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tuning the double bass

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by Johnny L, Feb 11, 2006.

  1. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    For the longest time, I've been tuning my bass with the natural harmonics lying below the heel of the neck...but it's been bothering me. I always feel like I'm a little flat on the open strings when I tune there.

    So I've been experimenting with tuning the bass at the harmonics in thumb position right above the heel and trying that.

    Or maybe the problem is that I'm tuning the strings in the wrong direction...I've been tuning from the G string down to the E string and maybe I should go in the opposite direction, tuning the other way?

    Anybody tune like this anymore or does everyone use those fancy clip-on tuners nowadays? If you still struggle with harmonics, do you have this experience too and what is your solution (if you have one)? Maybe it's really my ears are out of whack?
  2. Aaron Saunders

    Aaron Saunders

    Apr 27, 2002
    Depending on where you start and where you finish, you can end up noticeably out of tune tuning by harmonics. The thing is, even if the harmonics sound PERFECT, the open string can be off by 2 cents. So if you start at the G and go down to the E, you could be off by as much as 8 cents -- that is also assuming you can tell when the pitch is NAILED, which (depending on how good your ears are) may or may not be the case. If it isn't, then you could end up way off. This is why I usually get a D or an A for a reference pitch if I'm not tuning with my tuner.

    Some of the clip-ons are strange, and I couldn't get my friend's Intellitouch to affix to my bass's bridge when I was toying around with it. I tried to tune my bass just before a school jazz band rehearsal by clipping it to the pegbox, but I gave up in frustration after getting the D tuned and just went by ear for the others. There's a Korg clip-on that may or may not be more functional (it certainly looks a bit more hip.)
  3. It's an interresting subject as a matter of fact. I've heard that the harmonics on the string go out of tune as the string ages. So tuning with harmonics on new strings will result in more accurate intonation than with old strings. However, I'm not sure just how true this is. The problem with the tuner is that it is tuned in pitches relevant to the piano pitch: tempered tuning. Since we are working on a fretless instrument, we shouldn't tune in tempered tuning. Really, I could go either way on this one.

    Another tuning trick I've heard was to tune with a piano, with the piano playing a minor chord with which to tune to. For instance, if you're tuning your G, then the piano would play G Bb D. Another possibility is to tune using the fifths. Play open G and the D harmonic on the D string, and tune accordingly. Of course, you have to start out with the G being in tune (either with a tuner, or tuning pitch).

    By the way, I "borrowed" a clip-on tuner from my school years ago, and lost it in a week. So, I don't have one anymore. It ust be somewhere in my room......
  4. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    I tune the G to a Gsusb9 chord offa whatever fixed pitch contraption I have to deal with for the evening. After that I tune the unison harmonics on the second and third 'dots' (D on the G, G on the D). If the room is nice and quiet I'll then tweak the fourths to perfect, harmonic D on the G and A on the D. This'll make the E string pretty sharp by the time you get there, but the bass really sings when the sympathetic (sp?) vibes kick in across the strings. As the strings get old and funky I might use the octave with the same D on the G string and the double-dot D on the D string for a little final tweaking.
  5. jazzbassnerd


    Aug 26, 2002
    I once was tuning up with my bud right after the guy had finished tuning the piano in the room. When I asked him to play D minor the guy said that he was sorry, but that the D minor idea was terrible (he said it was his pet peeve). He explained that the human ear can only hear two pitches beating against each other at once, so that playing D minor and tuning the A harmonic (on the D string) is fooling yourself. He also went on to say that when string players tune in fifths, they are also doing themselves harm, because we haven't used the perfect fifth in 300 years or something like that.

    Anyway, he said that, in his humble opinion, the best way to tune was to tune the bowed open string to the piano that you are playing with. When we did that, I was very surprised at the difference. When someone above said that modern tuners are set to tempered tuning, that makes me understand why I like to use a tuner to tune so much, it's making the strings like when I tuned to the low register of the piano.

