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:
- 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.
- 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.