Meditations on Bach #3: Instrumental Challenges

by Peter Saint-Andre


As mentioned last time, there are instrumental challenges involved with tuning an electric bass in fifths, as I plan to do in order to learn the Bach Cello Suites. Classical double bassists often solve the problem of the low C by installing a special extension. On electric bass, you can tune the E string down to C but that results in a low-tension string on the bottom and therefore a flabby tone. You could also play a 5-string bass (for which the lowest string sounds a B), I suppose, but to me that defeats the purpose and I have a strong preference for 4-string basses. You could swap out the low E string for the same low B string that 5-string bassists use, but then the action (distance between string and fingerboard) isn't quite right. A further challenge for me is that the Minotaur bass I currently play (made by luthier Joe Veillette of Woodstock, NY) is a short-scale bass, and I haven't found anyone who makes that low B string in a short-scale version (I prefer D'Addario tapewound strings on the Minotaur).

The most likely solution is to buy another bass for this project. The requirements are: fretless, four strings, two-octave range on the fourth string, long scale, a slightly modified nut so that I can use a tapewound low B string on the bottom instead of a low E string, and of course a natural, woody sound somewhere between a classical double bass and a rock electric bass. Although buying a Paris bass from Joe Veillette seems likely, further research is underway. In the meantime I have my Minotaur tuned in fifths - even though the tone isn't quite right, it's good enough for practice purposes and I'm happy so far with my progress on a few Bach movements (primarily the Prelude to the Sixth Suite in D major).


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