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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