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Tune a Bass Guitar with Bass Harmonics

In case you missed it, you should first read the main bass tuning lesson and the tuning a bass with fretted notes lesson.

What’s a Bass Guitar Harmonic?

Most often notes on the bass are played by pressing the string against a fret. However, there are other “hidden” notes on your bass. These notes are called harmonics. They are obtained by lightly touching (not pressing down) the string at certain points on the string.

The loudest harmonic occurs at the 12th fret. You must touch the string directly over the fret. Again, don’t press down the string like normal, just touch it gently. Pluck the string and you should hear a chime-like sound.

To get a harmonic just touch the string, don't press.

Harmonics occur all over each string. The loudest ones are over frets 5, 7, 9, and 12. There are others as well.

If you can’t hear the harmonics ring out very well, try using just your bridge pickup. It also helps to lift your finger off the string immediately after plucking the harmonic. It may take some practice to get clear, consistent harmonics.

To hear the possibilities of harmonics, listen to Jaco Pastorius - Portrait of Tracy. That is probably the most famous song full of bass harmonics.

Tuning a Bass Guitar with Harmonics

Much like was discussed in the lesson on how to tune a bass with fretted notes, you can tune a bass relative to itself using harmonics. You can match a harmonic on one string to a harmonic on the other.

The advantage of using harmonics is you don't have to hold anything down. Your hands are free to tune.

To tune you will use the harmonics on the 5th and 7th frets.

On the A-string play the 7th fret harmonic. On the E-string, play the 5th fret harmonic. Be sure you get them ringing at the same time – don’t accidentally mute one. These two pitches should match. Tune the A-string so the two harmonics match.

5th and 7th fret bass harmonics
Points to touch for tuning harmonics on the E- and A-strings.

On the D-string play the 7th fret harmonic. On the A-string play the 5th fret harmonic. Tune the D-string so these harmonics match.

Lastly, on the G-string pluck the 7th fret harmonic. Pluck the 5th fret harmonic on the D-string. Tune the G-string until the two harmonics match.

That’s all there is to tuning a bass using harmonics.