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.