Learning how to tune a bass is one of the first things that so many bassists learn how to do. There are many different ways. Some will tune with a tuning pedal, some with the 5th fret and some will use the harmonics at the 5th and 7th frets.
This is a popular technique but some people don’t realise that this is actually making your bass fractionally out of tune.
The idea behind this harmonics tuning technique is based on the assumption that the 5th fret harmonics of one string (the A string for example) produces the same note as the 7th fret harmonic of the string above (D string in this case) but this isn’t quite true.
The 5th fret harmonic on the A string resonates at 220Hz which means that the 7th fret harmonic on the D string should also resonate at 220Hz if we’re going to use them as tuning references. But the D string harmonic is actually a little sharper than the A string one. It’s 220.26Hz which creates a few tuning problems.
Firstly, if we do get the harmonics to match then our D string is flatter than it should be or if we tune to A string to the D string then our A is sharper than it should be. But the second issue comes in the form of addressing a common objection to this point.
Many people will say that the bass is never perfectly in tune because the strings will be detuned as we fret notes. This is certainly true. We’ve all been on gigs when we’ve tuned up perfectly with a great tuning pedal, played one song and seen that we’re massively out of tune by the end of that song. So, given this, why worry so much about a fractional difference between two harmonics? Surely it’s small enough that we wouldn’t notice it?
Well the issue is this. Detuning which comes from fretting notes is inevitable. As bass players we can’t avoid it. However, tuning with harmonics that are fractionally out of tune to start with will exacerbate this problem and that is something that we certainly can avoid if we choose to.
Personally I always prefer tuning with a pedal or electronic tuner. They’re accurate and silent which is a great combination.
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