire has great pieces that could be adapted to bass guitar, but hardly anyone plays gamba music on non-viol instruments. Of course, most of the viola da gamba music I find are scans of old tablature books...not so fun to read that stuff!

    I do appreciate what players like Dave Grossman have done in adapting Bach's cello music to the electric bass guitar. I appreciate the effort but I find the tone to be rather underwhelming. I know he uses a 7-string bass guitar. I was looking at a 6-string with 24 frets and a fairly narrow string spacing (like the Ibanez SR series) for easier chords.

    What do you think?
  4. GretschWretch

    GretschWretch Supporting Member

    Dec 27, 2013
    East Central Alabama
    Well, the cello suites are written for an instrument tuned in fifths, and there are DB players who have adopted fifths tuning, so that mountain has been conquered. And I agree the suites are a great training exercise. But the large viols have a third interval smack in the middle, between the third and fourth strings, I believe; and that displaced interval will have to be accommodated.

    Click on the thumbnails near the right pane for a readable score.

    27 Pieces for Bass Viol (Abel, Carl Friedrich) - IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library: Free Public Domain Sheet Music

    Click and Visit or View.

    gamba scores pdf - Google Search
    wintremute likes this.
  5. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    May 24, 2006
    Correct. The normal tuning for the bass viol da gamba is D-G-C-E-A-D

    @edwardthewave - How you'd get an approximation of the sonority of a bowed viol on a pizzicato instrument is going to be interesting exercise however. Those long drone notes and moving chords are tough to do without a bow. So you'd definitely need to be thinking about rearranging the pieces somewhat to accommodate.

    An even bigger challenge is the period of the pieces being performed. Not all songs back then were written for equal tempered tuning. So if your ensemble is using period correct instruments for early music, you're not going to fit in unless you play it on fretless.

    I'd think a fretless fiver would probably get you closest at least to the tone of a viol.

    (BTW - have you looked at the price tag for a viol da gamba? It's not an instrument most of us would decide to casually pick up unless we were going to be playing one regularly. However, if you're into that type of music, viol players are eagerly sought out by most ensembles. And bass viol da gamba players are especially in short supply and treated very respectfully in that world - unlike electric bassists in ours. So it's something to think about. ;):thumbsup:)
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2017
  6. Jeff Scott

    Jeff Scott Rickenbacker guru..........

    Apr 11, 2006
    Out there!

    I've seen Sarah a couple of times, but unfortunately, there were no viola da gambas in sight, only Percy Jones with his Ibanez 5 string fretless basses. :bassist:
  7. Mark76


    Dec 1, 2015
  8. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    May 24, 2006
    Possible. But ebows are tricky to use and AFAIK only work on one string at a time. A lot of gamba music often chords on two or more strings.
    bholder and edwardthewave like this.
  9. ghoulcaster


    Jan 13, 2017
    It's funny, I was listening to a Jordi Salvi viola da gamba CD last night, probably when this thread was created called Marin Marais: Pieces de viole des Cinq Livres. I can in no way claim to be an expert but I'd credit the French baroque sound almost as equally as the instrument its self, meaning the music and melodies.
    If I were you I'd hit up IMSLP with your bass and pull up some Marin Marais, Francois Couperain, Jean Baptiste Lully sheet music and see what you can do with some transposing and tenor/treble clef practice lol.
    I wouldn't use an Ebow or tune in fifths, I think you're on the right track thinking 6 string Ibanez SR, though perhaps fretless like the Ibanez Portamento 6 or a 5 with a high C. Even though viol de gambas have those gut fret things I imagine fretless would be at least a little bit closer in tone with that warm buzzy sustain they can get, but who knows.
    For every instrument imaginable you will find a poorly performed Bach cello prelude video on youtube(the jazz equivalent being something like Autumn Leaves), I'd quicker blame a performance than an instrument, so I think you can definitely get a good result with practice and if you ever get around to it clips or it didn't happen! :woot::bassist:
    edit: one thing I just remembered is the debate some violinists have about whether Bach 3-4 note chords on violin where meant to be arpeggiated or played with a very curved bow. Sustained Baroque chords of 3-4 notes? So similarly on a bass if a chord sounds to muddy or is too difficult to copy from viol you can try to quickly arpeggiate it, just a thought
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2017
  10. sears

    sears Supporting Member

    Aug 7, 2005
    ec, md
    viola da gamb-mwaaah
    ghoulcaster likes this.
  11. Tommyc


