Tuning the Bass

When tuning the bass today, many people use electronic tuners, and they are very good at helping you tune your instrument well.  In the studio, when recording I will use these tuners.  But what do you do if your tuner dies, or you cannot find one?  Or the batteries are dead in the unit?  Well, welcome to the old school baby!  There are two basic methods that you can use: 1) Play identical notes on adjacent strings, or 2) using harmonics on adjacent strings.

Here is how to do the first method (Playing Identical Notes on Adjacent Strings)

First, you need to get a reference note from some source, like another instrument such as a piano, or guitar, or another bass in the room.  If you have a 440Hz "A" bell or tuning fork, you could play this and tune the A string or G string (playing the 2nd fret which is A) to the reference pitch.

Now starting with the open G String, play the note.  Now play the same note on the D string (5th fret).  Compare the two notes until they are the same.  Now play them at the same time.  If the notes are in tune, they will sound stable, and there will not be a warbling effect.  As the notes become different there will be an obvious pulsing or warbling effect when the two strings are played together.  Once, the D and G strings are tuned, Then proceed onto the A and D using the same process.  Play the open D string, then play the D on the A string (5th fret), and so on.  When the A string is tuned, then proceed onto the E string with the same process.

Now here is how you do this using harmonics.  Harmonics are played by lightly touching the string directly over the fret at fractional divisions of the string length.  The first harmonic is at the half way point located at the 12th fret.  There are loads of harmonic locations on all stringed instruments.  See the chart below for the locations which you need for tuning the bass. You can also get a PDF version of the chart below at the bottom of this page.


Start by tuning the G string to some common and correct pitch from a piano or keyboard or another source.  Once the G string is tuned, then play the D harmonic on the G string (at the 7th fret).  Then play the same harmonic note on the D string at the 5th fret.  These two notes should be the same. If not, then adjust the D string tuner until the notes match.  Play the notes separately and together for comparison.  Once the D string is matched to the G, proceed on to the A string, and use the A note harmonics from the chart above.  (Remember not to change the tuning of the higher string as you move towards the lower strings.)  Then proceed to the tuning of the E and A strings using the E harmonic notes.

Once you have gone through this process, go back and double check the notes again, especially if the instrument is really out of tune, or if you have just put new strings on the bass.  New strings generally settle down in pitch after being on the bass for 15 to 30 minutes.

Problems with tuning

Now that you have tuned the bass with the above methods, you must realize that these are not perfect methods.  They both rely on the fact that your instrument is fairly well set up, specifically, that the bridge saddles are adjusted for proper string length.  If this is not the case, you bass will be out of tune, and more so as you move up the neck.  Now, if you have really old strings, it is not uncommon to have tuning issues, and if this is the case, then throw them away and get new ones.


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