How low does a bass need to go?

Things might just be getting just a little out of handBy Jon Liebman
May 13, 2022

How low does a bass need to go? My answer: “B” ought to get the job done very well. Beyond that, I seldom see the point.

It all comes back to the function of the bass, which is to lock in with the drummer, set the foundation for the band, and make the music feel good. You don’t need to tune way, way down to do that – and you certainly don’t need to tune way, way up either.

Going beyond 4 strings

I remember, back in the ‘80s, seeing what Anthony Jackson and John Patitucci were doing to popularize the 6-string bass. And I thought that was cool. Other unconventional players who’ve got my attention over the years include Yves Carbonne, Bill Dickens, Igor Saavedra, and many others. I truly respect innovation, creativity and self-expression… as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand.

I had a fun conversation with Ricky Bonazza of the metal band Butcher Babies, published as this week’s FBPO interview. One of the things we talked about was extended-range basses and alternate tunings for bass. Not surprisingly, we spent more time talking about strings that go lower, not higher!

The really, really low tuning of a bass seems almost like a cultural thing to me, mostly found in metal music. Ricky had some interesting things to say about it that I thought were worthwhile.

How low “should” a bass go?

“I rarely play in E standard tuning,” Ricky says, citing a recent session he did with a country band as an exception.

“As far as the low tuning,” he says, “with the 5-string, I think I can bring it down to a G or an F#, something like that. Is it ideal? I don’t know, so I try to not go lower than that. And I know bands that go way lower.”

He then made mention of at least one bass he knows of that can go all the way down to an E. That’s a whole octave lower than the E string on your bass and mine!

Finding the sweet spot

For the most part, Ricky’s tuning isn’t too extreme, relatively speaking. “With Butcher Babies, I can just stay in my regular octaves, so I’m just going to be tuned B-flat standard,” he says, shrugging off what was considered to be extreme a few decades back as rather mainstream today. In the metal world, anyway.

Ever cognizant of the big picture, though, Ricky doesn’t tune way down just for the sake of it. He approaches the music with a true sensitivity to what the song needs. Case in point, Butcher Babies’ forthcoming record, which the band is now finishing up.

“On the new album,” he says, “we have a couple of lower tunings going on, like A, and I think there’s… a low E and F, but not every song. On most of the songs I can get away with just 5-string regular standard tuning.”

While I was happy to hear this band genuinely senses a musical need for super low tuning, most of the time, well, I just don’t get it.

But what’s the reason behind it?

Ricky was happy to elaborate on the thought process. He says it’s a matter of trying out all kinds of musical ideas and experimenting. 

“With Butcher Babies, for example,” he says, “the situation we were in required us to come up with parts, right on the spot, and so instead of just doing the picking stuff, or the finger stuff, you’re like, ‘Hey, man, let’s try to do some slapping thing,’ or ‘Hey, maybe I can tap this chord, or something.’ You expand your horizons, and automatically you bring more value to your craft, to your playing, and to whoever you work with.”

And ultra-low tuning, he says, was part of that experimentation, looking for ways to serve the song in the best way possible. While most of the time, I don’t really understand the need for super, ultra-low tuning, I’m in favor of working in the spirit of anything that’s going to give the music what it really needs. 

I even emphasized how important it is to apply these various techniques – and tunings – not because the player can execute them, but because they actually help the song. Naturally, Ricky concurred. “Essentially,” he said, “that’s what makes a good bass player.”

What about you? Have a thought on alternate tunings for a bass, including going really, really low? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, watch my interview with Ricky here.

Comments on How low does a bass need to go?

  1. David Pinto says:

    Low B for me… high C seems enough as it cuts through a mix for soloing and makes for nice chordal sounds and opportunities. Beyond high C it treads into the territory of other instruments. From B to C makes for a 4 octave instrument, which seems plenty. Extended range basses.. 7+ strings seems like it’s an instrument unto itself, at that point.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Well stated, David. I high C is okay with me, but, as you suggest, that’s getting into other instruments’ territories! Thanks for weighing in.

  2. Petey says:

    Hmm. To me; the low “B” is enough. I know some gospel bass players like to go to a low “F” on some songs (and I thought that’s too low) but to me the B is it.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      I agree, Petey. Thanks!

  3. Keith says:

    I’m cool with the low B and high C. The main thing for me is regardless of the tuning, whatever someone plays should be musical and serve the song.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Right on, Keith! Thanks.

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