More is always better, right? Why settle for only 4 or 5-string basses when you can be playing with six strings?
Well, maybe you have small hands so the massive fretboard of a 6-string bass wouldn’t work for you, but one thing’s for sure; they can cover a lot of tonal territory.
And that’s just with standard tuning.
There aren’t that many alternate tunings for 6-string basses because the instrument already has a huge range. You can use Drop A or tune down to A Standard quite easily and tuning to standard 6-string guitar tuning or all fifths tuning can be done with a lot of effort. Proceed with caution for the latter two.
Alternate tunings are a great way to spark creativity, hone a signature sound, and confuse other musicians who are trying to copy what you are doing.
But since a six-string bass is normally tuned (standard) B-E-A-D-G-C, most of the popular alternate tunings of yesteryear don’t apply.
So let’s check out what kind of newfangled sonic palettes are available for this beast of an instrument.
All you need to know about 6-string bass alternate tunings
To clarify the point we will be starting from the B to C standard of tuning, we will be focusing on modern instruments that are designed for this tuning.
The six-string basses on the market today are actually a combination of the two standard tunings of a 5-string bass, B-E-A-D-G, and the less common but more traditional tenor tuning of E-A-D-G-C.
You can check out alternative tunings for 5-string basses in our article here:
On the flip side, there is the Fender Bass VI, which is a short-scale 30-inch neck bass with (six) lighter strings and tuned like a guitar. It has been used by quite a few famous musicians, most notably The Beatles.
But I don’t think that the Fender brand even produces them these days except as part of their Squier Classic Vibe series and I’ve never seen one in person or even met anyone who owns one.
But this is one of the tunings that some people try to achieve as an alternate tuning on modern basses. Most of the other alternate tunings will take the form of lowering the tone of the strings for heavy rock and metal.
Are you ready to spend all your savings on bass strings and setups? Here are some tunings to check out.
4 must-know 6-string bass tunings
1. Drop A
Lowering your B string a whole step will give you A-E-A on the top three strings.
This will provide a powerful low sound that should feel very familiar to anyone who has ever used Drop D tuning on a guitar or 4-string bass.
And if you find it’s not to your taste, you can get back to standard tuning in a few seconds.
2. A Standard
If you are playing with other people who are tuned down, especially with 7-string guitars, then of course you should match the overall tuning.
How many steps you tune down is variable but we will examine tuning one step down to A Standard, giving us A-D-G-C-F-A#.
Many rock and metal bands enjoy this tuning but bands like Korn would use it with 5-string basses that don’t have the high-C string.
So what you choose to do with the high-C string is up to you; you could also tune it to B, tune it all the way down to A or simply leave it at C.
Although if you play rock or metal in the style of Korn, you may never even touch that bottom string.
3. Standard Guitar Tuning
For some reason, there seems to be an obsession with tuning 6-string basses to Standard Guitar Tuning.
It must have something to do with the Fender/Squier Bass VI that uses this setup. Or to more easily play along with 6-string guitars.
Tuning to E-A-D-G-B-E can be done with a regular set of 4-string bass strings and two single strings, or I suppose you could just buy a set of strings that is specifically for the Bass VI if they are long enough for your instrument’s neck.
I can definitely see the appeal of this tuning, especially for a guitar player who wants to get into playing bass, but why not just get a Bass VI instead of a bass designed for B standard?
4. All Fifths Tuning
There are also a few folks who swear by All Fifths Tuning.
This can be done with a C-G-D-A-E-B configuration.
This tuning is a big operation and involves using plain strings for one (or two) of the thinnest strings.
You could of course tune lower while maintaining the 5th intervals but I think that this tuning is often used for a tapping style of playing so I will leave it to the pros to decide.
Still, one advantage of this tuning is clear; you only sacrifice a bit of low range by tuning your sixth string from B up to C but with the 5th intervals between each string, by the time you reach the first string you have massively extended your upper tonal range.
Given the work required to achieve this tuning, I don’t recommend it for beginners though!
Should you set up your bass every time you change its tuning?
You should be able to use Drop A and A Standard on your six-string without too much trouble, provided you have some decently heavy strings on your bass already.
For these two options, you may still want to check to see if your truss rod needs to be adjusted after the first few days, especially with changes in weather.
And the action may need to be tweaked a little or you may be fine just adjusting the attack of your pick/fingers to compensate for the slinkier feel of the strings.
Unfortunately, this is where the good news ends though.
If you plan on setting up your bass for Standard E guitar tuning or All Fifths tuning, the large difference in tension on the neck from the lighter strings will almost certainly require a setup. And the pain doesn’t end there either.
Since modern 6-string basses have nuts that are cut for heavy-gauge strings, the thinner strings will not rest snugly in the nut slots.
You can try to live with it but for long-term playability, you should consider having the nut replaced with an appropriately filed one.
Unless you are an experienced tech or luthier, you should probably have a professional setup done for these tunings.
And if you want to increase your chances of a guitar tech accepting the job, I strongly recommend that you procure any oddball string combinations needed beforehand.
Otherwise, you would be paying a tech to sit down and order any single strings that are needed, if they even take the job.
A brief guide to alternate tunings and string gauges
Bass strings are expensive so it’s best to learn as much as you can about proper string gauges before you spend money.
I will try to provide some recommendations gathered online that should point you in the right direction.
So for permanent use of the down-tuning options discussed you will want to be working with at least a medium-gauge set of strings.
While I have not discovered a 6-string set specifically for down-tuning, you could definitely order a heavy set of 5 strings from DR Strings (.055-.135) and a single string replacement for the high C or simply use the one you have.
Now for tuning to E Standard like a guitar, internet wisdom suggests a set of 4-string bass strings (around .050 – .105) for the top four strings and singles such as .040 and .032 for the 2nd and 1st strings, respectively.
If you want to use the All Fifths tuning it gets even weirder. From my research, the recommended gauges are .013, .020, .033, .055, .082, and .124.
I’m sure there’s a little flexibility in the gauges depending on your preferences but that should get you started if you’re crazy enough to try it.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.