Anyone try tuning in 5th's, and went back to 4th's?

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Matthew_84, Dec 16, 2016.

  1. I've read a few 4th vs 5th tuning threads, and while the vast majority of people tune in 4th's (EADG) and think tuning in 5th's (CGDA) creates additional difficulties, there's always a couple of people who tuned in 5th's, learned how to roll or pivot to help reach more notes, and then fell in love with this tuning, and claim they'll never go back to 4th's.

    So... Has anyone tried tuning in 5th's (like for at least a few weeks), but then switched back to 4th's? If so, what were your reasons for going back?

    Thanks in advance.
  2. Jon Stefaniak

    Jon Stefaniak Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2000
    Tokyo, Japan
    I have yet to give it a serious try and I have only recently figured out why 5ths are so fundamentally impractical in my opinion.

    To play horizontally (across) strings in a single position without a true shift, you need to cover a span just one less than how you are tuned. For 5ths, you should be able to cover a 4th (including an occasional augmented 4th). That is already quite a challenge on the neck of the cello and absolutely impossible on a bass until thumb position. So there you have the dilemma that you still have to shift your 2 or 3 note hand positions either back and forth, or straight up the neck just to manage a lot of basic things.

    In fourths, with a pivot, we can manage to play scales horizontally across, with our hands covering a minor or major 3rd, and manage the fingerboard more in the way a guitarist might. In fact, the cello might be more practical in fourths than fifths for the hand.

    In thumb position, when you can reach a diatonic hand position with a frame of a 4th, tuning in 5ths would be absolutely better. You can reach a lot more notes without shifting. You could simulate this by shifting or crab walking up a fifth with every string crossing. I would call this "progressive" horizontal playing.

    Having fifths tuning down on the neck would lead you more to "regressive" fingering - play 3 notes with a pivot, shift back a whole step and play the next 3 on the next string. This way, you simulate 4ths tuning in your mind.

    Ive been thinking about trying 5ths for a while too, but 4ths isn't causing me any troubles that 5ths would fix.
    equill and Matthew_84 like this.
  3. Thanks Jon.

    It's interesting that you say that 5th tuning is better for thumb position. I haven't thought of that. That actually makes me more interested in trying it.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2016
  4. JNbass


    Aug 28, 2016
    near Chicago
    I tuned in fifths for about two years, using cello fingering adapted with pivots. The resonance and sound on my bass was improved. Certain keys sounded amazing, like D or G major, but other keys were not ideal, Try playing in tune in Db, Ab, F#, B, in 5ths, it is not fun! For F# you have to be where the Bb would be on the E string in 4ths. You have to play up strings more (which on the lower strings can sound muddy) and make large shifts to lower positions, to keep going up a scale.

    The strings each have such a different thickness and tension as compared to cello. The C is much too slack to truly match the A string. Maybe if you are a soloist and feel like fifths is the way to go, but if you are playing in a section to be a maverick player tuning in 5ths might not be welcomed with open arms.

    Also, there are things in the orchestral and solo rep. that is written for 4ths tuning, especially harmonics. Then you have to find solutions to make 4ths work in 5ths. The strings have to be lower. You have to retrain your brain to sightread music in 5ths, and relearn all of your rep.

    For me 4ths, just felt more solid for the left hand, and to be part of a team in a section is important too.

    These are just my observations while trying this tuning. There are amazing players using 5ths and they found a way to make it work. Just realize that the grass isn't necessarily greener. 4ths tuning is definitely a solid way to go.
    etorgerson, Lee Moses and Matthew_84 like this.
  5. Jon Stefaniak

    Jon Stefaniak Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2000
    Tokyo, Japan
    Better, I mean, if you are comfortable with a span of a 4th.

    For scale and arpeggio passages. There are only four hand shapes for major, natural and melodic minor scales using 4 notes per string. There was an interview I heard with Hans Sturm, where he labeled these groups of 4 notes "tetrachords" - the intervals between fingers would be:
    WWH(Major), WHW (Minor), HWW (Phrygian) and WWW (Whole Tone).
    The latter two can be a pain without a bit of rocking and rolling. Playing a major scale across the string in 5ths, they come in this order -
    Major, Major, Minor, Minor, Phrygian, Phrygian, Whole Tone (with thumb back a half tone). then you would be back where you started with Major, but a half tone back.
    The fact that you can reach the same number of notes without shifting on three strings in 5ths as you can in 4ths across all 4 strings, I would say that is a big advantage, for some music.
    Diatonic hand shapes don't, however, lend themselves to the best sound and vibrato, or the most comfort. The two chromatic hand shapes (Petracchi calls Chromatic(HHH) and Semi-Chromatic(WHH) span a Major or Minor third, and thus fit better with 4ths tuning. These feel more natural to the hand and comfortable for most playing.

