We have written recently about the bass guitar, double bass and bass ukulele, it seemed an obvious question to consider what the overlap was between these instruments in terms of pitch and tuning. The different types and makes of ukulele on the market today has caused some confusion with regards to tuning, hopefully this will resolve any questions that you might have.
Thankfully a musician can pick up any one of these instruments and depending upon their starting point will be able to eventually play all three. All of these instruments have the same tuning. We decided to dig a bit deeper and do some research on how they compare and what this means for the player.
The debate of whether a bass ukulele can sound like a double bass is a matter of opinion, but as mentioned previously in a recent post, we think it sounds pretty close. Close enough to fool some people for sure. The next question that naturally follows concerns the pitch of the bass instruments and what the differences are in terms of pitch and tuning, and indeed how they compare to other instruments such as the bass guitar.
A little bit of theory
Just to put the discussion on a good foundation a little bit of theory in terms of terminology.
A note is sound pattern which repeats itself in an ordered way – which allows the pleasing sound we expect when a note is formed. A note does not need to be made by an instrument, any object can create a note, the humming of a bees’ wings can produce a note. The wave pattern just needs to be repeated in an ordered way.
Noise on the other hand is still a sequence of wave patterns, but these patterns are not ordered and the waves are random, this the sound is not so pleasing to our ear, as it is rather disordered.
A sound wave has four main qualities, frequency which determines the pitch, wave shape which gives what is called the ‘timbre,’ which is the character or quality of the sound. Finally, amplitude which gives the volume, and the phase of the sound wave which determines how sound waves interact.
When a string is hit, struck or bowed it will vibrate causing the air molecules around it to be displaced. This vibration is measured in terms of its vibration back and forth in one second. So a string that vibrates 200 times a second we will say has a frequency of 200 Hertz (Hz).
When you play middle C on a piano the frequency is 262 Hz, each note will vibrate at different frequencies.
Pitch is determined by the frequency and wave length, the shorter the wave length the shorter the frequency and the higher the pitch of the sound. The wave length is affected by its environment, sound travelling through water as we know will sound differently. However altitude, humidity and temperature will impact the wave length and therefore the pitch of a note.
To describe the pitch of the note on a register a type short hand was developed. Shorthand for middle C on the piano is C4. This method is internally recognised and comes from the International Standards Organization (ISO) system for ‘register designations.’ A ‘C’ that is an octave higher than a middle C on a piano keyboard is C5 and a ‘C’ that is an octave lower is C3. A visual representation of this laid out on a keyboard can be found here.
The table below compares instruments in terms of the dimensions of the instrument and its common tuning using the ISO register designations.
Quick Tuning Comparison
|Instrument||Approx Scale Length||Number|
|Common Tuning||Pitch compared to double bass|
|Luna ‘Basses’ (brand of uke)||20 inches||15||E2-A2-D3-G3||One octave above|
|U-bass from Kala, and most bass ukulele’s (technically a contra-bass) ukulele||20 inches||16||E1-A1-D2-G2||Same as a double bass / bass guitar|
|Standard 4 string bass guitar||34 inches||20||E1–A1–D2–G2||Same as double bass|
|Double Bass 3/4||41 inches||n/a||E1, A1, D2 and G2.||n/a|
The examples of tunings above are the ‘standard’ tuning for these instruments, but there are other tuning options of course. Musicians will apply different tunings to suit their preference or musical style, for example, some musicians will drop the E to D, or tune in fifths, etc.
The term ‘contra’ just means the lowest type of bass instrument for that type of instrument, this term is not used very often but it can appear sometimes on the internet which can make a buyer think that this is a different type of instrument from your average bass ukulele, its not. A contrabass bugle would be for example the lowest pitched bugle.
Luna, a brand of ukulele has tuned its bass instruments an octave above a double bass / bass guitar, and most other bass ukuleles on the market. Therefore, if you buy a Luna bass ukulele, you might want to check its tuning, if you want a bass tuning the same as a bass guitar.
The term ‘U-Bass’ used by the manufacturer Kala is a brand name, it is not a separate type of instrument.
A piccolo bass is either an electric bass or acoustic bass which has been tuned to a higher frequency, usually one octave higher than its conventional bass tuning. So this would be therefore: E2 A2 D3 G3. This allows bass players to use higher registers during soloing while retaining a familiar scale length and string spacing.
Manufacturers will have different variations on the length of neck length or scale length. For example, most Fender bass guitars have 20 jumbo frets. Other basses on the market can go up to 21, 22 or 24 frets.
In conclusion, with the exception of a couple of models of ukulele a bass ukulele uses the same tuning as a bass guitar or double bass.