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.
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.