Adjusting to Alternate Tunings on Bass

Tuning a bass

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.

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. I am playing now in Drop C and it took me a while to get used to make the fifths where the forths are and so on…its really a mess in the head but it is worth to try.

  2. Actually, Damian raises a great point about tuning down to A. Wouldn’t it be easier to tune the low B down a full step? Rather than relearn the whole fretboard, you’d just have to get used to the new B string, and many of us are quite familiar with 5ths tunings anyway. Granted your Bb wouldn’t be open, but I’m wondering how much of the overtones from the open string matter when playing with a band. I play a four string with a hipshot that I flip to low B with my band for certain songs, and while it sounds floppy and disgusting solo, the fundamental is definitely still there for impact in the mix.

  3. Thinking in terms of relative chords may be the key here – for instance, thinking of the “four” or “five” chord instead of specific notes. If the bandleader calls out a chord or note, you’re thinking relative instead of specifics. It helps me tremendously in picking up new instruments (I just started mandolin this week)

  4. I disagree with your comment about “committing to that tuning”.
    Rrlearning the fret board for f
    Different tunings is no different than learning your scales and arpeggios in every position. Its just another aspect of the instrument to practice and become better at.

  5. Detuning and transposing… I do both regularly. Did two shows last weekend with one of my 5 string basses detuned to Bb, switching between it, my fretless and a standard tuned 4 string. (Yes, it really was necessary…)

  6. I often define my E string while playing. Sometimes as far as low A. No hipshot though. More like a low budget Michael Manring. A thicker gauge E helps with tone.

  7. For my 5 string, I also enjoy playing in standard Bb & drop Ab. But because I’m part of 2 bands in college that require drop A. Not my top favorite tuning for the 5 but I would use the tuning for one of my 4 strings. For a couple of years, I’ve been able to grow accustomed from standard to Low Eb on an 8 string guitar (don’t own one) because it’s basic knowledge of knowing where every note is placed on the fret board.

  8. Hey I detune now and then. What helps me is when I hear/read what chord it is I try to relate it to what key we`re playing in instead of transposing every single chord. So when de-tuned and the song we´re doing is in C originally but I´ve got my bass dropped a whole step. An Am is called (or written) I will then think of Am as the VI-chord in D and so on. Releting to the key/scale makes it easier for me IMHO to play more fluently. But always try to relate to what you hear first. Good luck!

  9. I’ve found that when detuning it helps to pick a note that naturally already exists as an open string. That way, if you tune to “A” you can just think of the string as another A string. I play in a rock band that does a fair bit of drop D and that shortcut saves me a fair amount of brain power, and also keeps some of the intervals close enough to what you’re used to.

  10. CDGCFA and D#G#C#F#A# and BEADG and EADGC and of course EADG
    but i got no more basses to experiment (@[email protected])

  11. Most of the time when I detune (like for Stevie Ray Vaughn-type guitarists, or singers who don’t want to sing at the top of their range), the songs are written and called in the “natural” keys ie “Pride and Joy” is called in E but played in Eb – so there’s no fingering adjustment or relearning the fretboard. where it DOES mess me up is is in my own ear – I have synethesia, so I “see” what an E or a Bb “looks” like as I’m playing it. Playing an E and having it “look like” an Eb throws me. But if I play with the band long enough, I start to “see” the songs in the flat key – and then it throws me when I have to play them in the “regular” key on another gig. Point being, this is one of those cases where relative pitch wins out…

  12. I installed a Hipshot D-Tuner on the top string of my six-string, so I can just flip to the drop tuning on the fly. I’ve currently got it set for A, but it can be set up for a drop of one half step to two full steps.

  13. If you think of everything on bass or guitar as a pattern, it makes it a lot easier. look at a G, D, E, C pattern in the key of G (with the G on the E string, or third position). You have to transpose it up to B. Just move the shape. You could just go to the B on the A string (2nd position), then the shape stays the same. I know this is an example of a 4 string neck that’s in standard tuning, but when you tune the B down to Bb, it’s just a half step and it sounds like it won’t really change while you’re playing in that setting.

    Another way you could work the difficulty out by looking at your bass. Most basses generally have dots. Let’s say we’re playing a low E in standard tuning on the B string (5th position). You will generally play on a dot. When you tune to Bb, you’re not going to be playing on the dot.

