After weeks of searching, you’ve finally got your bass, and you’re ready to learn to play it. First thing’s first, though— you need to tune it.
Fortunately, learning how to tune a bass guitar is pretty quick, easy, and painless. With just a few easy steps (and possibly a tuning device), you can get rocking. After some regular practice and routine tuning, you’ll see just how fun a reliable, great-sounding bass can be.
When Should You Tune Your Bass
The bass instrument is known for staying in tune for impressive amounts of time; even people who play daily or weekly find that their bass can go weeks or months on end without truly needing an adjustment.
It’s best to check if your bass is in tune every time you play by a general rule of thumb. If you want to give your best performance, or at least guarantee your instrument is sounding its best during practice, double-check it for a few seconds before playing. Eventually, you’ll get even faster at tuning. These regular checkups will keep your bass and strings in their best conditions.
Familiarize Yourself With the Bass
Before learning how to tune a bass guitar, you need to become familiar with your instrument’s vital parts. Basses are often mistaken for guitars— rightfully so. To the untrained eye, they can look remarkably similar.
As you start tinkering with your new instrument, be sure you can identify important features. The headstock of the bass is where all of your tuning pegs are. Your strings are carefully wrapped around those gears when they are initially being strung or restrung, and, by turning those pegs, you will drastically change the sound of your bass.
Below the headstock is the nut, fretboard, and neck of your bass. The nut is where your strings make physical contact with your bass; it resembles tiny grooves at the top of your bass’s neck. The fretboard is the face of the bass neck. The fretboard is essential— it’s your only option for creating chords.
In the body of the instrument, you’ll find a soundhole or pickups. The strings pass over the soundhole or pickup; combined, they help create the classic bass guitar sound.
Your strings are then carefully secured at your instrument’s base by either a bridge or bridge pins, depending on your bass type.
Bass Guitar String Notes
It’s possible you could own a four, five, or six-string instrument. That won’t change our lesson too much; tuning your device will be pretty uniform, regardless of your bass’s number of strings. It’s essential, though, to understand which wire corresponds to which note before you start tuning— to make sure it’s all tuned correctly.
The four-string bass is the standard bass guitar. If you’re working with a four-string, the notes are E, A, D, and G.
A four-string bass typically has all tuning pegs on one side of the headstock (instead of both sides, like a guitar). The E is your lowest note, thickest string, and the lowest peg on your headstock. The A is your next highest tuning peg and string, followed by the D string, and then the G peg at the top of your instrument corresponds with the thinnest line.
For the lucky bassists with a five-string, you have some flexibility in how you choose to tune your strings. If you’d prefer a more resonant, lower sound, you can add an extra low note by adjusting your device to B, E, A, D, and G. If you’re looking for a higher or softer sounding bass, consider twisting your tuning pegs to E, A, D, G, and C.
The six-string bass is one of the lesser common basses, but it gives players a full range of chord possibilities. The six-string setup is typically B, E, A, D, G, and C.
Simplest Ways to Tune a Bass
There are three common, simple, and general ways to quickly tune a bass. Even if you’ve never picked up a bass before, it should only take a few minutes to successfully tune your instrument.
Keep in mind; you typically tune basses in fourths. That sets you up with the broadest and fullest note range.
If you have another reliable instrument, like a piano, consider using that as a reference point for your bass. Play the note on your piano first, and turn the corresponding tuning peg on your bass. The E should match an E sound; the A should match an A note, and so on.
There are two main obstacles to keep in mind with this tuning method— you have to ensure that your other instrument is reliably in tune before you start tuning your bass. If you don’t trust that your piano is in the correct key, your bass sound will also be completely off.
The second obstacle to consider is that you have to rely entirely on your ear to match pitch properly. If you aren’t sure you can accurately compare the sound of your bass guitar note to the correct notes on another instrument, consider using a tuning device to adjust your bass instead.
Clip-on a Tuning Device
If you don’t have another instrument to match pitch off of or don’t trust your knowledge of how notes or chords are supposed to sound, try using an electronic tuning device.
These tools are inexpensive and extremely easy to use. Bassists can simply clip the electronic tuner on to the top of the bass’s headstock, and the device will lead the way. It measures your bass and strings’ vibrations and directs users on whether their note is too flat or too sharp.
If the device indicates that a note is too flat, that means it’s frequency is too low. Twist the line a bit tighter to sharpen the sound.
If your electronic tuner labels your string as too sharp, the sound is too high. Loosen your cord a bit to lower the note.
An electronic tuning device is frankly the easiest, most straightforward way to tune your bass. You’ll have your instrument ready to go in just a couple of minutes.
Consider a Tuning App
Tuning apps are all the rage right now. They’re accessible, occasionally free, and can be downloaded straight to your smartphone immediately.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of apps that you can choose from depending on your smartphone or mobile device. They all work pretty similarly, though. The application uses the microphone on your smartphone and registers the sounds from your bass. The app will indicate whether your note is too sharp, too flat, or wholly in tune.
Drop D Tuning
Now that you know the basics for how to tune a bass guitar, there is one unique tuning trick if you want to lower your instrument’s overall sound.
Drop D tuning is when a musician “drops” the lowest string down to a fifth below the next highest note (instead of the regular fourth below). The bass guitar notes would then register as D, A, D, and G instead of E, A, D, and G.
If you want to stretch your sound range even lower, you can take it a step further to C, A, D, and G, or even B, A, D, and G. This drop is not for every bassist, but it’s a simple and easy way to increase the range on a four-string bass guitar drastically.
If you want your bass to drop from an E note to a D note quickly, consider using a specific drop D tuner. If you also own a guitar, you can practice drop D tuning on that instrument too. Rock musicians and metal bands usually employ this practice, but anyone who wishes to reach a lower range can try it out.
Also consider: Open G tuning
Protect Your Bass
If you want to keep your bass in excellent condition, you should employ a few maintenance techniques, including:
- Tuning every time you play
- Changing your bass strings regularly
- Keeping the bass clean
Rust, dirt, and grime can quickly work their way onto your bass strings, and dust can settle on the headstock, strings, fretboard, and body of your instrument. This grime will wear away at your bass guitar and could even impact the sound.
By keeping your bass clean, through the same methods you use to clean your regular guitar, you will ensure that your investment stays protected. Even though bass instruments are well-known for staying in tune for extended periods, you’ll keep it in tune longer and sounding prime by taking care of your new bass guitar.