    This was all a thought experiment of mine recently, and I am glad to share it. Sorry if am going on a bit too much.
    I am looking forward to MikeCanada's post.

    EDIT: I suppose you would call the whole tone tetrachord "Lydian"... But then major and minor would be Ionian and Aeolian, but you get what I mean.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2016
    Luigir and Matthew_84 like this.
  6. Reiska


    Jan 27, 2014
    Helsinki, Finland
    I`ve been between the tunings for most part of my DB playing life. Both of them have their advantages and disadvantages, but similarities too as they are basically same system, only in different order, a mirror image of each other. What I particularly love about fifths tuning is intonation, it`s much clearer than it`s more tempered equivalent fourths tuning system. I quess this has to do with sympathetic resonances fifths tuning produces. However, for me fifths tuning ain`t the way I hear the bass, I love old doghouse -type of tone I hear on the records, and the band I play in requires that type of sound and has most of it`s stuff in guitar keys. It`s been quite a challenge for me to play that stuff in fifths, and finally made me go back to fourths as i started feeling stupid in making playing such simple stuff in too challenging for the situation -kind of way, it didn`t make sense anymore, and didn`t sound right for my ear. The rest of what I play nowadays is allways more or less improvised, and fifths sure work out great for that. I solved this by dropping the E to D for improvisation stuff, this way I get some of that intonation and resonance goodness and lower notes with classic old school pizz-tone.

    Anyway, if I was a classical all-arco player it would be a no-brainer, fifths tuning all the way.

    I feel that practising and dabbling all sorts of stuff in fifths has taught me a lot about intonation and tone of the DB, and has given me some technical strenght in playing all over the fingerboard. It`s a lot of fun too, and I highly recommend to check it out.
    Matthew_84 likes this.
  7. Thanks @JNbass for your entire response!

    I wanted to address the above part specifically, if I may. It does make sense that playing high up on the fingerboard on the lower strings (especially the C) would sound muddy - I hadn't thought about that.

    I'm wondering if that could be fixed with the right string though. You said, "The C is much too slack to truly match the A string." Did you try this tuning with a specifically selected set of strings for CGDA tuning, or did you retune an EADG set?

    Also, were you using a 42" scale bass?
    I should mention that as of right now, I don't see myself playing in a section. I would only use this tuning as a soloist. If I was ever attempting to play in a bass section, I would switch to 4th's.
    Thank you also, for reminding me that there's definitely some classical music written for 4th's and that it is s challenge to play the same material in 5th's.
    Thanks for this post @Jon Stefaniak! This is a lesson right here!
    Thanks @Reiska!

    I am only going to play classical music, and rarely, if ever, play jazz, or anything of the sort.

    I did tune my bass guitar to 5th's tuning to test it out and 4th's tuning is definitely superior for jazz and rock, but learning cello parts on the bass guitar (which I realize is much easier to play than an upright) has been a lot of fun.
    Reiska likes this.
  8. Reiska


    Jan 27, 2014
    Helsinki, Finland
    Thanks @Reiska!

    I am only going to play classical music, and rarely, if ever, play jazz, or anything of the sort.

    I did tune my bass guitar to 5th's tuning to test it out and 4th's tuning is definitely superior for jazz and rock, but learning cello parts on the bass guitar (which I realize is much easier to play than an upright) has been a lot of fun.[/QUOTE]

    Thanks and yes, riff-oriented rock and funk stuff goes crazy in fifths at times :) I had my fretless bg, a home practise device for me, tuned in fifths too, it was a lot of fun and the intonation stuff existed there too.
    Matthew_84 likes this.
  9. Reiska


    Jan 27, 2014
    Helsinki, Finland
    Hey @Matthew_84, theres a closed facebook group " play your bass in fifths, man " existing that you might find interesting. You just have to send a request and will be accepted in a day or two. It`s a very friendly forum for us who tunes in fifths or finds it fascinating otherwise.
    Matthew_84 likes this.
  10. I hate Facebook, but I will likely check it out. Thanks!
    Reiska likes this.
  11. ILIA


    Jan 27, 2006
    I earnestly tried CGDA tuning for about a month; I went back to the normal EADG tuning.

