Congratulations! You’ve picked out your bass guitar, you’re plugged into your bass amplifier, you’re in your best rock star stance, and you’re ready to unleash a wall of sound.
First things first… better make sure your bass is in tune before you let that first thunderous note fly. Let’s take a look at how to tune a bass guitar to make sure you’re always in tune and ready to rock out.
We’ll start with the basic setup of your bass guitar and identify various kinds of tuning methods. Then we’ll explore different types of bass guitars, consider alternate tunings, and finally show you how you can keep your strings in tune every time you play your bass.
Quick Reference For Bass Tunings:
- 4- String - E, A, D, G
- 5-String - B, E, A, D, G (or E, A, D, G, C)
- 6-String - B, E, A, D, G, C
- 4-String Drop D - D, A, D, G
- 4-String Alternate 1 - Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
- 4-String Alternate 2 - A, D, G, C
The mechanics of tuning your bass are pretty straight forward. Your bass strings run through the bridge of your bass and wind around tuning pegs at the top, or headstock, of your bass.
While the bridge holds your bass strings in place, your tuning pegs increase or decrease the tension on the strings. A tighter wind produces a higher pitch, while loosening the strings will give you a lower pitch.
Bass Guitar Tuning Methods
There are a variety of methods and devices available to help you “fine tune” your bass guitar.
You can choose to tune your bass guitar by “ear,” using another instrument or tuning device to provide a reference note by which you can tune to. Once you’ve tuned to the reference note, you can then tune your bass guitar to itself by playing a fretted note and tuning open strings to it. This is sometimes called the “fifth fret method” in which you press down on the string on the fifth fret and use that note to tune the next open string.
However, if you’re just starting out, this probably isn’t the best method for tuning.
You’ll find, as you practice and become better at playing your bass, tuning by ear will become easier, as your ears settle into what each note “should” sound like. A much better option for the beginning bass player (and seasoned pros) would be to invest in an electronic tuner or tuning app to tune your bass.
Bass Guitar Tuners
There are an incredible amount of bass guitar tuners available to help you tune your bass guitar.
Clip-on tuners are widely used as they do not require you to plug in or run a signal to them to tune your bass. Instead, clip-on tuners, via tiny built-in microphones, measure the vibration of the strings through your instrument to help you tune your bass guitar strings to the correct pitch. They are usually small, lightweight, well illuminated, and generally quite affordable.
Check out the KLIQ UberTuner, one of the highest rated clip-on tuners available at Amazon.
Other types of tuners include “stomp box,” pedal style bass guitar tuners, in which you plug your bass guitar directly into. Designed primarily for use through bass amplifiers, these pedals take the incoming signal from your bass guitar to determine the correct pitch of your strings.
Many professional bass players depend on these types of tuners night in and night out as they perform on stage. As such, the displays on these tuners are very bright, and very user friendly, so you can clearly see which string you are tuning, even on darkly lit stages.
The Boss TU3 Chromatic Tuner is a mainstay among touring pros, while the TC Electronic PolyTune 3 can actually tune all of your bass strings at the same time! If you decide you don’t want a bass guitar tuner clipped to your bass, or you don’t want to go with a pedal, there are rack tuners that you can use if you have a rackmount equipment cabinet as a part of your rig.
Remember though, your audience came to see you, not your back as you check your rack to see if you’re in tune!
Bass Guitar Tuning Apps
With the advent of smart phones and the proliferation of smart phone apps, there are numerous bass guitar tuning apps you can use via your phone. “GuitarTuna” is a very popular app for iOS devices, while “Pano Tuner” is another widely used app available for both iOS and Android platforms.
Both tuning apps are easy to use, utilizing the microphone on your phone to calibrate pitch, and are free.
However, should you decide you need an app with more bells and whistles, or more options for tuning, there are apps available for purchase as well. Whichever app you settle on, remember that their applications are primarily applicable to home, studio, or rehearsal use.
Nothing more embarrassing than a phone call or text coming through just as you’re about to launch into an encore in front of throngs of your adoring fans.
4-String Bass Guitar Tuning
Most of us start with the “standard” four-string bass guitar and, much like the four lowest strings on a traditional guitar, the standard tuning for a four-string bass is E, A, D, G.
5-String Bass Guitar Tuning
In addition to the four-string standard bass guitar, five-string bass guitars offer the option of adding more “low end” frequency response by adding an extra low string B, E, A, D, G or increased high end by adding an extra high string E, A, D, G, C. You can choose which string setup is best for you and your sound.
6-String Bass Guitar Tuning
Six-string bass guitars makes your choice easy as they add bothan extra low and an extra high string. They are tuned to B, E, A, D, G, C.
Alternate tunings are a wonderful way to expand your tonal range and open up new musical ideas.
From grunge artist pioneers Alice in Chains to pop punk superstars Green Day, tuning your bass guitar down a half step can make for a moodier or darker sounding tone. It’s also very effective if your lead singer can’t quite hit all the high notes in standard tuning! Eb, Ab, Db, Gb.
If you are looking for even more bottom end, consider tuning your bass guitar to Drop-D. This tuning is accomplished by tuning your E string down a whole step to D. Bands like Tool and Soundgarden derive much of their feel and tone from this tuning, achieving a “heavy” sound by tuning down a whole step to Drop-D.
Want to go even lower? Trying to nail your favorite Korn song? Tune your bass strings down to A, D, G, C to get Fieldy’s loose, deep, “slappy” tone.
Remember, whichever alternate tuning you decide to employ, make sure the rest of your bandmates utilize the same tuning! Otherwise, suffer the wrath of dissonance!
Keeping Your Bass in Tune
As you can see, learning how to tune a bass guitar is a relatively easy process. In fact, most beginners don’t necessarily struggle with tuning their bass guitars, rather, they have a hard time keeping them in tune. Here are a few things you can do to help your bass guitar strings stay in tune:
- Make sure to purchase a good set of strings. Like most anything else, you usually get what you pay for, so while a great “deal” on a set of no-name strings might go easy on your wallet, they might not be the best bet to put on your bass. Choosing established brands like Ernie Ball and D’Addario ensures that you are getting quality strings, as their manufacturing processes deliver consistent, reliable bass guitar strings. Take the time to listen to a few different brand and types of bass guitar strings. Does your favorite bass player use a certain kind? Try those. As you progress, you’ll begin to notice the difference between brands, string gauges, and materials.
- Make sure to stretch new strings before you tune them. You can do this by pulling the string upwards along the neck after you’ve installed them. This initial tension will help “stretch” the new string, allowing it to hold tune better and longer once you’ve put the finishing touches on tuning your bass guitar.
- Over time, bass guitar strings accumulate sweat and dirt from your fingers as you play, resulting in less bright sounding strings, or “dead” strings. Decide what kind of a tone you prefer. Deciding between “bright” or “broken in” tone will undoubtedly help you figure out how frequently you’ll need to change your strings.
- Lastly, remember to simply wash your hands before you play your bass, and wipe the strings down once you’re done. This alone will help keep your strings fresh, and long-lasting.