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Typically a D-tuner is installed on the 4th string to lower E a whole-step to D. Photo courtesy of basslab.de
Long gone are the days when bass manufacturers only had to offer a few 4-string models in different colors. For many years that was all the market seemed to demand and to identify the bassist, non-musicians simply had to count the number of strings on the player’s guitar. It’s hard to find accurate sales numbers, but it feels as if 5-stringers rule today’s market. The popularity of the 5-string bass exploded in the ’80s and has just kept growing over the last two decades.
So who do we thank for this 5-string takeover? Perhaps Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, and other ’70s icons who showed us that the electric bass can do so much more than we thought? Or was the rise of the 5-string a response to electronic keyboards that were going to make us bassists obsolete if we didn’t expand our range? Maybe it’s both.
Everyone who started on a 4-string and later expanded to five (or more) strings surely knows that feeling of “coming home” when you grab a 4-stringer. In addition to the “Jaco only needed four strings” school of thought, some bassists insist that the 4-string’s limitations can keep you more focused on each note you play and the music’s rhythm. So why go to 5-string?
The dilemma is that B or D is often the root in modern music and our blessed “customers”—the band leaders or producers who hire us to play—are expecting and paying to get the full low end. Even if you’re not into soloing and just want to play traditional bass parts, occasionally you’ll need that deep low end that E–A–D–G tuning simply doesn’t allow.
To solve this problem, bass players who want to stay with just four strings came up with several solutions. Some metal-head bassists followed the drop-tuned guitarists in their band and tuned down a whole-step to D–G–C–F. Other players simply restrung their instruments and tuned to B–E–A–D, the lowest four strings of a 5-string bass. The drop-tuned approach leads to floppier strings, but you can usually deal with that by switching to a heavier gauge set. But with the B–E–A–D option, you make a big sacrifice by giving up the range you’d use for melodic bass lines.
But there is a technical solution for 4-string bassists who want to extend their low range but don’t need those super-deep notes all the time: D-tuners!
If you’re not familiar with a D-tuner, the most popular version is a mechanical device that replaces the 4th-string headstock tuning key. It functions like a normal tuning key, but offers drop tuning with the flip of a lever. The lever pivots the tuning key, lowering the string to a preset pitch—typically down a whole-step to D, hence the name.
Most D-tuners can reach even lower. So, depending on the gauge and type of string you’re using, you might be able to go as low as B. This brings you into the range of a typical 5-string within seconds, although at the price of an extremely floppy 4th string. Not a huge deal if you use low B while playing with a band and don’t need it all the time.
It takes a while to get used to the unusual feel of a slackened 4th string, but that’s probably easier to manage than relearning all the notes on the fretboard, as you would using either D–G–C–F or B–E–A–D tuning. (That said, some might argue that retuning your bass might open up your thinking, let you break free from ingrained finger patterns, and stimulate creativity.)
Michael Manring and his Zon Hyperbass. Photo by Philippe Lissart, courtesy of manthing.com
The most prominent bassist to embrace D-tuners and use them innovatively is Michael Manring. If you’ve never heard him play, check out “The Enormous Room” on YouTube. You’ll see him use multiple headstock D-tuners (as well as bridge-mounted levers) in a very musical way.
This system lets Manring access altered tunings on the fly. In a 2005 interview with Anil Prasad (excerpted here from Innerviews.com, with permission granted by the author via a Creative Commons license), Manring explains why he uses altered tunings and why more bass players might benefit from them.
Prasad: Where does your fascination with altered tunings stem from?
Manring: It derives from a desire to expand the expressive palette of the instrument. When you change the tuning of a string, you’re also changing the tension. You alter the way it vibrates and that alone says something different. If you tune the string very loose, it gets a floppy sound. If you hit that string hard, the pitch goes sharp, then it goes a little flat, and then it comes to rest in a center pitch. That sound has an emotional resonance with people. They perceive it as loose, funky, fat, and wild. If you tune a string really tight, you tend to hear more overtones than fundamental. People tend to hear that as more proper and organized. So, changing the tautness of a string opens up a whole palette of different emotional possibilities. If you mix strings of different tautness together, you can draw from an even bigger set of emotional choices at any moment. It blows my mind on a daily basis that most bassists don’t take their basses and change tunings.
Clearly, Manring is taking this further than most of us can even imagine, as he uses more than one mechanical retuning device on each string and does all this on a fretless! The good news for gear heads is that manufacturers offer more than just one type of D-tuner, and we’ll dig deeper into these options next month.