  14. I have a FENDER precision 1973 tuned in Ab , sound fantastic .

  15. In the last few months I have committed to DGCF on my 4 string because most of what the band leader writes is in a D open tuning. The transposition is coming slowly but naturally with time/ I like the Low D a lot and it hasn’t really changed how i approach the instrument. I have another bass tuned EAEB or sometimes DGDA. Sounds angelic but Im not even going to try and figure out the notes.

  16. A Hipshot drop tuner might be a good alternative. In the beginning, you always switch back to standard tuning. If it truly fits best for the music you are playing, you can leave it dropped. I used a Hipshot when they first came out just to get a low D (4 string). The bass line was pretty simple and didn’t require a lot of re-thinking to make it work. Over the next few months, I was able to integrate into most everything with the dropped E string down to C.

    Another thing you might try is talking with some upright bassists who play orchestral solos. Quite often the solo double bass music is played on bass tuned a full step higher. Although it personally nearly drove me batty, they might have some tips – especially on switching back and forth.

  17. I have a FENDER precision 1973 tuned in Ab , thats a real LOW bass sound , the basses tuned in E sound like skinny guitars for me now . DONT BE AFRAID to detune your basses fellas .

  18. I detune in my band too. Just standard 5 string down a half step, and for one song in particular I drop to an A too! At first it was a jarring difference and nothing sounded right in the band, but we did it for the same vocal reasons, our ranges. We havent gone back since and that drop A, oh man! Basically at first, we were all in limbo. “Is this a B or a Bb?” So we just talk in standard terms now, with the assumption we all know it will be played a half step lower. However in my head, I learned to relate all the old shapes (octaves, fifths, and so on) into the sounds I was now hearing. It was annoying at first, but practicing with everyone really kind of helped solidify these new sounds.

  19. I rarely detune my bass (I play in standard EADG). Sometimes when song is in Eb or realy need low D I detune quickly my bass to appropriate note. I haven’t any problems with transpose or difficulties in different tunings. But most of time I don’t need lower notes than low D. It’s funny cause you say about drop Bb or even A on 5 string bass – that must be tremendous low ! Sometimes I wonder that maby I’m impaired in my playing cause more and more bassists needs 5 or more strings and lower tunings and I don’t mind about it ? haha

  20. Why go only halfway? Do the full step! That bottom A through the right rig…”moving”…

  21. I was a horn player before becoming a bass player and had to transpose constantly. I found that learning concert pitch (similar to learning the fretboard) was necessary for talking to other musicians, but when it came to actual playing, I thought in terms of Do, Re, Mi. I just thought to myself, “OK, Do is A in this song,” or “Do is F# in this song,” and went from there.

  22. Putting low B to A is probably the easiest solution as you already know the other A string

  23. I have to detune quite often, my guitarist is using an 8 strings axe and detunes it for many songs, so I need to stick to it and also for a comfort issue for fast licks using 0.
    There is absolutely no way for me to remember where all the notes are on the fretboard for each tuning (I use BEADG, BbEADG, AEADG, BEF#DG and BEGDG…), but sometimes it brings really interesting effects to the song, for example we have that riff where the guitar plays on the loooow F# string then goes playing the same pattern up to the B string, the bass starts from the A string tuned F#, and gets on the low B, it makes that cool effect with the guitar, kind of inverted in the progression.

  24. As a “green bean” starting bass player, any subject is particular difficult to me, but different tunnings and transposing are the worst. But my understanding is that everything is a matter of practice and exercising, a mental and physical ones. Look the fretboard and find a note is a mental/visual exercise, but your hands muscles need to be prepared to follow your mind, due to you really have a “muscular memory” to bypass too. As we can see in one of No Treble pictures: practice, practice and practice and at the and, practice more.

  25. I play a couple of basses in DGCF. It can get confusing sometimes when I play certain songs that I’ve written in a standard tuning, but for the most part if I am aware of what tuning I am in, I can figure it out on the fly. Most of our set nowadays is mostly in Standard…i bring one bass in each tuning.

    In general, tuning the bass down a whole step makes for deeper tones, which force me to groove because the notes and harmonics sonically resemble a kick drum. It’s an incredible way to improve your groove. The strings are looser, the bass is thumpier, and now you have a new place to write some lines.

  26. I can see the problem, but don’t find it that difficult to stay on normal tuning with songs in Bb. I also find it difficult to find got amps to give the right sound for the low notes. I sometimes detune the E to D, but that is way down low for a good sound I think.

  27. 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.

  28. Sbeve69

    I use a p bass with thomastik flats tuned down a whole step. That extra low D and Eb really make a difference especially when you play with brass instruments.