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How Do You Tune a Bass Guitar?

If you're new to playing a stringed instrument, it might be quite a challenge initially to tune your bass correctly. Staring down at these huge bass tuners on the top of the headstock, you might wonder how one even gets started!

Getting your fretting hand over the headstock to reach the tuning pegs while plucking the strings with your pick or fingers isn't easy in the beginning.

But it's just a matter of time until your ears get used to tracking pitch as you move the tuning pegs. Soon you'll find this act of tuning your bass guitar a natural part of playing your instrument.

Tuning Your Bass Guitar Is an Essential Skill

No matter whether you're a beginner or a pro bassist, knowing how to tune your bass guitar is a ritual you should learn.

Like you keep a check on your fuel meter and refuel your vehicle periodically after use, you need to do the same here. You must check your tuning after every song or when you remove your instrument from your bass guitar cover or case.

If you keep your bass in a bass guitar cover, it will likely go out of tune by a few cents while hitting the edges of the cover.

While playing live, checking your tuning after every song is crucial. Maintaining a stable tune is difficult with more elements at play, like winds and sweaty hands. Exaggerated movements by the bassist for dramatic effect are the primary reason the bass goes out of tune.

So with all that being said, let's get into the process of tuning your bass guitar!

Using a Chromatic Tuner to Tune a Bass Guitar

Tuning your bass guitar became more accessible after the invention of chromatic tuners. Chromatic electric tuners are attached to the headstock of your guitar and sense the vibrations transferred by the strings onto the headstock.

While playing your bass, you'll constantly see the meter going up and down. The dial goes from red to green as you fall in tune. Don't get confused by this, as we'll go through this process in a systematic way.

You can start by clipping the chromatic tuner onto your headstock. Let's start with the low E string. As you pluck the string with your picking hand, move your fretting hand over to the headstock. Touch the low E string's tuning peg as you're plucking the open low E.

As you start to move the tuning peg, the tuner will tell you whether the notes on your bass guitar are "b", which means they are too low, or "#," which means they are too high. This will be shown in red.

As you navigate between being too sharp or too flat, you'll slowly start to get closer to the actual pitch of “E.” When you hit the pitch "E," the tuner's meter will turn green. You must do this a couple of times as the strings get settled into the correct pitch.

Now you can start the same process for the A string, followed by the D string and the G string. There is a possibility that some tuners will have trouble picking up the E string (the lowest note).

When looking to purchase a tuner, it’s important to determine whether it can read the low string without difficulty. These tuners aren’t only affordable but also simple to operate and accurate.

Tuners are a common addition to practice amplifiers; many come standard.

Tuning Your Bass Guitar by Plugging It Into a Tuner Pedal

Using a tuner pedal is another way of tuning your bass guitar. If you already have a pedal board with effects you control by foot, a bass tuner pedal is a good option.

The main advantage of having a tuner pedal instead of a headstock chromatic tuner is in a live setting. While live scenarios can have factors like wind and extraneous noises affecting the stability of your chromatic tuner on the headstock, the bass pedal tuner has none of these issues.

tune a bass guitar

Connected by a series of cables that run through your pedal board or as a direct input into your bass amp, these pedals are free from natural elements that can affect a chromatic tuner.

As they run through the floor, they will be a reliable source of tuning as long as the electricity is running stably.

Simple to use, the pedal gets connected to your bass guitar input if it's the only pedal you're using. With a similar dial to chromatic tuners, they indicate how flat or sharp you are from the correct pitch.

The bass pedal is also expected to last longer than your traditional chromatic tuners and is a good investment if you plan to play live. The only drawback is that they're much more expensive as compared to regular chromatic tuners.

Pressing the Fourth Fret of Each String

The more advanced or professional way to tune a bass guitar is to tune it by using reference pitches on the instrument itself. This is by far the best way to tune your instrument, as your ear develops in trying to match the correct pitch.

Also called "tuning to a reference pitch," this technique is worth developing as it is highly useful in the long run. The idea behind this method is to first establish a reference pitch of "E" and then tune all the other strings to that "E".

Since we're in the age of technology, there is more than one way to follow this process. We've outlined below some of the ways you can approach this technique:

Using Another Instrument as Reference

Use another tuned instrument as a reference pitch for the E string (the lowest and thickest string) before tuning the rest of the instrument. This is the traditional way of tuning instruments. Still used in the orchestra, the instruments tune each other to a reference pitch given by the conductor. This tuning method could also work in a band setup, as you could tune yourself to a "low E" given by the keyboard player.

