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Strings for switching between 4ths and 5ths tuning

Discussion in 'Strings [DB]' started by davehertzberg, Dec 3, 2013.

  1. I'm thinking about experimenting with 5ths tuning (I teach orchestra so I'm already comfortable with 5ths on cello.). I can't have my bass always in 5ths though, since I teach private lessons; I'd also want the flexibility of going back to 4ths depending on the situation. I've seen the video using the Hipshot FreeRange Xtender to switch back and forth quickly, so I know this is possible.

    What strings would make the most sense to use for this purpose, and would switching like this be ok for the health of the bass? I assume you'd use the heaviest strings possible for the E and A so they're not completely floppy when tuned down to C and G, and a solo string for the G that could easily be tuned up to A. I imagine spiro starks would work well for E and A, but wondering if Mittels would work too. Any ideas would be appreciated!

    BTW I'm playing on a 60-year old carved German bass currently strung with Evah Weichs.
  2. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    I am skeptical, largely because I play in 5ths and have struggled to find a set that has tension that I am happy with. You would be compromising all around, and every string would be a completely different tension in both tunings, which would make playing across the instrument challenging.

    Your best bet would be steel core strings, as synthetics, silk, guts, etc. would not be as stable. I would guess Spirocore strings would be safest, as they tend to be the closest thing to indestructible in the string world. I would go with:
    Stark/Mittel Solo A
    Mittel D
    Mittel A
    Stark E
    Chances are that would give you the closest thing to usable tension in both tunings.

    In regards to the health of your bass, in 4ths you would have a fairly high tension setup that would be pulling slightly more towards your low E. In 5ths, you would have a lot less tension on the Low C side, and higher on the high A side. The back and forth likely wouldn't be the greatest on your neck joint which would be taking the bulk of the stress, and you might need to be a little concerned about warping. Double bass necks are usually meaty enough that this isn't an issue, but you are asking it to do something atypical.

    Depending on your private teaching methods, having your bass tuned differently than your student is not as much of a challenge as one would think. I have taught students in 4ths while playing in 5ths, and worked with Joel Quarrington in group settings with a mix of both. Fingerings can be demonstrated in either tuning by placing your fingers and not playing the notes, and musical concepts/bowing issues can be addressed in either tuning, as the student should be focusing on something other than your left hand. The visual reinforcement of "his left hand is doing the same thing as mine" can be helpful, but it also allows students hide a weak sense of where the notes are. I found that my students develop a much better sense of the fingerboard a lot quicker when they can't follow my left hand. Instead of copying my left hand in a lesson and being lost while practicing because they did not retain a fingering, it becomes a teachable moment where I reinforce their knowledge of where those notes are, and what an appropriate fingering would be.

    For solo rep or anything that extensively uses harmonics, the majority of that happens on the top two strings anyway. Occasionally the third string is used, but very rarely will you get all the way down to the bottom string. A "hybrid" possibility would be a hipshot on your top string, (and possibly third string) while leaving your bottom string as a C. A low E tuned down to a C is not going to be very playable, even with the highest tension E out there. Although it might not give you the option to completely switch between the two, it would give you the "best of both worlds" and significantly reduce the tension variations between tunings. In which case, I would go with a Mittel solo A, Mittel D, Mittel A, and Weich 5 string low C, which would give you a better tension balance.

    That's my $0.05. We got rid of the penny in Canada, so it's a little longer/more than what my $0.02 would be.
  3. Thanks for such a detailed response, Mike! I like your suggestion about leaving the C on and just switching between 5ths and 4ths on the 1st and 3rd strings. You're right about solo stuff being mostly on the top strings, but since my students are beginners, they're not playing what you might call the standard repertoire :), so they do use all the strings. That said, while modeling is important for them, I could probably get away with just leaving out E string notes.

    I'm wondering why everyone recommends solo A strings instead of single A strings from 5th tuning sets if I'm doing a mix n match thing? My sense is that solo strings have more tension in general than orchestra tuning strings. I'd imagine a good balance would come from a C/D/A from the Red Mitchell Weich set, with an A orchestra mittel that could be tuned down to G - the tuned down tension of the A would be similar to a Red Mitchell Weich G.

    And maybe this is a silly question, but is there a difference between a D string from a 5ths set and a D string from a 4ths set?
  4. paulunger

    paulunger Supporting Member

    Sep 1, 2002
    Fort Worth, Texas
    +1 on everything Mike said.

    I have never been happy using low A strings tuned down, F# solos tuned up, B strings tuned up C, etc. (and I've tried every string ever made, I think). Most solo strings have 5-10 pounds more tension then their orchestral string counterpart.

    So my advice is to buy a set of strings for 5ths tuning and down or up tune those strings as you need to for lessons.

    Taking synthetic strings on and off will cause them to poop out quickly. For that reason, I don't recommend you buy Obligato or Velevt 5ths strings.

    I recommend you start with a set of Red Mitchell Spirocore 5ths strings. Spirocores last forever and they can handle the changes in tension if you tune the high A down to a G or if to take the strings on and off the bass repeatedly. They also make the set in Medium and Light gauges.
  5. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    When you start getting into the world of 5ths, you learn very quickly that the cards are stacked against you when it comes to finding the right strings. I outlined my recent string quest over in the Strings section, but the coles notes version is that it's a huge pain in the butt.

