Tuning a Bass
There are many ways to go about tuning your bass, some easier and more accurate than others. What matters most is that your bass is in tune before you play. When people speak of tuning they are referring to the pitch of the instrument.
A cycle is one complete revolution or wavelength of sound. Thus, an A above middle C makes 440 complete revolutions in one second. The higher the pitch the more cycles per second, while the lower the pitch the less cycles per second.
Tuning with an Electronic Tuner
The easiest way to tune your bass is to use an electronic tuner. Electronic tuners have come down in price so dramatically that virtually anyone can afford one. There are, however, variations in quality between some cheaper units and more pricey ones. Generally, the extremely inexpensive tuners are less reliable and may only be able to tune to standard settings (E, A, D, G). In other words, if you use a five-string bass or alternate tunings, inexpensive tuners may not be as useful.
Nevertheless, for the most part electric tuners are invaluable. It's difficult to tune an electric bass. This is especially true in live settings where the room and crowd may be too loud to hear the delicate nuances needed to get the pitch just right. Furthermore, performers may need to re-tune on stage in the heat of the moment. When playing at extremely loud volumes, this is difficult to do without an electric tuner.
To use a tuner, all that is needed is a nine-volt battery and a guitar cable. Simply turn the unit on, plug the bass into the tuner, and make sure your bass's volume and tone knobs are fully forward. Next, check the pitch of the individual strings against the pitches that you would like to tune to. The standard tuning of a bass is, from the low to the high, E, A, D, and G. No matter what string you tune, the meter on the unit should stay roughly at the center point throughout the duration of the note's sustain. When it does, the string is in tune. It's really that easy!
Make sure that the indicator lights on the electronic tuner signal that you are actually tuning to the specific note that you desire to. It can be all too easy to tune perfectly to the wrong note. Also, make sure that your pitch is in the ballpark to begin with. If you are way off, you should tune roughly by ear first so that you don't “confuse” the tuner.
Through the use of electronic tuners, a lot of unnecessary stress can be removed from the equation. Since music can be stressful, especially in live situations, it is comforting to know that there is a device out there that can help ease that tension.
Tuning by Ear
Although tuning with an electronic tuner is now commonplace, the art and practical necessity of being able to tune by ear is still something not to be neglected by any musician. Tuning by ear will help to develop your overall sense of pitch. There may also be times where you want to make music and you, for whatever reason, don't have a tuner. Also, tuners sometimes break or batteries run out. Occasionally this happens five minutes before show time! You never know when you may need to fall back on just your ear for tuning.
There is one basic procedure for tuning by ear and two common methods to help realize it. Unless you have perfect pitch, you always need a reference pitch. Any source, including pitch pipes, pianos, keyboards, or guitars, may do. All that really matters is that the reference pitch is as close to perfection as is possible. This means that you can hear the fundamental pitch well.
When tuning by ear, first you must choose a specific reference pitch from the musical alphabet. Although any note can work, for now start with E. Since this pitch is low, you may want to use an amp in order to hear it clearly. Listen carefully to the highness or lowness of the reference pitch, then turn the tuning key higher or lower accordingly. Make sure that the two pitches match before you move on. Once you are confident that the two pitches are the same, use the E string as your new point of reference.
Depress the E string at the fifth fret (counting away from the headstock). When you do this, the note that sounds will be an A. Next, pluck the A string. If it is out of tune, turn the A string's tuning key up or down until it matches the A performed on the E string. Repeat this operation with the remaining two higher-pitched strings until all of them are in tune with each other and the original reference pitch. In other words, press the fifth fret of the A string so that you get a D, then press the fifth fret of the D string so that you get a G. This is a common method used to tune both basses and guitars.
If the pitch is lower than it is supposed to be, it is
The second, more complex, way to tune the bass from an initial reference pitch is to use harmonics. This is one of the best methods for tuning an electric bass. However, harmonic tuning is much more complex so beginners shouldn't worry about it just yet. In any case, you must first learn about harmonics, including how to play them. For more information on harmonics see Chapter 8.