The CGDA "Cello" Tuning, Tell Me About It....

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by khutch, Feb 7, 2012.

  1. khutch

    khutch Praise Harp

    Aug 20, 2011
    suburban Chicago
    Are any of you "cello-bassists" still hanging out on TalkBass? I've been looking at fivers for a while without finding one that I can really be happy with. Ibanez and Schecter come pretty close and I could still try one of those but every time I return from the store and pick up my four it just feels so much better to play. So I am seriously considering my options. BEAD is one, it gives the low notes but not the range of a fiver and every EADG player already knows three of the strings very well. I am as interested in the fiver's range as in its lowest notes however. The CGDA "cello" tuning in fifths is another option that I knew of and dismissed because the long scale length of a BG versus a cello seemed to make it impractical. It does give you nearly the same low note as BEAD or BEADG (and you could pick up that with BGbDbAb at the cost of string familiarity) while it allows four strings to give you the range of five and it likewise gives you three strings you know. It appears both from watching cellists at work and from studying fingerboard diagrams that runs and patterns that span four or five "frets" (a cello has none of course) and three strings on an instrument tuned in fourths require you to span six or seven frets but only two strings when the strings are tuned in fifths. That forces you to move longer distances up and down the neck of a BG tuned in fifths than you would on a double bass tuned in fourths! It just seemed like it would be too cumbersome.

    And then I discovered that some double bassists tune in fifths. As it turns out tuning a DB in fourths is a relatively recent "standard" and before it took over there was no real standard tuning for a double bass. The CGDA tuning was one of several popular DB tunings in earlier eras. Well, what works successfully on a DB should work even better on a BG....

    So here I am sitting on the verge of buying a second four instead of a five and giving CGDA a good long try. Come what may I can find a use for a second four, whereas if I tried a five and did not take to it I would have to dispose of it somehow. I've searched for previous threads on this topic as best as I know how and have read through them. There is a lot of good technical information about making the change but not so much on the, for lack of a better word, cultural issues. For those of you who have made the switch to CGDA and kept it, what can you tell me about the change? A long and painful process or short and sweet? Is a fifths tuning difficult to adapt to some kinds of music (and which kinds) or does it play well with everything once you learn it? Has it surprised you in any way, good or bad? Basically is there anything I should know about it before I take the leap that wasn't obvious to you when you started? Thanks,

  2. Joe Gress

    Joe Gress

    Dec 22, 2005
    Pueblo, CO
    I have one bass that I keep tuned in fifths (CGDA), but mostly for playing around with and that sort of thing. Scales and fingering patterns are a pain at first, but new melodies and ideas popped out really quickly for some reason.

    It's also fun for lightning bolt tunes.
  3. therhodeo


    Feb 28, 2011
    Owasso OK
    It seems to me that you're still having to learn a new thing (tuning vs. a wider neck) with more drawbacks. On a 5 everything you already knows transfers over. To me the BEADG standard for 5 strings is the standard for a good reason.
  4. Sartori

    Sartori Supporting Member

    I use the BEAD tuning lieu of a 5-string, because I find 5-string necks uncomfortable.

    What do I think of the CGDA tuning?

    Well, I'd rather play a 5-string.
  5. khutch

    khutch Praise Harp

    Aug 20, 2011
    suburban Chicago
    It is certainly true that the five string is the most common way to get more range out of a bass. You do have one extra string to learn which is the same position you are in if you go CGDA, but you also have to learn to deal with the extra string and that is what ultimately drives some away from fivers. Am I one of those? There is no way to be certain without taking the plunge. All I know is that I am not terribly happy with playing fives in stores even though some work a lot better for me than others.

    Sartori, is your dislike of CGDA based on having tried it and finding it unworkable? Or do you just dislike the principle of the thing? If you go CGDA you have to learn the C string of course but you also have to retool your playing to deal with the wider intervals between strings and that could be as big or bigger an issue as learning to deal with five strings.

