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Exploring Practice with Non-Standard Bass Tunings

Tuning photo by Brad Montgomery
Photo by Brad Montgomery

Q: I know some pros play using non-standard tuning (drop D, DADG, D standard DGCF, semitone E♭A♭D♭G♭, etc.), and I read somewhere that practice with other tunings can be good to help think in terms of the notes rather than finger patterns. What is your take? Is it a good idea to practice using non-standard tunings?

A: Non-standard tunings are much more common among guitarists than they are with bassists – and usually acoustic guitarists. It is my assumption that it really started with bottleneck slide guitarists who were primarily playing melodies and rhythmic strumming patterns with a slide, effectively needing to make a chord out of a one fret span.

In addition, songwriters who wanted an easier way to bar and “grip” chords on the instrument while they sang benefitted from this concept. It really does make it almost a no-brainer to strum simple songs on a guitar. There are only a few bass players I can think of who really explore this. They tend to fall into two categories:

  1. Musicians who just tune the entire instrument down by a step or more (but still keep it tuned in 4th’s) – usually gospel or heavy metal bassists. I believe many gospel bassists tune down to match common keys of the songs which used to be played be the organ (and it sounds pretty great when you hit a low A). Metal bassists tend to tune down to match the guitarists – many of whom play 7- or 8-string guitars nowadays, extending the range further down to get that ultra thick chunk sound.
  2. Solo bassists – like Michael Manring, Zander Zon, Grant Stinnett and others. These tunings tend to be more akin to acoustic guitar altered tunings like those you mentioned.

DADG, which is derived from the common guitar tuning DADGAD is used for one-finger chords across many strings.

DGCF, which retains the standard tuning in 4ths, just a hole step lower per string and any number of other tunings.

You can tune it any way you want. I won’t list them all here.

An explorative nature is inherent to the art of solo bass as is less typical sonic and tonal relationships, so altered tunings seem natural in those cases. In addition, they often facilitate easier “grips” with more harmonious relationships that no longer require straining and stretching your hands to hold some great sounding chords or patterns.

I think it’s an absolute blast to play around with new and different tunings. It’s a nice way to explore the instrument in a new way. You can approach it almost like a new instrument because you may not really know where the notes are at all, depending on your tuning, which can be fun.

However, it sounds like you are thinking about altered tunings in an every day application while practicing in order to work with more intention about your note choices. I would say no, it would have the opposite effect. Playing with new altered tunings is often more about forgetting about note choice and following the sound instead and embracing the unknown (at least until it becomes known).

I think that as you study and explore note choices and relationships, you very much want to retain your sense of “home base” on the instrument. You want to build muscle memory, pattern recognition, reinforce relationships between fingerings and the sound they create.

There is absolutely zero need to introduce unknowns and randomness into your actual practicing in that way. Sure, go for it for fun or explore it for its own sake, but when you’re working on being a better bass player with a standard tuning bass, you need to practice being a good bass player on a standard tuning bass.

If you want to tune it differently full time for some reason, sure go for it! But be aware that playing an instrument that is unique to itself can have some unintended consequences. For example, I was sharing a bill with a great local gospel bassist (we were both sidemen on this gig, not our own projects). His bass cut out on him unexpectedly (wound up being a wire that just detached for some reason). Of course, I handed him my bass. He tunes his bass down a whole step and plays a 6-string (A D G C F Bb). I was playing a standard tuning 4-string. He is good enough that he made it work, but I think he almost had an aneurysm! Playing tunes on a 4 that he had learned on a 6 wasn’t too bad, but it still required thought. Then transposing every thing down a whole step almost ruined the night for him – the band was hitting one song into the next pretty quickly. I was surprised that he didn’t ask for a minute to tune down or something. Amazingly, he powered through and sounded pretty great but he was mentally exhausted by the end of the night. Little things that you might not think of like that are good to consider. Not a reason not to do it, but it’s good to think it through before deciding.

Bottom line: if you plan on playing in a standard tuning, practice in a standard tuning. What you do for fun beyond that is only limited by your imagination.