    I hope that was interesting, and maybe help this guy's cause (which I've somewhat taken up) that the d minor idea, or really any multiple note combination doesn't work to tune. Of course, changing how orchestras tune is probably more than out of the question.
  6. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I've never trusted tuners, and have always tuned to the "D" below middle C on the piano. First the 8ve harmonic on the "D" string, then the open string itself. Once there, I've always had the most luck just tuning the open strings to each other. For me, there'a always a little bit of voodoo involved in tuning insofar as I always have the best results when I look at it as an intuitive process rather than hard science; while I understand that it is hard science, I think that there are too many variables in each situation (other instruments, room acoustics, etc) to use an "exact" solution and trust it to work every time. YMMV.
  7. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    Thanks for the info Aaron. Now you are reminding me of something I was told or had read saying I should go up from the A string and then tune the E string last but I never paid attention I guess

    O.K. the elevator is going up this time
  8. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    I prefer the higher strings to be right in tune, as the higher pitches are more recognizable. As the lower strings and notes can sound a bit flat because of their range and response (string response, that is), having them a little sharp doesn't bother my ear, and maybe helps the open strings sound a little more present. As soon as you are stopping the string your ear will put them wherever you're hearing it, anyhow.

    Just my 2p.
  9. My only concern about the tempered tuning issue is that it is only perfectly in tune with other tempered instruments, such as a guitar or piano. However, when you tune each of your strings to their corresponding piano pitches (so that each open string is perfectly in tune with the piano), then the bass will not be perfectly in tune with itself. So playing a solo with a piano requires that we tune in the tempered manner, but playing an unaccompanied solo (or with another non-tempered instrument) we are required to be in tune with ourselves. Also, I was once told that in each scale, one half step is slightly shorter than the rest, so depending on the key you are playing in, this could (theoretically) affect the exact pitch of the music (and quite possibly your tuning). However, that seems like ridiculous nit-picking since no piece stays in one chord in its entirety, and nobody can hear the difference. Still, just something to consider. In a way, the transition between tempered tuning and non-tempered tuning shows one of the flaws of "perfect pitch". "Relative pitch" is much more effective and essential in music. It's always more important to play in tune with the group than to simply play in tune with yourself.
  10. jb6884


    Jan 30, 2006
    St. Louis, MO
    I use a Seiko ST-1 clip on tuner, and leave it clipped on my bass just below the scroll on the A/E side. It is small enough to not interfere with the case, and it works very well. I agree that it's best to tune with your ear - but 80% of the time I can't hear well enough to tune when I'm setting up or someone else is also trying to tune. I will always double check my tuning with harmonics, but it's nice to be able to tune in noisy situations.

    Edit: Of course, if everyone is tuning from a reference note from a piano or violin, I'll tune from that, but most of my fellow musicians are using tuners as well.
  11. Mike Goodbar

    Mike Goodbar Supporting Member

    Jun 6, 2001
    Charlotte, NC
    I'm way too old-school (read:snobbish) to use an electronic tuner. I use the harmonics method, starting with the D string, working down the the E, then the G last. In some noisy environments, I've been known to use a tuning fork clamped betwixt my molars for an "A" reference.

    When I was playing electric bass a lot, I also used the harmonics to tune. If I was lucky, the strainer on the snare drum would vibrate sympathetically, distinctly telling me when the "beats" had stopped.
  12. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    aargh! that sets my teeth on egde just thinking about it! :eek:
  13. mcnaire2004


    Jan 17, 2006
    I use a electric tuner. To be specific the Korg Chromatic Tuner CA-30. For some reason I always have to tune twice. First i'll use the electric tuner and then i'll check my harmonics. I'll notice a slight difference. Then when I check the chromatic tuner most of my strings will be flat. Once I tune a second time i'm fine. Now that I have changed strings they go sharpe a little bit instead of flat after the first tuning. And it seems that my bass has always goes out of tune if I lay it down (I don't lay it down hard, I care to much of my bass to do anything that would damage it).
  14. ToR-Tu-Ra