    I know that some have gone with CGDA and like it enough to stick with it. I now know that at least one has done it but doesn't like it enough to use it much or hate it enough to re-tune the bass. You can go into any store and play fivers to quickly learn what string spacings suit you the most. You cannot tell if any issues you have with the fifth string will fade with practice or grow into hatred of the concept. You can't try a CGDA bass at all but if you know or suspect you hate fives a bass converted to CGDA needs only two more passes with the nut files to go BEAD. In that respect CGDA seems safer since I know I can use a BEAD bass if it comes to that.

    Thanks for the comments and for any more that may follow.

  6. MrWalker


    Apr 3, 2002
    I am a cello player. I have never tried the cello tuning on a bass guitar.

    However, there is a big difference between the "approach" of the cello and the bass (guitar). When we play the bass, we play "all over the neck", and we shift our "reference" point regardless of string we're starting off on. With that, I mean that you can easily play in A from the 5th fret on the E-string, you can play a D riff from the 10th fret on the E-string, etc.

    On a cello, you rely much more on the open strings to cover your fifths. So you don't usually "move up on the strings" until you're on the top string (the A). When you do move away from the first position, you cannot rely on the open strings to fill "the gap" any longer, and you must shift positions, alternatively throw the thumb over the front of the fingerboard and use that as your fifth finger. There's another problem with that on a bass guitar, the simple fact that you're not "curled over" your instrument like you are on a cello, and the neck isn't as stable. So using your thumb as the fifth finger is not suitable unless you are really close to the body of the bass.

    So, in my opinion, you would have to adapt your playing style a lot to cope with the fifths tuning on a bass guitar. The longer stretch is going to give you a lot of shifting around to cover the "missing" notes unless you're playing it all in the first position. And for the record, you do have to shift your hand on the cello, too. Usually by shifting it down one note on the next string and then slide from 3rd back to 2nd finger on the next string.

    I think there's good reason the fourth tuning is predominant on bass guitars. it's simply the more practical tuning of the two. That said, you should give it a good try and see if it works for you. Red Garland used the CGDA tuning on double bass and that's 42" scale length. ;-) However, I do suspect that he was playing "traditional" upright style, that is... you don't really move too far away from the 1st position until you're on the A-string.

    Good luck, and let's know how it works out :)
    Templar likes this.
  7. Sartori

    Sartori Supporting Member

    I have never gone all the way tuning a bass CGDA. I have once strung a guitar with heavy strings and tuned the bottom four CGDA. I played around with it for a while, but I found it much less flexible than the standard 4ths tuning. I have also played in drop tunings (DADG, CGCF, etc.) on bass. I prefer not to even have the lowest two strings a fifth apart anymore, really. As you suggest, the wider intervals between strings were quite an issue, and I ended up having to move around the neck much more than I do in standard tunings.

    I also play double-bass (not especially well). Due to the fact that my hands, while not tiny, aren't especially big, I use double bass left hand technique even on electric, meaning that my fingers span three frets, rather than four. While this cleaned up my playing quite a bit, it made drop tunings (where the lowest strings are a 5th apart) even more of a chore. I imagine that CGDA tuning would exacerbate this.

    BEAD works for me, in lieu of a 5-string. I only lose the top few notes anyway, and while it's fun to play really high, I find most of my playing in both EADG and in BEAD is below the 12th fret.
  8. I just came here to read up on the CGDA tuning and get a vague idea of the pros and cons, but... far as I know, Red Garland was a pianist? I hope I didn't miss out on a joke, or maybe I'm not aware of a bassist named Red Garland. :ninja:
  9. Roscoe East

    Roscoe East

    Aug 22, 2011
    Believe he's referring to Red Mitchell
  10. It's definitely Red Mitchell. Go over to the DB side of TB and search "Mitchell" in "Bassists" or "Fifths" in "Jazz Technique." Tuning in fifths, and Red in particular, are discussed a lot over there.

    Red playing tuned in fifths can mystify and amaze you. Very cool stuff. :bassist:

    That said, I don't know how you get the string tensions right for this on a BG, even a fiver. So your B becomes a C, that's easy. Your E becomes a G ... do-able, I suppose. But your A becomes a D? What kind of string do you use to do that? Same with D to A.

