I’m often surprised by the lackadaisical and unfocused way that some bassists tune their basses before playing. We all devote enormous amounts of time to training our ears, minds, and bodies so that we can play in tune. If our instrument is not well in tune, we make our task of good intonation much more difficult. Why spend countless hours learning the proper spacing and placement of the left hand when you’re not going to tune the open string to the right pitch?
The bass is more difficult to tune than the other string instruments for a variety of reasons, some technical and some situational.
- The interval of the perfect fourth doesn’t occur in the overtone series. Therefore, it is more difficult to hear on its own than perfect fifths.
- Because of this, we often choose to tune using harmonics. This method assumes that our strings are in good condition, and that the pitches of the harmonics don’t activate any wolf tones on our bass. Often, one or both of these assumptions is mistaken and we need to fix these problems by installing new strings or using wolf eliminators. If we don’t, then our harmonics can be inaccurate and our tuning will be also.
- The bass is not a very loud instrument, and especially in an orchestral context it can be very hard to hear oneself well enough to accurately tune. If we are surrounded by other bassists, it can be even more difficult as we try to pick out our sound amidst all the bass playing around us.
- The way we draw the bow across the string can affect the pitch in subtle ways, especially when we tune with harmonics. If we put a lot of weight into the string as we tune, the bow can bend the string sufficiently to alter the pitch. Try it and see for yourself: Play the “A” harmonic on the D string with a fast light bow and with a slow, heavy, “pressed” bow. This often connects to the issue of our volume; people tuning onstage during orchestra will play their harmonics far too loudly in order to hear themselves, thus distorting the pitch.
For all these reasons, I choose to always check my tuning with an electronic tuner. At the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, we have two high-quality strobe tuners offstage that many NSO members use to check their intonation before going on to rehearse or play a concert. I also have a small tuner like this one that I use whenever I play to check my tuning. They are not expensive, quite accurate, and can also be purchased with a contact microphone that clips to your bass. This can be very useful for tuning in noisy environments (like onstage at an orchestra rehearsal!). They can also be calibrated for different “A’s,” from A435 to A445, so that you can set it precisely to whatever “A” your group uses – the NSO tunes to A442, for example, but when I’m playing with a piano I need to tune to A440.
If I’m in a quiet area, I check each open string with the tuner, drawing a relaxed, mezzo piano sound so as not to distort the pitch of the string. Every member of my bass section in the NSO uses a tuner in this way before we go onstage, and we all agree that it helps our intonation.
When I’m playing with a group that I’m not that familiar with, I often go to the oboe player (or whichever instrument will be giving the “A” at the beginning of rehearsal) and ask them to play the “A” into my tuner so I can see exactly where their pitch center will be. I then set my tuner to that pitch and tune my bass.
After we’ve played awhile, the action of our hands on the string and the vibration of the instrument can cause our strings to go out of tune. I frequently recheck my intonation with the tuner during a practice session.
One final piece of advice regarding tuning: Once I’ve tuned with the tuner, I play all my tuning harmonics, noting if any of them seem false or off pitch. This way, if I don’t have my tuner or need for some reason to tune without it, I can know which harmonics I can trust and which ones I need to “tweak” a bit to get the open string in tune.