Approaching a bass guitar can be difficult on the ear at first as the frequencies produced are much lower than a regular guitar, and most other stringed instruments. However, I believe tuning your bass is very important and learning to keep it in tune before progressing too far with the instrument is key. Not only does an out of tune bass sound terrible and can make learning new material confusing, I think it is good to develop your ear for how the bass should sound. It is important to check that your bass is in tune every time you pick it up to play. These few steps should be useful when tuning a four-string bass in concert pitch, or standard tuning. If you have a five or six-string instrument, you may find tuning your bass a bit more involved.
STEP ONE: Pick up an electronic tuner.
A first attempt at tuning your bass can be daunting; a lot of beginner players are not sure what pitch should be produced by the four strings. Sometimes, tuning too high can lead to string breakage. To assist in this area, I would suggest buying a clip-on electronic tuner, preferably chromatic (most of them are).
STEP TWO: Tune the G string.
In concert pitch and on a four-string bass, the thinnest string is known at the ‘1st string’, or G. This string should produce the highest note out of the four bass strings and as you should have deduced, produces the note G when in tune.
When you play this string ‘open’ (i.e. do not fret any notes), the tuner may display another note than G. In this case, your 1st string is out of tune. You can adjust by tightening or loosening the 1st string machine head accordingly. If the tuner is indicating notes such as F or F#, the string is too flat and so the machine head needs to be tightened until you hit G. A display of G# or A for example denotes that the string is too sharp and needs to be loosened.
Here is a chromatic note scale, which should help you familiarise yourself with the notes on a bass guitar and aid you when tuning your bass:
C C# D E♭ E (4th) F F# G G# A (3rd) B♭ B C C# D (2nd) E♭ E F F# G (1st) G# A B ♭ B
When a G note has been reached on the tuner display, you will need to finely adjust it. When a perfect note is played, the digital needle on the screen should point to a central position, most tuners will also utilise a green backlit screen or LED to indicate that the string is in tune. If the needle is leaning left-of-centre then the string is still too flat, pointing to the right shows it is too sharp. You will need to adjust the machine head accordingly until the tuner display indicates that your G Is in tune.
STEP THREE: Repeat the process for the lower strings.
Now your 1st string is in in tune, you will need to repeat the process for the 2nd string (D), 3rd string (A) and the 4th string ( E ). Moving down, pluck the open 2nd string and the tuner should display a D note. In the same manner as before, lower notes such as C or C# indicate that the string is too flat and needs to be tightened at the machine head. Higher notes denote that the string is too sharp, loosen accordingly. Fine tune the D note and move on the lower two strings.
Soon, you will come to the thickest string, known as the ‘4th string’, or E. Beginner players may not be used to the low pitch that is produced by this string so listen and check the tuner display carefully.
STEP FOUR: Tweaking
When all four strings are tuned, the neck tension of the bass has probably changed from the point it was at before starting tuning your bass. This can slightly affect the tuning of each string as you go through the procedure and so I would suggest checking each of the four strings again, from the G in order down to the E, and adjust any of the strings as indicated by your tuner.
You can then use ‘relative’ and/ or ‘octave’ tuning to check that the intonation on your instrument is sufficient. If you play the 5th fret of any string, it should be the same note as the next string open. For example, the 5th fret on the E string produces the same A note as the open A string. If you play the two notes in succession, you should be able to hear that they are the same. Similarly, the 7th fet of any string should be exactly one octave above the lower string. The 7th fret of the A string produces an E note that is higher than the open E string. You may be unsure at first, but listen to these notes and it is good practice for your ear to help check that the instrument is in tune and to develop pitch.
STEP FIVE: Tuning your bass is complete, time to make a racket!
If all has gone well with tuning your bass, your instrument is now ready to play. You may find it is necessary to check the tuning and adjust occasionally. Heavy playing, temperature change and string bending are just a few of the factors that can cause your strings to alter in pitch periodically. I think that tuning you bass is always an important step before beginning to play, especially with other musicians.
If you find that your bass is not holding its tuning very well, or that the notes produced by trying relative or octave tuning don’t seem to tally up, please consult an experienced specialist, such as our own guitar and bass technician here at Booths. Tuning your bass is one of many handy articles here at boothsmusic.co.uk. Please keep checking back for more posts.
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