However, this method doesn't work if you're playing alone.

Using a Drone as a Reference Pitch

If you cannot find another instrument, simply go on YouTube and type "E Drone." You'll find long videos that loop the same note E. The only drawback with this method is that you might not find a reference tone as low as a bass guitar's low E, which is around 41Hz.

Using a Sine Wave on Your Smartphone

By generating a sine wave that oscillates at 41Hz, you should be able to generate a reference pitch to tune your low E string. To do this on your smartphone, you can just type in "sine wave generator" on your internet browser. Any sine wave generator should give you a note as low as 41Hz. You can just tune your bass by using the 41Hz low E as a reference pitch.

Using a Sine Wave on Your DAW

You can go into your native DAW on your computer. Macs would come with a native Garageband. If you're on Windows or Linux, you could get a trial/demo version of a DAW like FL Studio. Since you're just going to use it to tune, we don't recommend spending money on buying a DAW.

tune a bass guitar

Simply start with any bass synth that sounds clean. Dial in the note E1 or draw it in MIDI. Listen to the note as you tune your low E. Once you've locked your low E note, you’re good to go on to the next step.

While we're on the topic of DAWs and the digital realm, we recommend checking out our article on the best bass amp simulators. You'll learn all you'll need to know about getting a realistic tone out of a virtual lamp setup.

Tuning the Remaining Three Strings

Press down on the 5th fret on the tuned E string with your fretting hand. Don’t touch the open A string. The 5th fret on the open E string, which is the note A, needs to ring out clearly. Let the strings E and A ring by striking them together with the index finger of your picking hand.

Keep your fretting hand index finger on the 5th fret of the lower E string while you listen to the two notes. To use this method, you'll need to get used to reaching over with your right hand to turn your tuning heads.

tune a bass guitar

Determine if the A string's tone is flatter (b) or sharper (#) than the E string's. If the strings are out of tune, the sound will be shaky. The best way to tell if the A string is sharp or flat is to lower the tuning pegs until the difference becomes audible.

Once you've heard the difference in pitch between the two strings, use your picking hand to slowly turn the A string's tuning head sharper until the sound matches that of the E string at the fifth fret.

You can continue tuning the D string once you've got the A string in tune with the E string.

Press down on the fifth fret of an A string, which is the note D. Let the open D and fretted A strings ring out as you pluck both of them with your picking hand.

If the D string sounds sharp or flat, adjust the tuning head for the D string until the two strings are perfectly in tune. Again, if you're having trouble hearing the subtle differences in pitch, follow the process of lowering the D string in pitch to establish the difference. Once the difference is established, raise the pitch on the D string until you hit the sweet spot.

Since we're referencing one string to the other, the G string should be tuned once the D string has been adjusted to sound good at the fifth fret of the A string.

Press down on the fifth fret of the D string, which is the note G. Let the open G and the fretted D strings ring out as you pluck both of them with your picking hand.

If the G string sounds sharp or flat, adjust the tuning head for the G string until the two strings are perfectly in tune. Follow the process of lowering the pitch if you're having issues differentiating between them.

When the E string is in tune with a standard pitch E1 at 41Hz, the rest of the strings can be tuned against the low E.

Tuning Your Bass Guitar With a Tuner App

Once you've developed your ears and have got a fairly good idea of how to tune your bass, you can very much do without a physical tuner as well.

With so many free tuning apps online, all you need is a smartphone, tablet, or computer. While some apps offer the traditional meter, which turns green upon hitting the correct pitch, others require you to tune to the note played out on the app by ear.

tune a bass guitar

While such apps are convenient and a must-have backup choice, depending completely on them for your tune needs isn't a great idea.

The apps that provide a meter that detects your bass' pitch require that you be in a quiet place without resonant frequencies that resemble a musical pitch.

If the app were to pick up a resonant frequency in our vicinity, it would affect the accuracy of your tuning. So it's recommended that these apps with meters be used in a quiet environment.

The second type of app, which plays you the note on every open string, can also be used on headphones. As they're just giving you the open string, you can turn up the volume on your headphones as you tune your bass to them.

If you're comfortable with tuning your bass in this fashion, then being in a crowded space or a noisy environment shouldn't be a problem.

Tuning your bass by only hearing the reference pitch is also a great way to develop your ears in the long run.

Alternate Bass Guitar Tunings

While we've covered all the different ways of tuning a standard bass guitar, we haven't yet spoken about tuning the 5 and 6-string bass guitars.

