My StudyBass

How to Tune Your Bass By Ear

Even though there are easier ways to tune (coming next), it's very important to learn to tune your bass by ear, that is, listening to the notes of your bass and adjusting them accordingly.

Standard Tunings for Bass

First, you need to know our goal. We want to tune to the following tuning standards:

Standard 4-String Bass Tuning: E A D G

That is, the fattest string is E, next string A, next string D, skinniest string G.

Standard 5-String Bass Tuning: B E A D G

That is, the fattest string is B, next string E, next string A, next string D, skinniest string G.

Reference Notes

In order to tune by ear, you need some sort of reference point. You need a note you know is in-tune.

Luckily, you can find bass tuning reference notes in the tools section of StudyBass. But, there are many sources of reference notes: a piano or guitar that's in-tune, there are pitch forks and pitch pipes which generate a specific note, or even a recorded song works.

If you've ever heard an orchestra tuning up, you'll typically hear the oboe play the note A, and all the musicians tune to it.

Tuning One String to a Reference Note

The first tuning step is to tune a single string on your bass to the appropriate reference note. Most people start with their lowest-pitched string (E on a 4-string bass, B on a 5-string), but you could start with any string.

Tuning the Rest of Your Strings

Once you have one string in-tune, we can tune the other strings to it. Think about it, if a string is in-tune, then the other notes up and down that string will also be in-tune. New reference notes!

So, after your E-string is in-tune, the next step is to tune your A-string. All you need to do is find an A on your in-tune E-string. If you remember your musical alphabet, you can find an A moving through the alphabet along the E-string...the open string is E, first fret is F, second fret is F#, third fret is G, fourth fret is G#, and, finally, the fifth fret is A.

Tuning with the Fifth Fret Notes

Here's the good news: with each in-tune string, you'll find a reference note for the next string on the 5th fret. You don't need to work out the alphabet each time.

To tune your next string, play the 5th fret note of a tuned string and your open string at the same time. Turn the tuning key until the two notes match.

If you can't tell whether you're too high or low, I suggest loosening the string a lot so you know you're well below the target note. Otherwise, if you tighten the string more than you should, it may snap. It takes a good bit beyond the main note, but breaking a string this way happens to a lot of new bassists. If you're worried the string will break, loosen it and start again. It takes practice!

Many bassists tune with the 5th fret method, but there's another way—using harmonics.

Tuning with Harmonics

What Are Harmonics?

Harmonics are special bell-like tones that occur at many points (or nodes) along a string.

Harmonics are produced by lightly touching—not pressing—a string with a finger on one hand at a specific point and plucking with the other.

Harmonics only ring out well at very exact points on the string. The two we need for tuning occur over the 5th and 7th frets. You must touch the string directly over those frets, not in-between.

Tuning with 5th and 7th Fret Harmonics

When strings are in-tune, the harmonic on the 5th fret of the lower string should match the 7th fret of the next higher string. For example, the 5th fret harmonic on the E-string will match the 7th fret of the A-string.

If your strings are out-of-tune, you can play both harmonics together and adjust them to match.

Tuning with harmonics is easier because you don't have to hold one string down to hear the note, and the harmonic tone is purer making it easier to hear the beating sound.

Getting Good Harmonics

A few tips on getting good-sounding harmonics:

  • Touch very lightly.
  • Touch very accurately right over the fret.
  • Once ringing, release the touching finger. It will ring longer.
  • If your bass has two pickups (neck and bridge), the bridge pickup emphasizes the harmonics more. Try turning off your neck pickup.

Tuning by ear is a critical skill you need. Now, I know most often you will use an electronic tuner, but I suggest you practice tuning by ear every time and then check your work with the tuner.

Now that we've covered tuning by ear, let's look at how to tune with an electronic tuner.

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