This is part 2 of the Common Upright Bass Tunings series. This time, we’ll cover 5 String Tunings, C extensions and some practice suggestions. Check out Part 1.
Five String Tunings
As long as there have been basses, there have been basses with 5 strings. Traditionally, the extra string has been used to extend the range of the instrument lower. The two most common tunings are B E A D G:
and C E A D G:
Advocates of a low “B” tuning favor it because the low “B” maintains the perfect fourth interval between each string. As a result, the finger patterns and left hand technique remain constant throughout the instrument.
Advocates of the low “C” tuning cite better string response and timbre, due to the increased tension on the string. For some classical musicians, the sharing of a “C” string with instruments such as the cello and viola is also desirable.
A third, less common, 5 string tuning incorporates a higher string in an E A D G C tuning:
Although 5 string basses have long been common in Europe and Russia, players in America have traditionally favored “C extensions” as a way of producing pitches below E. This involves adding a fingerboard extension on, near or through the scroll. It also requires an “extended E string.” Most string manufacturers produce an “extended E string” for this purpose.
Although there are many individual designs, most modern day extensions utilize a chromatic capo system, which allows the “open” string to sound at E, Eb, D, Db, or C. They generally look like this:
C extensions are most often found on 4 stringed basses and can, obviously, be used in combination with any tuning. Some extensions even allow the instrument to reach a low B. I’m sure someday someone will go even lower.
Of course, there are a number of other tunings for the double bass, including a 4 stringed tuning with a high “C,” used primarily for solo work (and my personal own tuning):
My personal tuning is somewhat unique among the tunings listed above. Although for certain specific situations, I use a fairly traditional High C tuning on a 5 string bass:
Most of the time, I use a 5 stringed instrument with a C extension in the following combination tuning:
I don’t know of anyone else who uses this exact tuning, but I am sure they are out there.
I know one bassist who uses an “open D” tuning on his 5 string:
Of course, the tunings I have touched on are not the only tunings out there in bassland. They are simply some of the more common. I encourage you to investigate the tunings out there or create your own.
If you are going to steer away from the traditional 4 string E A D G tuning, there is really no better way than to jump right in and do it. Be patient with yourself, however. I would suggest that you begin by re-learning some music that you are already familiar with. After you can play several pieces with your new tuning, you will start to gain a level of confidence. The next step is to learn some new music. This can prove to be a bit more challenging, but keep with it.
The final step is to sight-read well in your new tuning. During this final stage you may find glitches for a while. When I first felt confident enough to take my new tuning on a sight-reading gig I found I would truck along fine, only to hit the occasional clam a full step off! Ouch. Painful. Before long, however, these moments disappeared. The possibility of losing the gig certainly helped.
I encourage you to investigate new tunings on your bass. Doing so can open up a number of creative possibilities, which is always a good thing. So, tune up and keep exploring.