    The main reason I went back to fourths had to do with the standard orchestral audition excerpts that I learned with EADG tuning. In order to advance professionally in the orchestral profession (I was playing in full-time in a lower tier orchestra at the time and I was trying to audition my way to an upper tier orchestra), I had to keep up my audition chops, which was nigh impossible with a concurrent cutover to 5ths tuning.
    Matthew_84 likes this.
  12. Jon Stefaniak

    Jon Stefaniak Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2000
    Tokyo, Japan
    In a letter to Rossini, in response to his asking to explain the advantages of his tuning method, Dragonetti replied:
    "...the tuning in fourths is by nature more correct. Furthermore I can show you, with evidence, that the French way of tuning the double bass (3 strings tuned in 5ths) will never be able to allow the execution that my instrument does both in playing chords, and in facility, evenness and strength of sound." (Letter from Dragonetti, in V. Novello's hand, to G. Rossini, 1827)

    Thought I would throw this in.
  13. JNbass


    Aug 28, 2016
    near Chicago
    Hi Matthew,

    I used a Thomastik Dominant set with a C, a solo F# tuned up, a D, and a solo A. The F# tuned up was too tight to match the C. Also, I did not like the Dominants, so then switched to the Red Mitchell Spirocore set. The spiro low C is about the brightest string you can get, and it was still muddy and not the best tonal quality going up the string, it sounds like a foghorn or something.

    Maybe the weich Red Mitchell low C would be clearer? I found the differing tension and thickness across the strings was too great, and each sting had too distinct of a timbre, especially the low C to the A. The A is more of an eee sound, a soloist sound, and the C is mellow, an ahhh sound. So unless you play the C super close to the bridge they sort of don't match. A low C on a bass is a bit of an unwieldy string, in my opinion. I have a five string with a low C, and would really never play it above the first few positions, because the tonal quality is not as good as it would be on a higher string in a lower position.

    The sound gets choked going up the C string, and there isn't much sympathetic resonance happening. Going up the string, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, Ab, A, the only notes that match an open string and will ring like crazy are, D, G, and A, the other notes will still ring if in tune, but sound a bit dead because of weaker harmonics ringing from the other strings. This problem isn't as bad on cello because the strings are tighter and the high frequency harmonics can be heard more clearly.

    I don't know the string length of my bass, it is a smaller instrument with a shorter string length. In my opinion a 42" string length with fifths tuning sounds very difficult.

    But of course try 5ths, I am glad to have tried it, it helped me understand the bass better. What are your reasons for wanting to tune in fifths?

    Sorry if this is winding or preachy, just my opinions and observations while trying 5ths, you asked for it!
    piggywiddle and Matthew_84 like this.
  14. Reiska


    Jan 27, 2014
    Helsinki, Finland
    I don`t play any classical but MikeCanada has written very positive about Spiro Red Mitchell mittel CG + Flexocor deluxe DA. I`m more of a pizz player but used either Spiro RM weich CG with plain gut DA or downtuned Evah Pirazzi solo Cis / mittel A. 42" scale bass and with the highest string at 8-9mm height. For me, and what JNbass writes above, one major reasons to dislike fifths ( and drop D too) in pizz playing is the way the lowest string behaves when played on higher positions. Guys like Chris Symer ( who plays longer than standard or shorter string lenght bass! ) and Mike Canada would shurely have a lot to say about these issues.

    All this bs about playability, strings and whatever, then listen a little Joel Quarrington and ask yourself if this is possible. There are basicly something like three guys in the world that actually plays the DB in tune, and Garcia-Fons is the only one in strictly fourths in that group :)

    Anything Dragonetti wrote back in the day doesn`t exist anymore I think. Strings, basses and culture are way off comparing nowadays.
    Matthew_84 and Chris Symer like this.
  15. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    You're talking about a pretty tall order. If I understand correctly, you have not yet purchased a double bass? Switching between 4ths and 5ths tuning is not easy, and I am not sure it is wise for a true beginner to plan a course to switch between both, or to turn on a dime when a playing opportunity comes along. For now, I would choose one tuning and plan to stick with it .

