New Beginnings: Exploring New Bass Tunings (and String Counts)

6 String Bass

Q: I have been playing bass professionally for over 15 years, but I’ve recently decided to expand my horizons by tuning one of my 5 string basses E-C. I decided to do this after playing a six string bass in a music store one day and realizing how easy it was to play lines across the fingerboard in a lower position as opposed to up and down. This, coupled with the fact that you, Hadrian, Janek and Stanley all utilize this tuning made me think there must be something worthwhile investigating. My question is: Do you have any tips or practice advice for getting used to this new tuning? I’m so used to playing 5 strings tuned B-G that I find myself getting really confused.

A: While your question is pretty specific (and a good one), I’d like to take the opportunity to answer it a bit more generically, because in a nutshell, the question is applicable to lots of newness, not just this specific case. In other words, “I’m trying to learn ‘X’ and I just can’t seem to get it. help!”.

With anything that we want to internalize and really learn, it really comes down to a few things:

Time spent

We’re not talking hours, days weeks or even months, but to really master anything, we’re talking years and years of constant practice and study. No time like the present to get started down the path.

Smart practice

Or, practice doesn’t make perfect… only perfect practice makes perfect.

You can’t just run a few patterns and internalize something. You really need to try and get inside of that thing one step at a time.

Take it in bite sized chunks. Work on one aspect of what you want to learn and then try and explore it from another angle, and then another, and then another.

It takes some creativity in order to figure out what you might want to work on and the best way to approach it.

Take scales, for example. Many of us get hung up on how to internalize playing scales while also breaking out of the pattern so it doesn’t sound like we’re just playing in a scale. My question is usually, “how do you practice the scales?” The answer is usually: “in two octaves vertically and then horizontally up the neck”.

Well, then if we only practice scales in order from Root to root, why would we play them any differently in a solo? Break up the patterns! Don’t just play 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8

Practice playing (over changes) 1,3,6,7,4,8,5 (for example). How many permutations can you think of? Analyze other solos… find the patterns and practice those… You need to hit stuff from every possible angle to really “get it”.


In response to adding strings (jumping from 4 to 5 or 6 or beyond) or changing the tuning of your instrument, the problems become more complex in a way but the answer remains much the same. It will take time. You already know what you’ve practiced to know your instrument to this point. Now, just double down and get to it with the new tuning, instrument, etc.

With every hour spent in the shed or on the gig, you will be that much closer to your goal.

One tip I will share from personal experience is that reading is extremely helpful with regard to new tunings. When I made the switch from 4 to 6 string, I was in college and had the benefit of spending much of my time shedding or learning tunes. I made the decision that I was willing to suck now in order to play better later so, when I got my new 6, I put the 4 string down (for years actually). I played the 6 string exclusively for quite some time. I got lost, I made mistake after mistake, I played on the wrong string but I got comfortable much more quickly because of it than if I was switching back and forth.

I noticed that reading cello suites, melodies out of the Real Book and anything else I could get my hands on really helped me to map out the fretboard and get to know it. I became relatively comfortable after just a few weeks of dedicated study and felt very much at home after only a few months of practicing hard with my 6 string every day.

In short, you will get out of it what you put into it. Don’t be afraid to suck for a little while. Dedicate yourself to your new path and it will become clear as day in no time!

As always, I love reading the feedback on these columns. If you’ve experienced this change (or change in general) and want to share, we’d love to hear about it. Please share your story in the comments.

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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  1. If you guys are interested in hearing from a novice, then I have something to share. About 4 years ago I purchased a piece of software called Bass Fretboard Addict for about $15. The program has (among other things) music note flash cards which you can determine the speed at which they flash. Now this is going to sound very amateurish to you pros out there but this is how I use it. I start every practice by set the tempo at a comfortable pace, then I finger the fret the flash cards display. All the while I’m keeping the beat with some music I’ve selected on my ipod. My bass is not plugged in because it is not the sound I’m interested in at that moment. So in a sense, I’m lip-synching the whole thing. I gradually increase the tempo as I get more and more comfortable with where everything is. I know this all sounds pretty childish but this software helped me to vastly improve and quicken my awareness of notes on the fretboard without looking. I will always use this for muscle memory purposes, and I am now using it to condition me for my 5 string. Hey, sometimes it’s the simple things that can make a world of difference.

  2. Hey Damian, thanks for answering my question! I guess deep down I knew that the answer was nothing short of hard work, but I never thought about the reading aspect, that makes a lot of sense. At the moment I have restrung the bass B-G as the B string was just too good not to have! But, I’m sure one day I will string her back up with a high C and I will knuckle down and do the work so as not to suck!
    Craig Strain

  3. I play a highly-modified upright guitarrón (UG) and an electric upright guitarrón (EUG) that I made myself because I wanted an instrument that would break down for travel. My basses both are tuned E-A-D-G-C-F, which I did because the fingerboard is only one octave in length. This tuning allows me to play up to F4–only two half-steps short of a double bass’s G4. I do enjoy being able to play across the strings so extensively (which Craig also finds a plus), particularly when soloing. Of course, I can still play up the strings an octave for a particular effect. I’ve become convinced that it’s important to practice scales and patterns from the lowest note available on your instrument to the highest. For example, in my case: from E1 to F4 in the key of C; from F1 to F4 in the key of Eb. I’m also using an iPhone app called Bass Sight, which sounds fairly similar to the app that Terrance is using. It helps with sight reading standard notation, too. I also fine Donovan Stoke’s mental practice ideas helpful. I use them several times a day while waiting for one thing or another, sometimes for only a few seconds at a time.

  4. I have done a fair bit of playing my 4-string tuned down one whole step. Not as simple as it sounds, as I was playing covers with the guitars tuned to A440. I have actually found this to make 95% of the songs easier to play, for the simple fact that there is a lot of music that favours an open low G string, and the ability to hit that low D. It helps that I first learned the songs in the changed tuning, but the few I already knew had to be relearned…