Drop Tunings on a 4 string bass - The correct way

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by pablomigraine, Jul 26, 2009.

  1. pablomigraine

    pablomigraine Commercial User

    Feb 9, 2005
    New York
    Director of Commercial Sales - Neural DSP
    Cruising along Talkbass it becomes clear there's a lot of misunderstanding regarding altered tunings on bass. Lots of threads with lots of conflicting information. I'm gonna try and clear some of these up.

    First off, a disclaimer: Despite the thread title I'm never going to insist that my way is the CORRECT way of doing anything. I am a professional bassist of 22 years, have played for / toured with over a dozen bands and logged many many studio hours on various different projects. My specialty is Metal. Everything I say relates to my EXPERIENCE, not an insistence that I'm right!

    The first problem when discussing altered tunings is lack of a common language. When one refers to "Standard" Tuning in relation to electric guitars and basses, they're indicating an instrument whose strings are individually tuned in FOURTHS. Each string's open note is one Fourth up from the string below it. Whether the lowest string is tuned to E, D, C, B etc etc, if all the strings are tuned upwards in Fourths, its "Standard" tuning. When referring to lowered tunings in standard one would say "I'm in D-Standard" ( D-G-C-F ) or "I'm in C-Standard" ( C-F-A#-D# ) This is commonly referred to as "Downtuning"

    "Dropped Tunings" on the other hand, refer to an instrument with its lowest string tuned a FIFTH below the second lowest string... or one whole step lower than Standard - with the rest of the strings being tuned in Fourths. In this case one would say "I'm in Drop-C" ( C-G-C-F ) or "I'm in Drop D" ( D-A-D-G ).

    If you're working with guitar players using altered tunings... make sure they know what they mean when they say "Drop-C". Having a common language within a group is the key to communication!

    Drop tunings are very popular among guitar players, especially in the more aggressive genres where big sound and speed count. Many professional bassists, when faced with with Drop-Tunings, prefer to keep their instrument tuned in standard and simply transpose what the guitar players are doing. This is not so simple if you aren't used to it, and very difficult when using a 4 string. For these and many other reasons, many bassists chose to follow their guitarists down this path, but its important to be aware of how this affects your sound and the playability of your instrument in order to get the most out of it!

    Stringed instruments are very precise machines. String gauge, bridge saddle height and placement (intonation), action and setup are all dramatically effected by altered tunings. If one element in the equation is wrong, it affects all others... resulting in poor tone and difficult playability. This is even more true on bass, on account of the longer scale, relative thickness of the strings, and the fact that most of us don't play with obscene amounts of distortion as guitar players often do. (distortion hides a lot of bad sounds!). If one drops their lowest string a step below standard, the first thing you'll notice is the inconsistency in string tension... the low string will feel and even sound "floppy" or loose. If one drops their whole instrument one whole step, and the lowest string two whole steps ( Drop-C )... then a whole host of problems occur... you have dramatically reduced the tension on your neck, causing it to naturally back bow (the opposite of relief) making your frets buzz, The low string is loose and floppy compared to the other strings and ALL the strings are resonating at too low a frequency for them to ring out correctly at a 34" inch scale length. Congrats.... your instrument now sounds, plays and feels like crap.....and that's not even the worst part! Whether you realize it.... even if your bass is perfectly in tune string to string... you are OUT OF TUNE most of the time. Try this experiment: Tune just your lowest string (E) down two whole steps to C. Plug in your tuner. Now lightly pluck your Low string and let it ring out while watching the tuner carefully. The note will immediately swing 10 to 20 cents sharp (higher) than C, then swing 10 to 20 cents flat (lower) than C, before finally settling at C. This is the result of your string being too thin to accurately create that note on a given scale length (usually 34").

    The first step to correcting these issues is proper string gauge. Putting together a proper string set for Drop-Tunings is imperative. Unfortunately, no one makes a bass string set made specifically for dropped tunings, so you'll have to build one yourself. Most music stores sell E and B string SINGLES. You'll need to buy a 4 strings set, and an additional E or B string Single to get a properly matched set for Drop-Tunings. Below is a list of recommended gauges:

    D - 110
    A - 80
    D - 60
    G - 40

    (This is basically a medium-heavy set with the E string from a heavy set. Most stores sell E and B string singles.)

    C - 120
    G - 90
    C - 70
    F - 50

    (Heavy set with B string from a lite set)

    "Drop B"
    B - 130
    F# - 95
    B - 75
    E - 60

    (This is one of the heaviest B string you can buy, with the lowest 3 strings from an extra lite 4 string set.)

    Using these suggestions will leave you with a nice even feel from string to string, keep the tension on your neck consistent, and will sound great as a result of using strings at or close to their designed notes.

    Next step is action. Even using the recommendations above, you may still notice that your action has gotten lower or higher. This is a result of a change in total tension on you neck. You should not need to adjust your bridge saddles for height if you build a correct set, but you may still need to adjust your neck relief using the truss rod. If you are not comfortable doing this yourself, bring the bass to your local shop. These adjustments are very easy for a professional and may come at very little or no charge (especially if you're buying strings!) but make sure it gets done. A neck with too much relief will be very difficult and tiring to play... a neck with little relief will buzz all over the place. There are many philosophies regarding neck relief and setup in general, and many heated debates over what is correct. I'll say that for me, the commonly accepted "correct" way results in string action that's too high for me. I work towards a completely flat fretboard with zero relief.... but I play with a very light touch and this will definitely NOT work for players with a heavy touch or players who use a pick.