    Nov 11, 2015
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2017
  12. Mark76


    Dec 1, 2015
    How does the bridge curve on a viola da gamba? Is it like the bridge on a violin/viola/cello/contrabass or like the bridge on a guitar?
  13. engedi1


    Sep 16, 2005
    I actually spent a year studying viola da gamba college, and it was the most fun I had in school (where I was supposed to be a bass major lol) The hard part about gamba music is that it is a hybrid between chording and bowing. So you are expected to play these 5 and 6 note chords that will only work in that tuning. The bach gamba suites have hardly any chords and are easily adapted to electric bass, any 4 string will do.
    That being said, there is a viola da gamba society of america, that hold annual conferences and I think you can even rent a gamba from them if you want to try it out. Viola da Gamba Society of America
    You can buy a good gamba for $3000 to $4000 (cheap in the classical music world). I fully encourage it. Gamba music is the best and the instrument is wonderful. Jordi Saval is the man imho.
  14. Rambazamba


    Dec 14, 2012
    Why not try yourself on a heavy modification of a cheap bass or baritone guitar? Pull out the frets, sand fretboard to tighter radius, use bound frets like on historic instruments. Modify the body shape to have some space for the bow and put on a wooden bridge with correct radius. For pickups you could use precision bass pickups with rails and slant them according to the radius. Seems like a fun project.
    BBQisgood and Five String like this.
  15. RSBBass


    Jun 11, 2011
    A couple of comments. If the Gamba speaks this much to you, I doubt you will be happy until you have one. People have commented on the Bach Cello Suites as being played by bass players but be aware that they contain at most double stops (no chords) and even there unless you tune in fifths there are many passages that are close to unplayable. People most often select movements that work rather than play an entire suite. Also, the phrasing and articulation that you get with a bow can not be obtained without one.
  16. engedi1


    Sep 16, 2005
    I have spent years playing the bach cello suites on electric bass (and upright bass). They are certainly doable tuned in 4ths, although not the same as playing them on a cello obviously. They are a great challenge on the electric bass, especially to make them anything close to musical. A viola da gamba is not tuned in 5th, but is tuned in 4ths, with a major third between the 3rd and 4th string. So some gamba music can make even more sense. Learning how to bow on the gamba will certainly take some kind of teacher as it's not terrible intuitive, to do it right.
    RSBBass likes this.
  17. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    There have been multi-string ebow-like gadgets, but I don't think any of them ever "made it" commercially (the one I'm thinking of is Godley and Creme's "gadget" or "gizmo" or whatever they called it, that was/is a physical string exciter though, not electromagnetic).
    HaphAsSard and 40Hz like this.
  18. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    May 24, 2006
    Wow! I remember that. The Gizmo! Little motor spinning little ridged wheels that pressed against the strings to "bow" them. Kinda a hurdy-gurdy sort of thing.

    Too bad it didn't sound that great (IMO anyway) and basically didn't work too well for most players.

    Much to my surprise I just discovered there's a still a version of it being sold. Called the Gizmotron. (Still sounds like a koto on bad acid if you ask me.)

  19. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    I was curious so I googled "koto on bad acid" and found this image:
    Seems about right from what little I can recall (the Secretary will disavow all knowledge). ;)
    40Hz likes this.
  20. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    Another option, if you can find one, is the Fernandes basses that have the Sustaner (edit: oops, Sustaniac is someone else's TM) drive built in. Reminds me to get mine out and play it (and apologies to the TB member who tried to buy it, never meant to imply it was for sale).
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2017