I’ve recently made the acquaintance of a very interesting young artist in Portland, OR, one William Gibbs, bass player by trade, who has taught me about a very interesting practice engaged in by a very slim number of bass players. Namely, tuning in fifths.
Theses players tune their basses exactly as cellos, an octave lower: C-G-D-A. Will’s assertion is that it allows for much more accurate tuning with the orchestra’s cello section (which of course makes perfect sense) and what’s more that it gives a more articulate response on the instrument all around.
We also talked about other tuning systems for the bass, like the D Major or so-called ‘Viennese tuning’, which is demonstrated by my former colleague Owen Lee here:
This is obviously a gag, but to hear the tuning played properly, Owen made another video which you can view here.
Now, Owen claims that this is the way basses were tuned in the classical era of Mozart and Haydn, but Mr. Gibbs complicated this view for me a bit, and told me that bass players historically used a wide variety of tunings, often tuning their instruments to the piece they were playing. We tend to think of low Cs as simply a matter of having an extension or a fifth string, but the idea that bassists would have treated their instruments almost like transposing instruments clarifies a great deal, particularly about the Beethoven symphonies (the 5th and 6th in particular).
Usually I just can’t with all this bass stuff. Bassists tend to be REALLY into bass to the exclusion of all else, and it’s just too bass for me, but this tuning in 5ths is something that I’m really convinced by and I think needs wider mention. I imagine learning it would be like converting from a QWERTY to a DVORAK keyboard, but if certain intrepid bass players would give it a shot, maybe we could get a good sample of data and see if it’s really worth the effort.
This is definitely going on my agenda when I convene the World Association of Musicians, along with converting the double horn from a transposing instrument in F to a non-transposing instrument reading alto clef, deciding the ultimate meaning of the tenuto, and rendering official once and for all the status of the ‘unaccented mark’.