    I guess you could try in on a four-string, but I have a hard time hearing that E tuned down to a C other than flopping around. Maybe on a 35" scale.
  11. Thanks! Haven't done a lot of listening to him yet.
  12. khutch

    khutch Praise Harp

    Aug 20, 2011
    suburban Chicago
    It is Red Mitchell if any more confirmation is needed.

    The string tension is not a major problem thanks to either Circle K Strings who sell their own round wounds individually or Bass Strings Online who sell many brands and types individually. Calculate the string gauges you need for any tuning that suits your fancy using the Circle K or D'Addario tables (yes, I know they will only be approximate for other brands of strings) and then order what you need from CK or BSO. I am trying CGDA right now using GHS Precision Flats from BSO in 0.128, 0.085, 0.055, 0.040 to get reasonably close to 40 pounds on each string. String wise they work well, tuning wise CGDA is working reasonably well too. If you like, you can read more of my yammering on and on about CGDA in the last page or two of this thread.

  13. Ken - very interesting. You're doing this on a 4-string, not a fiver, correct? I have an extra 4-string, maybe I will give it a try.
  14. lucas vigor

    lucas vigor Banned

    Sep 2, 2004
    Orange County, Ca,
    Chapman stick.
    gebass6 likes this.
  15. Clef_de_fa


    Dec 25, 2011
    Very easy ... B string tuned up for you new C string , A string tuned down for your new G string, D strings stay the same and Gstring tuned up for your A strings ...
  16. Clef_de_fa


    Dec 25, 2011
    I like CGDA tuning and find it very easy to adapt to. It took me maybe a month to learn and go through the Prelude of the first suite of the Bach 6 suite for Cello.

    It is very nice for melodic stuff but a pain to play rock/pop/punk/funk etc type of music. So in the end I think CGDA is a better idea for DB since it give you the opportunity to play Cello music without very complex fingering.
  17. sounds good, but on my fiver, after the B string comes the E string, not the A string. :bassist:
  18. Clef_de_fa


    Dec 25, 2011
    I was talking how to get that tuning on a 4 strings bass without floppy strings and on 5 strings bass I would put a very high gauge string like a 145+ to get a very low F (below low C )
  19. khutch

    khutch Praise Harp

    Aug 20, 2011
    suburban Chicago
    Yes, it is a four string, a Fender Deluxe Active Jazz. You could do the same on a five to get the range of a six: CGDAE. If you did that your bottom four strings would be a cello or a viola while the top four strings would be a violin!

    Sorta.... ;)

  20. khutch

    khutch Praise Harp

    Aug 20, 2011
    suburban Chicago
    In my very brief forays into the world of cello music I have to say that using the cello tuning does make things fall into place very naturally. I don't think that DB players use the tuning primarily for that reason though. Red Mitchell is often described as a jazz bassist though he played almost anything for Hollywood studio projects. I think it does have advantages for the DB that do not translate to the BG. In spite of all the tonewood talk here our instruments do not really resonate to any significant extent so when DB players talk about how the fifths tuning "opens up" the sound of their instruments by changing the string resonances we can't expect the same result. Likewise though we may play cello music and may do so more than DB players do in fact, few of us play with string sections so we won't really be "in sync" with them the way DB players suddenly feel they are (even when playing DB parts) for the first time when they play in fifths. Of course some of us may play with strings with some frequency so that may not be an effect that is totally without benefit for some BG players. You still won't be bowing like they are though! :D

    Evidently a lot of "classical" music was written as if the DB was tuned like a cello. For years DB players have had to play notes between the low C and E an octave up. They actually began using five strings to get those notes before we did. Most popular music was written as if a BG were tuned EADG, or more recently BEADG. So the CGDA tuning giveth and it taketh away. Cello (and at least some DB) music becomes less awkward, BG music becomes more awkward. As Dennis Masuzzo advised me in a private email you have to be prepared to play the tuning, not transpose what you have been doing to the new tuning. In theory if you do it right you won't end up sounding like all the other BG players. Maybe you consider that a good thing, maybe you don't. As for me I am resigned to the fact that I will sound like all the other hack BG players no matter what tuning I use. ;)