    Oct 15, 2005
    Mexico City
    You're actually supposed to tune the thing??????!!!!!:eek:
  15. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    It actually matters? :)
  16. edvon


    Apr 4, 2004
    Hi, I use a Korg tuner and check the harmonics after that. As for the guys who play in orchestras, where do you start when the oboe gives the "A"? Open A or harmonic?
    I found this informative snippet of an interview with Ray Still, oboist with the CSO. Asked why the oboe gives the A in the orchestra:

    Still: Partly because everybody else is fiddling around and tuning their instruments and the oboe penetrates with a distinctive enough sound for them to hear it through the din. And partly because oboists used to design their reeds to play at the standard pitch; they couldn't move the tube in and out so easily. We still don't pull our reeds in and out to change the pitch. Once we make our reed, it's a little tricky to change the pitch. The flute and clarinet players have an easier time of it, but they don't like to screw around with the pitch either.

    Today, to avoid arguments, I take the pitch from a little electronic device the size of a cassette that I carry in my pocket. I don't actually give the A with this device; I play into its microphone and it tells me my exact pitch. Musicians don't like to tune to a non-musical sound. In fact, they don't like to tune to an oboe whose tone is ugly. I try to play the A as if I were playing the beginning of that beautiful oboe solo in the second movement of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.

    Also, I know that the orchestra always plays two or three vibrations above where it tunes. That's why, if I'm tuning the orchestra before a piano concerto is played, you'll see me go over to the piano and check its exact pitch with this scientific device. Then, when I give the A to the orchestra, I give it at precisely two vibrations under the pitch of the piano. If the piano is tuned to 442 vibrations per second, I give a 440 A. Most musicians will tune above it. With the string players, it's to protect themselves against the brasses, especially the French horns and the trombones, which tend to push their pitch up during the performance. The trumpets are not so bad, but the trombones... ! The trombone is the only instrument in the whole orchestra which theoretically can play exactly in tune, and yet it's probably played more out of tune than any other instrument. They're always way above the pitch. Thank God the trombone doesn't give the A, or we'd be up to 448 right away. Anyway, what I never do is play the A on the piano for the orchestra to hear, because of their "knee-jerk" reaction of always tuning a little higher.
  17. If, for some reason, it becomes difficult to hear my A string while I'm tuining (due to background noise or rude violinists), I sometimes tune with the A harmonic on the D string. Anyway, I've never heard of an orchestra tuning to a bassist's A. This seems like a good revolutionary step in the tuning process.
  18. mcnaire2004


    Jan 17, 2006
    I am thinking of buying a clip on for my Korg Tuner. In rehearsal I have time to tune exactly (showing up early). In a concert when the concert master gives the "A" and every one starts to tune and there is to much noise. A clip on would be great so I don't have to worry about outside interference.
  19. mcnaire2004


    Jan 17, 2006
    For our all-east clinic our conductor was Robert Gillespie. His way of tuning took like 15 minutes but it worked. He had the concert master play an "A" then we (the basses) matched it on our harmonic "A". We went through it systematically matching open strings and harmonics with each other. Then We played our "A" and at some points our "D"for the cello's and they tuned. We did the same for the rest of the orchestra. It was kinda nice to have the orchestra tune to us for a change.
  20. edvon


    Apr 4, 2004
    Also out of the above mentioned interview:
    "Toscanini felt that the key to setting the tone for the whole orchestra was the first oboe and, strangely enough, the principal double bass. The oboe certainly sets the tone for the woodwind section because its color and texture are always audible. The first oboe sits prominently right in the middle of the orchestra, and it performs the very symbolic act of giving the A at the beginning of a concert."
    Personally, obviously biased, I don't find that idea of tuning to the bass so strange, we are after all the foundation on which the house is built... Thenagain, it might be hard for others to tune to such a low frequency?

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