Ask Damian Erskine: Bass Tunings

Q: Is there any reason how and why the bass got tuned in fifths (B, E, A, D, G, C) as opposed to the guitar’s tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E)?

A: Actually, those are fourths the bass is tuned in.

If my memory serves, the bass tuning came first. Although, hundreds of years ago, it WAS tuned in 5ths!

All basses were tuned similarly to violins, cellos, etc. The bass is just the bigger version of those instruments and all were tuned in 5ths (as the rest of them still today). In fact, if you go back to learn some early classical works for double-bass, it is much easier to play when tuned in 5ths, as this was the intended tuning.

I’m not sure at what point people began to tune the bass in 4ths, but it stuck.

The guitar is tuned the way it is (in 4ths, but with that one major 3rd) in order to facilitate chord fingerings. Try tuning it in straight fourths and play an open G chord… ain’t quite the same, is it?!

This concept got taken further with the advent of “open” tunings, which would allow chords to be barred with just one finger.

You can tune a bass (or any instrument) however you like, though! I’ve often had fun by tuning my 6-string bass with that major third (like a standard guitar tuning) and played guitar tunes on it. Michael Manring has taken this concept further than anyone I know of. Alternate tunings on bass are becoming quite common.

Many Gospel musicians tune their basses down (still in fourths, just tuned a step (or more) down. Solo bassists are especially fond of alternate tunings.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to ben? Cancel reply

  1. I love trying different tunings on my bass. The main tunings I’ve ended up using have been standard, all down one step (D-G-C-F), drop-D (D-A-D-G), and “sludge from the depths of hell” (C-G-C-G). Usually I do it to facilitate a certain key or type of chord or interval. It can get to be problematic at shows to have to re-tune between songs though, so you either have to get real quick at tuning or bring an extra bass or two.

    • a bass by any other name...

      Until I acquired a 6-string, I did the drop-D, making a meal out of dropping the E to a D (all the effects, feedback and the like) to “disguise” that I was retuning (usually to do The Wall). Before I moved out of rock and pop, I had a bit of a rep for taking over the stage with basses, usually 4 or 5. This sort of behavior does not win you subbing gigs with bar bands…

  2. a bass by any other name...

    I think your history is a bit off as far as tuning goes. The modern orchestral bass is a mutt; we see influences from both the viol and violin families as well such oddities as the basso de viola de braccio (AKA: violone amongst many other names). The latter was/is tuned in fifths with three to six strings. However, it was a much smaller instrument than the viola da gamba, better suited to chamber music. The violone’s pitch raised, though slightly, and the number of strings stabilized at four, eventually giving rise to the modern violoncello, better known as the cello.

    The viola de gamba was tuned in fourths and was pitched considerably lower than the violones – nearly into the contrabass range (apparently, a contra viola de gamba extended even further).

    These prior instruments had a heavy influence on the development of a true contrabass violin for the orchestra. The present bass is a mix of viol and violin construction but kept the viol tuning schema of fourths, though at E – A – D – G. However, the low E string was problematic at best, leading many players to drop it altogether and use an A – D – G tuning.

    Of course, tunings, number of strings, construction, etc… probably varied amongst luthiers and musicians just as today. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assume that bassists tuned theirs in fifths.

    Chuck, check out Hipshot detuners. Cheaper and easier than bringing multiple basses – though not as impressive as having an array of instruments surrounding you.

  3. Tim

    Thanks for the read! Ir’s always fascinating to learn the “why’s” of music, especially when it involves history. I admit I’m not confident enough in my ability to try different tunings yet, but I can definitely see how tweaking them contributes to a player’s “voice.” :D

  4. ben?

    I think the tuning was switched to fourths in the old days to make the playing of intervals like fifths easier, due to the instrument’s wide spacing on the neck.