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Adjusting to Alternate Tunings on Bass

Tuning a bass
Photo by Marcus Holland-Moritz

Q: As you may know, many bassists who play Urban Gospel music will detune their basses to a low B♭ or lower to achieve that extra low range. About a year ago, I decided to give detuning a try and detuned my 5-string bass to B♭. It was strange at first, because I had to get used to the half-step difference in the finger positions while playing songs that I was familiar playing with standard tuning. Now, I can see why Gospel bassists detune, especially to B♭. Because many Gospel songs are written in B♭ or E♭, so when you hit that open B♭ or E♭ at the climax of the song, it really has an effect. I think I will stay with this tuning. So my dilemma is this: we all play by ear at our church, so there is very little sheet music. When my Music Director calls out notes on the fly during a song, I have trouble remembering where the notes are now in the new tuning. Even with the sheet music, I have to go through the exercise of shifting the notes. Should I just relearn the fretboard with the B♭ tuning now to make things smoother? I’m not sure what to do…

A: You totally nailed it with that comment about that low B♭. I know a lot of guys that tune to a low A! It does sound amazing when used in just the right spot.

Honestly, I know a lot of Gospel bassists. Almost every one of them detunes, but I’ve never thought to ask them about this issue. But I have a couple of thoughts.

First, I know a lot of horn players who are amazingly adept at transposing on the spot. Some of them can sight-read passages and transpose better than I could sight-read without transposing. For some instrumentalists, transposing is a part of playing the instrument professionally, and it is a skill that can be mastered. To master it takes constant attention, as is the case with everything else. Transposing notation is probably easier than listening to someone call out changes and then doing the math on the fly.

Second, while there’s a part of me that has a hard time suggesting that you relearn the fretboard (might be the purist in me), I think that this may actually be the way to go.

My only caveat is this: if you re-learn the fretboard, you are pretty much committing to this tuning. While it might be possible to learn a few different tunings well, I think that it might also become confusing unless you really committed to learning it both ways.

I can foresee issues arising if you are ever forced to play another bass on the fly or have to borrow a bass to sit in without time to re-tune. It might prove to be confusing. So I would just be aware of that before making the switch.

Aside from that, I really can’t see a reason not to re-learn the fretboard, aside from the initial confusion that will happen as you are in your “in between” phase. I went through a phase like that with reading notation in both clefs. When learning treble clef, I focused on it so hard that I had a hard time reading bass clef after that. You will likely have a period where neither tuning feels completely comfortable but all it takes is time and attention.

I would imagine that if you are playing quite a bit, you can get it pretty well under your fingers in a matter of months. In short, if you are going to keep that tuning, you should probably know where any given note actually is, instead of always thinking “C, then down a half step” every time.

Like I mentioned, though, I use standard tuning and I’m sure some of our readers out there have suggestions.

How about you drop-/alternate-tuning bassists out there… what do you do? Please share in the comments.

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Scotty Tolstead

Scotty Tolstead

My whole band plays in 1/2 step drop, and I play a 5 string. This makes it easy, because we read the chord charts as written, and don’t need to worry about transposing. The keyboardist even drops the 1/2 step electronically. I do notice, however, that even the 1/2 step drop affects my instrument’s intonation, so I keep it set up for the drop tuning.