Low A on a 5-string?

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by E_strat, Apr 10, 2022.

  1. E_strat


    Jan 11, 2012
    Columbus, OH
    I've pretty much made up my mind that when I can afford to do so, I'm going to have my Shen SB200 converted to a 5-string. For a while I was looking into getting a C-extension, but I can't justify the cost (not sure how much a 5-string conversion would run, but I'd imagine it's less than an extension). I've also been a 6-string electric bass player for a few years now so the low string is very natural to me.

    Has anyone tuned their 5-string upright bass to a low A instead of a B? If so, how long did you keep it that way/is it still tuned that way? I keep both my electric basses and 7-string guitar in drop A, and I have become very used to it. I play a lot of musical theatre, orchestras, and the occasional jazz situation (used to be a big jazzer, burned out a little pre-pandemic). My amplification can handle low tunings very well.

    I'm aware of the issue it brings up regarding tension, but I'm wondering if I find the right string combination, then perhaps it could be feasible...

    Ultimately, if I need to keep it as a B for tension's sake, then it really wouldn't be all that difficult to jump back on my A-strung-electrics. I'm mostly curious to hear other perspectives and experiences.

    Many thanks!
  2. So Rebecca Saunders wrote a piece called Fury 5 string bass, and the scordatura for it calls for the B to be tuned down to A. Asides from that, there’s no other repertoire for 5 string bass that calls for a low A. I’ve never encountered any musical theater bass books that do too.

    I have a 5 string bass and have tuned it down to A. It sounds good with the bow, but not good pizz. Personally I don’t think it’s practical for general gigging. Great for the avant-garde playing.

    String wise, you can never go wrong with Spirocores. I have Spirocore A E and B with Red Springs metal D and G.

    Bow converting your bass to 5 string is going to be hard and probably close to the cost of an extension. The luthier has to account for the extra 70+ pounds the top will have, have to potentially add extra bracing, workout how to make the fingerboard feel good and not tight, add in the extra tuning key, etc. I commissioned my 5 string bass so it would be designed from the get go to handle a low B, particularly in a jazz situation.

    If you’re heart set on going the 5 string route, I’d personally purchase a straight 5 stringer if I were you. It’ll make your life a lot easier. Shen and Eastman make great 5 string basses. The late Paul Warburton played an Eastman 5 stringer in the last few years of his life.

    Join the club! It’s fun rattling peoples innards!
    gscroggin, E_strat, salcott and 2 others like this.
  3. Shen willow flatbacks sound puny and weak. You might have a shot with a willow Rogeri.

    Your best bet is having Romano Solano build you a big 7/8. Sell your Shen and save up.
    salcott likes this.
  4. It's a fair distance away, but you might give the Bass Violin Shop in Greensboro a call, see about the possibility of trading in the one you have for some value off the price of the Shen fiver they've got.
    james condino, E_strat and Chris204T like this.
  5. PaulCannon


    Jan 24, 2002
    Frankfurt, Germany
    NS Design / AER Endorsing Artist
    A-flat in the solo version, and even a low G in Fury II. Many of her ensemble works do the same thing.

    It's used wonderfully in those pieces, but otherwise I keep my five string tuned in 4ths. There are also a handful of modern pieces which need a low B-flat, in which case I normally tune to A.
    E_strat and Sean Riddle like this.
  6. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
  7. I advise you to be careful. If a 5-string double bass with a low A were useful, every bass player would have one.
    Your experience with a six-string BG and a seven-string guitar is useless when designing a double bass. These are different worlds.
    Converting a 4-string bass to a 5-string is a difficult journey and you won't be able to go back. The extension allows you to save what you have.
    The B string doesn't always sound good pizz, the A tuning can just fall off.
    Your amp may work well with a bass guitar, but not work well with a double bass in the lower range. This is especially true for the B string.
    I'm not ready to give advice about the music and your needs, but usually no listener thinks that he lacks the lower notes. Perhaps it is needed for some concept music and sound effects.
    I have a 5-string double bass and a 6-string EUB if you're interested in the rationale. In my opinion, no one needs extra strings in jazz sessions.
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2022
  8. mjt0229

    mjt0229 Supporting Member

    Aug 8, 2007
    Bellingham, WA
    Dennis Roy of the BSO has an A-extension on his 5-string, which I've seen him use when playing the works of Thomas Adés. I have also noticed a microphone near him, so I suspect it doesn't always project that well (or they were recording the concert for a subsequent recording?).

    Overall, it seems like it shouldn't be necessary very often, and I agree that it seems risky to convert an existing 4-string - not impossible, but possibly not worth the effort.
  9. Jefenator

    Jefenator Supporting Member

    Aug 22, 2008
    I have a de-tuning lever on my 6-string bass guitar for low A. That works well for the occasional Bb or A.
    Hipshot does offer a de-tuning lever for DB. I might try one eventually. I like the idea of low D on the 4-string; I'm not sure how good the low Bb or A would be. I have a full-size 5-string and the low range doesn't seem as potent with plucking as I have experienced on a good BG.
  10. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Yes, physics. The bass guitar has to rely only on its pickup to sense and send that low note. The double bass relies on its body. Most normal-sized DBs I've played are not that willing to make plucked notes below their low A with the same authority they demonstrate above that note. It would take a really special (and probably very large) DB to sound great a full octave lower!
  11. BarfanyShart


    Sep 19, 2019
    DC Metro
    I always liked drop A on my 5-string bass guitar in college, and I actually got the most use out of it in New Music ensembles and playing other composition majors' pieces, as well as the musical theater pit orchestra stuff I was doing. I also got some use out of the low A in rock bands, but I personally found the mixed tuning pretty bad for jazz - for whatever reason my head just didn't do the math fast enough for jazz. I also did most of my DB solo rep in "Drop E" solo tuning, but that's a little bit of a different thing. I guess, in short, I like the idea and it might be worth doing the tuning if you are playing music that suits the tuning, and especially if you are going to have amplification support. As far as converting a bass to 5-string goes, that sounds like something where I would just trade for a 5-string that was made that way.
    E_strat likes this.
  12. E_strat


    Jan 11, 2012
    Columbus, OH
    Thanks for the input everyone! I'm not chomping at the bit to make any moves anytime soon, just gathering some thoughts. Besides, I need to practice more on the 4-strings I currently have. :laugh: That Shen Gemunder looks mighty fine!