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Share your thoughts

Kurt Skrivseth

Just get a 5 string, like an adult. Realistically, tuning down a whole step vs Drop D only gives you 2 more notes than a regular 4 string. With your action set right, if you play a double stop on the 10th fret E and 12th fret A string, it has an effect of sounding an octave lower with an implied lower 5th undertone. I once did this on my fender for one of my college professors (who plays upright) and she responded, “Wait, how are you doing that?”. The only time I see the tuning down thing being remotely useful is in a setting where you need for fret slop to match the tone if you’re covering something. Keep in mind any time you change your tuning, it changes your action. If you want that tonal difference just tweak your truss rod a little tighter. To be fair, most metal tone has such low tuned buzzing out/fret slapping (just look up any Mudvayne cover on youtube) that you can usually just drone your low D/C#/C/B (depending on how masculine you’re feeling) and occasionally hammer on a minor third higher and it’ll sound right on most songs. I think of changing tuning as a musician is like a painter putting his paint on a shelf that’s hard to reach.

    Anthony

    Anthony

    I tune a Peavey Cirrus DGCF. Since it is a two fretboard bass, I can still hit higher notes than a standard Fender bass. Since it is 35″ scale, the strings are still tight a whole step lower. I would love a five string Cirrus, or similar bass, but I have gotten used to my Cirrus, which plays and sounds great. I say this as guy who has played fives since 1987. Just remember what Lee Sklar said his podcast about the number of strings is not an issue, it is the music being played.

M J Rochner

M J Rochner

I play 90% of my gigs 1/2 step down (Eb, Ab, Db, Gb). This helps singers do tunes that are out of their range and reduces throat fatigue. It takes some getting used to, as your internal “pitch center” changes. Also, it can throw the guitarists a curve when I sing “Texas Flood” in Ab to fit my voice!
I need to try more alternate tunings not based on 4ths. Great article!

Kirk Bolas

Kirk Bolas

I played for a year in a band where everyone on strings tuned down a whole step to “thicken up” the tone and make it easier on both vocalists. I was hired as the bassist and the final member for the line-up. I figured, “whatever”. It was like playing in standard tuning for all intents and purposes. I took a 5-string bass string set and used the lowest four strings on my Fender-P bass. I opened up the nut slots to accommodate the heavier gauges, tweaked the truss rod and fine tuned the intonation. The purpose was to tighten up the feel as I didn’t like the sloppy feel of the lower tuning. Later on I decided to tune the bass to B, E, A, D and didn’t need to do the whole step tuning down. I just adjusted the positioning I played things in. As we were playing all original material, I didn’t miss the G too much. At this time, I’m saving my milk money for a five string. I’m looking at either a Yamaha or a fanned fret Ibanez that both go for under a grand. At some point after acquiring a five string, I’ll probably experiment with tuning it E, A, D, G, C. I used to own a six string, but I have wide hands with short fingers and never could settle in to playing it.

Rob Tollefson

I was doing double duty in an original band tuned down a whole step, and a cover band. I decided I didn’t want to keep changing my tuning so I just learned all the songs on the DGCF tuned bass. It was amazing how many songs benefited from an open low G string. Even just hammering the low G to A provided much needed time to shift back to 1st position. Guitarists hated it, they couldn’t follow me without effing up

E.Fichter

E.Fichter

I often switch from standard tuning to a drop D tuning, on the same instrument. Is that bad for the neck ? I can’t seem to notice any change yet, but maybe on the long run ?

Maartin Allcock

I sometimes use CGDG if the writer wants those low notes. I also play mandocello so it’s no hardship. I often use DADG too. For other things I’ll use a Boss OC-2. I tried a five string but kept getting lost. As for the six-string, as Leland Sklar says, if you’re playing up there then you’re going to need a bass player :D

Beto Var

It is a personal thing. I mean, i play a 4 string fretless. I tried before with 5 and 6 string basses, but i just won’t feel comfortable enough. Lately i began lowering 4th and 3rd string to C and G and totally found another dimension in low frequencies. Rather than muscle memory or positions (which i consider also important to practice!) i think arbitrary tunnings let you get closer to sound itself rather than formulas or any other practical tools, cos it forces you to use your ear rather than your eyes.

bob

I don’t think it’s about notes. Most of the time you’ll adjust your tuning to match the guitarist, to make things easier on both of you. If it’s anything about notes, it’s about gaining one or more notes on the low end. If you tune all strings down equally, you can still make use of your learned finger patterns. And then drop tuning just lets you play chords on one fret.

If you’re drop tuning but just to get lower notes and not to match the guitarist, then get a 5 string. An E string will be very floppy compared to a B string if you try to tune down too much.

Kurt Skrivseth

Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. I split bass duty on a gig with this guy who played a 6 string bass tuned BDGCFBb with the 5 highest strings capo’d at 2, because he liked the lower tension (So it was effectively in standard tuning…I can’t imagine the math involved getting used to that, or reaching behind the capo to get a low C/C#.)