    Most Solo strings do not have a tension listed, and there isn't an option of low/medium/high or weich/mittel/stark like Orchestral strings. In my experience they are usually on the higher edge of medium tension. My guess is this is because solo strings are already a very small part of the market, so the research and development involved in making 3 different tensions of each would have a pretty low cost-benefit factor.

    I have yet to met a 5ths player who had a tension problem with the Solo A string. I have met several (myself included) that have had problems tuning a Solo F# as a low G string, Orchesta A's down to a low G, 5 string B's tuned up to a C etc. The change in tension between the pitch the strings were designed for and the pitch they are being used for is always the issue, and since the Solo A is being used as an A, it isn't a problem. This is the biggest reason why I am hesitant about what you are experimenting with: it might be possible, but the outcome will be a compromise.

    The reason I am recommending a Mittel Solo A, Mittel Orchestra D, Mittel Orchestra A and Weich low C is personal experience.

    The Weich Red Mitchell high A tuned down to a G is really floppy. A Mittel Solo A should be a lot more user friendly.
    The Mittel D would tension match the Solo A in 5ths and the Low A in 4ths.
    The Mittel Low A is for much the same reason as the Solo A. A Weich A tuned down would just be a floppy mess.
    The Weich low C is because you wouldn't be changing the tuning of that string, and the Weich C "works" a lot better under the bow.
    These strings will likely be more readily available than a 5ths tuning set anyway.

    If you do decide to go down the Red Mitchell Weich road, please contact me, I will gladly buy the low G string you aren't planning on using.

    As for your million dollar question of "is there a difference between a D string from a 5ths set and a D string from a 4ths set?" Case by case:
    The Velvet Compas 180 V tuning set is different. They have different coloured silks if nothing else.
    Obligato offers a 5 string low B and a 5ths tuning low C, so they should be different.
    The weich high A from the Red Mitchell set is a different string, because Spirocore does not offer a weich Solo A.

    As for whether or not the D strings, or the Mittel Solo A and 5ths high A is the same for Obligato and Spirocore, or if the Spirocore 5th string and 5ths tuning low C string are different, I really don't know. I would speculate that these strings are all the same. Why reinvent the wheel?

    If they really are the same, (and companies like Thomastik and Pirastro offer solo tuning and low C's for almost every single line of string they manufacture) why not make low G's, and offer 5ths tuning sets all around? They are so close, why not go the extra mile?
  6. Nathan Levine

    Nathan Levine Supporting Member

    Apr 25, 2008
    Anchorage, AK
    I too am an Orchestra teacher and I found an instrument in the schools inventory to convert to 5ths tuning so I could practice at school.

    Any chance you could tune your personal instrument in 5ths with the appropriate strings and then use a school instrument (or school district) for your 4ths needs?
  7. Thanks Paul. Can you really tune a low G string up to A? I assume that would make that string really tense.
  8. Nathan thanks for that suggestion...I don't think there are any basses available for me - I teach in an elementary school so unless I want to gig on a 1/4 size bass that's not really an option...

    Mike, thanks again for all those ideas. If I end up doing this, I probably will go with the full set of Weichs, and just deal with the floppy G when I tune down the A. I've played Mittels before and I'm not so into them.

    I'm still curious about the possiblity of tuning UP a Weich low G to A for a short time. Seems like that would be really tight, but maybe it would be functional.

    Also, I'm getting a new 5 string EUB which I might try 5ths on with a high E. Pretty excited about that!
  9. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    Having not used the Spirocore Mittels before, I can't really comment on them. Some basses object to them even more than some bassists do, both of which are pretty instrument specific/personal experiences.

    The Low G on my bass isn't a new string and with Christmas gigs coming up, I don't want to tempt fate by attempting to tune it up. As Paul and I mentioned F# strings tuned up to a G are pretty problematic, so I would assume that a G tuned up to an A would yield the same negative results. Tuning up a semitone adds around 5-10 more pounds of tension to a string. In that case going up a whole tone means you've gone from Weich to Mittel/Stark tension, and it sounds like that is something you are trying to avoid.

    I don't think it would break the string, so it would technically be "functional" but "highly undesirable" is what comes to my mind instead.
  10. paulunger

    paulunger Supporting Member

    Sep 1, 2002
    Fort Worth, Texas
    I wouldn't recommend tuning up a low G string to A for an extended period of time. I was assuming you would only be tuning up the string for a few minutes a day during a lesson and then immediately down tuning back to G.

    My thinking was that if you are doing the bulk of your personal practice and personal performing in 5ths, then get a full set of strings designed for 5ths tuning. Yes, tuning the low G up and the high A down to play in 4ths is going to feel weird, but I'm assuming you would just be doing that for a few minutes while demonstrating things during lessons and not performing in 4ths. And you could always just replace the low G with a low A if you needed to be in 4ths for an extended period of time. The tuning C-G-D-G or C-A-D-G is not uncommon in the history of our instrument.

    And, yes, a weigh low G tuned up to A will probably be a safer bet. The weichs also bow better. They just don't put out as much sound on my bass, but I've heard them sound incredible on other people's basses.
  11. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    If you had a C extension, tuning down a Spiro Solo A string and tuning down a Spiro Mittel A string might make sense.

    Even better, a set of Compas 180 Suit designed for Solo and Orchestra tuning with a C extension would be the best approach.