The best alternate tunings for bass will help you spice up your playing significantly.

Even though most educational material regarding alternate tunings is for guitarists, bassists can also create a universe of options by changing the pitch of their strings. Naturally, not playing in the common G D A E tuning also means you have to get out of your comfort zone. The upside is that with each alternate tuning you will discover a new world of possibilities for the bass. 

Besides trying these alternate tunings, it is also important to listen to some bassists that employ them. Get in the habit of listening to bass players that are known for using alternate tunings successfully. For instance, Michael Manring is recognized for making beautiful music with some of the most uncommon and even custom alternate tunings. However, you don’t have to be one of the best players in the world to take advantage of this fantastic tool. In this article we show you how. Make sure you have a good tuner before you start. Here are the best alternate tunings for bass. 

A word of caution

Bass strings create more pressure on the neck than a guitar string. For this reason, changing the tuning on any (and specially all) strings will likely raise or lower the action of your bass. The action is the distance between your strings and the fretboard. Typically, a higher action makes it more difficult to play the bass, as you have to push harder for the string to reach the fretboard. 

Additionally, changing the tension of the strings (which is exactly what you do for alternate tunings) might affect intonation (the evenness of the notes on your neck). 

In case any of this affects your playing, the best course of action is to consult with a luthier. Remember to go slow and be patient through this whole discovery process. Now onto the fun. 

Drop D tuning

In case you didn’t know, the four strings of the bass match the bottom four strings on a guitar, albeit much lower in pitch. As a result, our very first tuning has the same name as one of the most common alternate tunings for guitar: Drop D. 

Just like on the guitar, all you have to do is drop the fourth string on the bass from an E to a D. This gives you a whole step that can be very useful. You could even use it as a surprise note to add that extra weight to a song or riff. This is perhaps the easiest of all possibilities for alternate tuning on a bass. With the alteration of just one string, you can already dive into new possibilities that might aid your creativity. Additionally, Drop D will likely not mess with your action or intonation, as long as you have a decent bass. 

Standard D tuning

Think of this option of alternate tuning as a natural progression from Drop D. To tune your bass on Standard D, simply lower all strings one whole tone. You will get D, G, C, F. Although Standard D tuning is more aggressive than Drop D, it is also more natural in a way. This is because the relationships among the strings are kept. In other words, the distance of a fourth between strings remains, albeit a whole tone lower. 

In essence, you can go to all the familiar places on your bass, and they will just sound a step lower. Although this typically is not the first alternate tuning most bass players try, it is the one that feels most natural when it comes to playing.  

Dropped C

This alternate tuning features the strings in the following order: C, G, C, F. It is basically the top three strings of Standard D tuning but with the fourth string lowered a full whole note. Compared to standard tuning, you are actually lowering the fourth string two full steps (two whole tones). It is a natural progression from Standard D tuning. 

Interestingly, it keeps the same relationship among strings as drop D tuning, but with everything a full step lower. 

Dropped C is ideal for a heavier sound, which can be great not only for metal but anything that requires a lower end.  

C tuned to thirds

This is the most experimental of all the alternate tunings listed in this article. Here, you will truly have to do away with any of the somewhat common relationships among strings of the previous tunings. C tuned to thirds features the strings in the following pitches: C, F, C, G. 

This alternate tuning is fantastic for experimenting with chord shapes on the bass. It is arguably the one that opens the most possibilities on this list. However, it may also be the most frustrating as well. This is because you need to relearn chord shapes on the bass, as well as discover where to go. 

Although C tuned to thirds completely eviscerates the common fourth-relationship that is a cornerstone of bass playing, it offers major benefits. For instance, chord shapes that were previously not possible, now become a reality thanks to the new string pitch arrangement. Yes, C tuned to thirds is a tradeoff of what is comfortable for more possibilities. There is only one way to know if this tuning is for you: try it.  

Trying the best alternate tunings for bass can be a great way to challenge yourself while having fun. Naturally, this does not mean you have to give up standard tuning. Afterall, great music is still being made with common four string basses in standard tuning. Just ask Paul McCarntney or Sting

These alternate tunings will be especially helpful if you feel stuck in your bass playing. Although we’ve focused on four string basses, alternate tunings also apply to five and sixth string bases. You can employ alternate tunings not only for creating complex pieces but also to come up with new riffs for a rock song, for instance. The key is to take your time and try them out. Find out which ones you prefer, spend some quality time with them and have fun!