    In all likelihood, your first opportunities to play with others will occur in situations where other bassists are playing basses tuned in 4ths (although you are in a city known for bassists playing in 5ths tuning). Additionally, almost all DB methods and repertoire are geared towards 4ths tuning. I'd also tell you it will almost be impossible to find a teacher who could instruct you properly in 5ths tuning, but that may not apply in Toronto. But with these different factors, IMO, it would probably be best to start with 4ths tuning. Then if at a later time you really want to go with 5ths tuning, do it once you've learned the basics and at a time when you'll be able to woodshed.
    Matthew_84 likes this.
  16. Gravedigger Dav

    Gravedigger Dav Supporting Member

    Mar 13, 2014
    Springtown, Texas
    I'm sure stringed instrument tunings were arbitrarily assigned without and study or practical experimenting at all.
    So it is imperative we try every possible tuning until we find the most comfortable and efficient one.
    el_Bajo_Verde likes this.
  17. Reiska


    Jan 27, 2014
    Helsinki, Finland
    @Gravedigger Dav, the double bass is a different one in the family of stringed ( bowed ) instruments in that it`s default tuning nowadays is in fourths. However, same rules apply anyway in the stringed instrument system, even when a DB is a giant comparing to others. I haven`t tried a cello in fourths, or a viola, but propably the sound ain`t gonna be nowhere near the fifths tuned one. A fifths tuned bass resonates more, and the intonation is spot on if you know how to handle the beast. Not so much in orchestral tuning, even the greatest ones are way off in solo performaces you can search on the YT. Propably a 5ths tuned bass blends in the string section way lot better than standard orchestral tuned one, but again, I`m no classical bassist at all and don`t play in a orchestra.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2016
    Matthew_84 likes this.
  18. Jon Stefaniak

    Jon Stefaniak Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2000
    Tokyo, Japan
    Yes, and no. The issues of playability, intonation, projection, and social pressures of playing styles fitting in are the same then as now.
    There was a lot more general variation in those days - 3 string 5ths, 3 string 4ths, 3 string 4th/5th, 4 string 4ths and 5string Viennese bass were all being used in different countries at the same time.
    Italian, French and English bassists favored 3string basses with both the English and French generally tuning in fifths until Dragonetti established 4ths in England.
    In Wagner's time with the expansion of the orchestra, there was experimentation with 4 strings in 5ths, but the bassist found it too difficult to make the switch. Later they got their low notes by "inventing" the 5string kontrabass.

    The point of my ramblings is that this question is far from a new one. Red Mitchell and Quarington are not really the trailblazers some think they are.
    Also, I am not at all convinced that the instrument or the issues surrounding it's tuning - be they physical, mental, social etc. are as "way off" as you suggest. Sure string lengths are shorter, strings are thinner and denser and setups much more refined, but we still need to shift. It is still a bass.
    Matthew_84 and Reiska like this.
  19. Chris Symer

    Chris Symer

    Dec 13, 2009
    Just have to respond to this...... on the surface it sounds well reasoned and quite acceptable. It is however completely misleading and and in fact absolutely backwards. Playing up the low string of a four string bass whether EADG in fourths or CDGA fifths leaves you with three open strings providing potential overtones. Those open strings are A, D, and G in either tuning. The issues on any given instrument in either tuning will be exactly the same, some notes will have more potential overtones than others.

    In reality tuning in fifths provides stronger overtones for any given note (yes, it can be measured, or you could just do a "thought experiment" as listed earlier regards fingering) because the overtones are arranged on the higher strings in the order that they naturally occur, while in fourths they are "upside down" with the higher ones being on the lower string, therefore needing more energy to get the greater mass of a larger string vibrating sympathetically. For instance, when I play a low F I can get the octave of my open A to sound quite audibly if I wish, while in fourths the open A hardly makes any sound at all as it's matching overtone is the harmonic two octaves up. My low F# will get the C# harmonic of my high A going to a much greater degree than the C# found on a fourths tuned A string that is an octave lower than the one in fifths etc.

    Yes, some notes are more resonant than others. My bass was that way in fourths too. It is however much more resonant, on every note, in fifths than it was in fourths. I still think the bass in fourths is a beautiful thing and has a characteristic sound that we are all used to. I happen to like playing in fifths better and think my bass sounds better that way, while still sounding like a bass.
  20. Reiska


    Jan 27, 2014
    Helsinki, Finland
    Thanks for this. Yes, I`m really aware about all of it when playing trichords in a band setting. And I have accepted the fact that double bass sound in just about any record is what it is, based on fourths tuning and tempered system. We need to shift and it`s a misconception one doesn`t have to do it in fourths. In fifths you have to shift in a different place, an possibly to a longer distance. This makes some things crazy hard to execute, and some things fairly easy.

    I toy with the idea of originally fifths-tuned bassists from the get-go. How would the history look at these?
    Matthew_84 likes this.
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