On Tuning My Bass in Fifths

Added on by Taylor Smith.

The short version

I’ve been playing with my bass tuned in fifths, an octave lower than the cello (CC-GG-D-A, from bottom to top), for about six months. This creates some challenges, but not as many as you’d think. There are also some advantages. The biggest advantage is that, at least with my instrument, it sounds much more open and direct—like a big, honkin’ cello. Like everyone else’s, my bass always sounded kind of tubby and un-violin-like. Now, it sounds really good, better than I have ever heard it. I also feel like I can play in tune with myself better … something about the overtones, I s’pose. The hardest part is that I have to think extra hard sometimes, as stuff isn’t where it has been for the last seventeen years.

Bottom line: I am really liking this change. I think it might be permanent.

The long version

For some reason, I can’t seem to just play the bass according to the way your “supposed to.” I didn’t have a proper teacher until I was eighteen (two years after I started), and we never really got into nitty-gritty technique. He was (is) a phenomenal jazz player (the guy played with Miles Davis … how much more legit can you get?), and the few lessons we had revolved more around constructing good bass lines than technique.

Then, when I got to BYU-Idaho, there wasn’t a bass teacher. I was a music major, attending on a jazz bass scholarship, but I was left high and dry without a teacher. (Despite the fact that I was required to take private lessons as a music major.) So, they stuck me with one of the best student bassist there at the time. He was a good player, but not a good teacher. It didn’t help that I had virtually no “classical” bass experience when I got there.

Finally, halfway through my sophomore year, a new cello teacher showed up, and he was fine with taking on the two or three bassists that were scraping by without a teacher. We didn’t really work out of the Simandl method, but that was, essentially, how my lessons went: no third finger below thumb-position; always keep you thumb behind your second finger; come back to first-position whenever possible … stuff like that.

The university hired an actual, for-real bass teacher the following year. He was into the Rabbath stuff (a little bit). We worked out of the George Vance repertoire. I was allowed to use my third finger once I got up to (Rabbath’s) third position (thumb at the heel of the neck). I was also “allowed” to do these pivot-shift things, which made the fingerboard feel a little more manageable.

Still, I was experimenting with all sorts of weird stuff. I stuck frets on my bass for a concert with the University Baroque Ensemble. I played in a DD-GG-D-G tuning for Cello Suite No. 1. After my recital (which was in solo tuning, as I played the Hindemith Sonata), I started playing in a “drop D” tuning most of the time.

After I graduated, moved to back to California, and was playing in the Pomona College orchestra, I decided to take the Rabbath thing a step further and bought a bent endpin. I wasn’t quite ready to go all the way and drill a new hole and all of that, though. My last bass teacher at BYU-Idaho was a German-bow guy, so that is where I ended up upon graduation. The trouble is that the whole bent-endpin thing is pretty tricky to pull off with a German bow hold. I didn’t have a French bow, so played with a French grip on my German bow for a few years (until I could afford to buy a decent French bow … and sold my German bow).

Finally, I stuck with this setup for about ten years. No more monkey business. Then, last fall, I got the crazy idea to try to play a piano/cello duet by Webern for a faculty recital at the college. And, that was really only possible if I could tune the instrument like a cello. So, I bought a set of fifths-tuning strings. Along the way, I came across Tomoya Aomori’s website, and absolutely loved the way he sounded. Obviously, a big chunk of why he sounded so amazing is because he is he, and the reason I don’t sound that good is because I am me. Still, he had some comparison videos and information that convinced me to really give this wacky thing a try.

So, since last November or so, I’ve been playing with my bass tuned in fifths. I like it. A lot. I feel like my instrument sounds better; I feel like I sound better. I don’t detest playing my bass quite as much as I used to. When given the choice, I would almost always choose to practice viol over bass. Now, I kind of like playing bass again. I always felt like (and was told, repeatedly) that I had a really good-sounding bass, but now I think it sounds better than it ever has.

Most people think that this tuning means you have to shift a lot more. My experience has been that it is only a little more, if at all. Firstly, I am now using all four fingers, instead of three, which means I have a pretty good range of notes under my fingers. Secondly, since so many bass parts are really just cello parts, they tend to “sit” better with the instrument tuned in fifths … like a cello. I also feel like I can hear myself (and my intonation) better with this setup.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still a pretty lousy bass player. Still, I am a lousy bass player that now sounds a little better than he did at this time last year, if for no other reason than the fact that his instrument sounds better.