Playing Quartertones on the Double Bass
As we have seen by now, the quartertone is a very characteristic feature for traditional Arabic music. Although these pitches do not occur in western (jazz) music, the double bass is very well capable of playing these notes, since it has a fretless fingerboard. This is also apparent in the usage of pitch bending in jazz music. This can work in the bassist’s advantage, because the player is already used to sliding between positions, as opposed to using a static and absolute placement of the fingers. In order to produce the pitches of the quartertones, I alter my technique of playing on the bass has slightly, but it still has a very logical feel to it.
To play on the double bass, I use the left hand technique as taught in Franz Simandl’s New Method for the Double Bass. This technique uses positional playing, in which the index, middle and little (respectively first, second and fourth) fingers are used to produce three chromatic pitches. For example, in what Simandl calls the ‘half position’, where ‘the first finger is placed upon the finger-board one half-tone higher than the open string’. The position of the hand is quite stretched, in order to make the the distances between the fingers align with the intervals. We are going to take a closer look at the notes on the D string, within this position. We could describe the notes using by the finger that is used to make that pitch. In that way 0, 1, 2, 4 corresponds to D, Eb, E F. In the chapters on ajnas and maqamat we saw that E is a very common note in Arabic music. This note lies in between Eb and E, so finger-wise it should be between 1 and 2. Unfortunately we don’t have a 1½ finger on the human hand, so another solution is needed. What I have found to work for me, is to contract the position of the hand, in such a way that the fourth finger remains in place on the F. That places the E under my first finger. Of course, this is not an exact measurement, and needs to be personally tailored with practice and experience, not unlike the Simandl positions.
Another common note is F. This is the note between F and F#. To play this note we can use a similar transformation of the hand, but now we can use the position that is described by Simandl as the first position. In this position, the index finger is placed one semitone higher than in the half position. The sequence 0, 1, 2, 4 would now contain the notes D, E, F, F#. Now if we want to play F, we should use the same contraction in our hand, but instead of pivoting the pinky, we will pivot on the index finger, lowering the F# pitch to an F. Again, this takes practice to perfect the intonation of the note. These two techniques are very well fit to play quartertones up to fourth position (first finger making a perfect fifth with the open string) as described by Simandl.
For playing quartertones in higher positions on the bass, I want to take a look at another E, but an octave higher than the one before, and being played on the G string of the bass. When the index finger is placed on the note D on the G-string, a player could stick to the positions described by Simandl, using first second and fourth fingers for chromatic intervals. Because the notes get closer and closer the higher the notes are on the bass, I find that the solution to contract the hand a little to play quartertones is less effective in this position. Another way to deal with this position on the bass is to reside to what is more closely related to bass guitar technique, and uses one finger per note (1, 2, 3, 4 for D, Eb, E and F). This is often referred to as the “four finger technique”. In this case the spacing between each finger is more or less equal. To play the note E in this position, I use this position more or less, with a slight alteration. One way to perceive the intonation of E is to think of it as the note between Eb and E. Another way of perceiving it is that it’s (more or less) exactly in the middle of D and F, splitting a minor third in half. To play the note E I stretch my hand in such a way that my index finger remains on the D, my pinky is located on F, and my middle finger is placed in the middle of these two. This makes the intonation of the Eb and E around it much harder, but as seen in the examples above, the E doesn’t appear next to Eb or E within a jins or maqam (although they may be played as an ornamentational note).
When reaching thumb position, the first two examples apply again, replacing the fourth finger with the third finger, as the fourth finger is not used in the Simandl method in thumb position. To play other quartertones, one must calculate and memorize the most natural position or pivoting point for the left hand. More than one option may be found. I suggest to choose the one that makes most sense in regards to the music, and which note is under the other finger(s).
For further explination, please see these videos, and the images below.
 Franz Simandl, New Method for the Double Bass (New York: Carl Fisher, 1984), 8