    Last Step: Intonation. This is VERY important. If your alter the tuning on your instrument, you may notice that the higher up you get on the fretboard, the more your notes don't exactly match. This is due to intonation. When you bought the bass it was likely setup at the factory for E-Standard tuning. Intonation is and adjustment of the LENGTH of each string, made by bringing your bridge saddles closer or further away from the end of the instrument (as opposed to higher or lower for string height). Again, this is a delicate and precise adjustment, so if you're not comfortable doing it yourself, bring it to a pro. There are also several very good "How-To" threads on Talkbass regarding all these adjustments. Remember ALL of these adjustments; string height, intonation and neck relief... will affect your tuning. Remember to RE-TUNE your bass after these adjustments are finished.

    Congrats! Your bass is now optimally set up for Drop-Tunings!

    *** The string gauges required for Drop-B may require you to file your nut down in order to accommodate them. ONLY DO THIS if you are sure you'll be using this tuning for a long period of time, as you will need to replace your entire nut if you want to switch back to a higher tuning!
    eastcoasteddie and Anders Barfod like this.
  2. vbasscustom


    Sep 8, 2008
    wow, cool. i never knew that about the lowest strng tuned down 5 instead of 4ths
    even though i never play in drop tunings lol

    edit: this should be stickied.

  3. Ric5

    Ric5 Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    I like 5, 8, 10, and 12 string basses
    Why not tune BEAD? I like the DGCF tuning on a 4 string.
  4. Tama


    Nov 19, 2008
    Great job !!!

    I'm a beginner and I understood it...so it was good info.
    I have been learning how to set up action & intonation. Even though I'm just a newbie, I found it not hard at all.....just a bit time consuming.

    Also answered a question on string gauges.
    Thanks, Dave
  5. pablomigraine

    pablomigraine Commercial User

    Feb 9, 2005
    New York
    Director of Commercial Sales - Neural DSP

    This thread was sparked by an argument I overheard at the Guitar Center yesterday. A player bought some strings and wanted his instrument set up for "Drop C" and the Guitar Center tech tuned it to C standard, not understanding what the customer meant. That and my stupid guitarists have decided they want to play in Drop-B and I only have a 4 string at the moment.... will hopefully be ordering my Lakland DJ5 early next month.

    That's covered in paragraph 6.

    No problem! I hope this thread is helpful to others!
  6. JeanBG


    Dec 28, 2008
  7. pablomigraine

    pablomigraine Commercial User

    Feb 9, 2005
    New York
    Director of Commercial Sales - Neural DSP
    The sets you're referring to are designed for lowered STANDARD Tuning (or downtuning), not DROP-TUNING... where you have the lowest string a full step lower than the standard 4th.

    This thread relates specifically to DROP-TUNING, not Downtuning or lowered standard tuning.

  8. JeanBG


    Dec 28, 2008
    Well I play drop C (C-G-C-F) and use 50-70-90-110 and it works :hyper: allthough you are probably right, but I find it easier to buy one set ;-)

  9. pablomigraine

    pablomigraine Commercial User

    Feb 9, 2005
    New York
    Director of Commercial Sales - Neural DSP
    Try it once with a 120 you'll love it!
  10. I would agree with these ideas. I can't say how many times I've heard people in dropped C with a standard 105. Sounds like poopy.
  11. That was nice to see all neatly in one place. Thank you.
  12. JeanBG


    Dec 28, 2008
    Ok, I will but I hate the fact that I can't buy strings in a set (online) 'cause I change strings fairly often (once in 1-2month(s), depends on how many gigs I do) and it can get quite expensive. I was thinking trying the GHS 50-70-95-115 or is the 50-70-90-120 setup way "better"? I always had trouble finding the right string gauge. I used to play a 5-string tuned A-C-G-C-F, what string gauge would you recommend for that? :help: 50-70-90-120-130 or 135?

    Sorry for all the questions just liking the fact that someone knows something about drop tunings and string gauges :D
  13. PauBass


    Apr 25, 2006
    Brighton, UK
    A 125 would be too much for drop c tuning?
  14. Probably not.
  15. knumbskull


    Jul 28, 2007
    i found this works very well :) ...nice and tight on the low C.

    my drop-C setup is currently:


    i only started using the 125 accidentally! - we were halfway through recording an album a and my (new) 120 string went badly dead. cue half an hour of franticaly phoning local guitar shops for a single string, the only one i could find was 125... and it's great! the extra tension really helps. neck seems fine too.

    YMMV etc

    oh - great thread, too!
  16. Hazak


    Jul 3, 2009
    Montreal, Quebec
    yeah they should definetly sticky this.

    JAUQO III-X Inactive

    Jan 4, 2002
    Endorsing artist:see profile.
    Paul this is a very informative thread on the subject of altered tunings.
  18. Great post!!!

    I tune my bass G-C-G-C-F-A#
  19. Pitbull Growl

    Pitbull Growl

    Jan 6, 2009
    pablo = da schizz-nizzy!!

    Ty for posting this as I'm sure it'll help settle MANY arguments w/uninformed and/or ignorant musicians.

    FWIW... I had asked another TB'er about strings for down-tuning and based on the info I had recieved, I belive a target tension of about 40 (idk if it's inch/lbs or ft/lbs we use as a standard unit of tension measurement) per string is what is considered desirable, right?
  20. Darkstrike

    Darkstrike Return Of The King!

    Sep 14, 2007
    Eh, you can get 132, 135, 140, and 145 B strings.