Based on the same principles of tuning as the regular 4-string bass, these instruments just add extra strings to the mix.

Bass Guitar With 5 Strings

A standard 5-string bass guitar comes with an extra high string after the G string. But, not to be mistaken with the standard guitar tuning, which changes to a major 3rd after the G string, the bass tunings follow only perfect 4ths.

tune a bass guitar

So the extra high string after G would be tuned to C, as C is the 4th of G. If you're tuning by pressing down the fourth from each string, you need to follow the same process you followed for the other strings.

Press down on the 5th foot from the G string, which gives you a C. Now try tuning your fifth string to this reference C.

For the other methods, which use a chromatic tuner, pedal, or an app, you simply tune the 5th string to a C.

The 6-String Bass Guitar

With an additional lower string, the 6-string bass guitar generally gets tuned to a low B below the low E. We don’t recommend tuning the low B by ear, as it is seriously low in pitch, and chances are that your ear might not get it right.

If you happen to play a bass with a low B, it's best to get a chromatic headstock tuner or a tuner pedal that goes straight into your bass. We don't recommend using apps or the method of the fifths for a 6-string bass.

Drop Bass Tunings

Drop tunings on bass are common in metal and its sub-genres, along with some experimental forms of jazz. The drop tunings entail that you drop the tuning on your low E string to a D.

Generally aimed at getting low-end rumble on metal riffs, the drop tunings are only concerned with lowering the pitch of the low E. The rest of the strings stay the same as on a regular bass guitar.

Some forms of metal also go lower with a Drop C. This would, again, mean only lowering the tuning on your low E to a lower C# or a lower C.

In such cases, we highly recommend only using a chromatic tuner or a bass pedal tuner that can go this low. All the other forms of tuning, like using a reference pitch and tuning to the fourths, become redundant at such low frequencies.

Checking Intonation

Checking your intonation is a crucial final step before completing the tuning process. You can focus on intonation checking once all the open strings are in tune.

Begin fretting the low E string at the 12th fret. Make sure the string is held down properly. It should sound the same as the open string. If it sounds a bit off, then we have an intonation problem, and we need to move the saddles to achieve perfect intonation.

Use an electronic bass tuner to determine whether you are flat (too low) or sharp (too high). If you're flat, move the saddle forward to shorten the string. If you’re acute, you must lengthen the string by moving the saddle backward. You can do this by loosening the intonation saddle screws at the back of the bridge.

Check whether the open E string is still in tune after adjusting the saddle. You can do another round of checking by playing a harmonic on the 12th fret of the open E string. Just slightly touch the 12th fret of the string while plucking it. You'll hear a higher E. You need to check with your tuner whether the harmonic is in tune.

Once you get your 12th fret harmonic in tune, you're good to go. Now you can repeat the same process for all the strings.

Maintaining Tuning Stability

We've discussed until now the different ways to tune a bass guitar. While learning to tune the bass is important, it's equally important to learn how to maintain the tuning stability of your instrument.

A Fresh Pair of Strings

Changing strings once in a while helps keep fresh strings running through the instrument. Old strings are more prone to going out of tune. They can also rust and cause friction between the tuning pegs and the strings.

If you've recently changed a pair of strings, make sure to tune it multiple times and check for the first 12–18 hours, as the instrument is prone to going out of tune.

Slightly pull or tug on it as you allow the new strings to fall into place.

Using a Good Quality Case

Using a well-padded soft case or a highly durable hard case for your bass is a must to protect your instrument from various external elements. Bass guitars are highly susceptible to humidity and temperature changes.

tune a bass guitar

The truss rod, which runs through the center of your bass guitar, experiences tension and relaxation due to weather changes. This can alter your tuning stability greatly. To avoid all these issues, it is best to get a good hard case or a well-padded soft case for your bass.

If you're using a soft case, make sure not to let the tuning pegs rub against your case as you pack or unpack your instrument. Tuning pegs rubbing against the case is a common reason for basses to go slightly out of tune.

We can conclude this article by saying that though there are many ways to tune your bass, you need to find the one that best suits your needs.

To check out more fascinating content about everything bass, please head over to https://incitemusic.com/bass/

Author

  • tune a bass guitar

    My "day job" used to be teaching but I decided to give that up to play music full time. I have gigged all over the world playing in bands or as a solo act since then. I still have a passion for teaching others anything related to music. Writing content for InciteMusic.com gives me an opportunity to combine my love of music and education.

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