Meditations on Bach #6: Five Strings?

by Peter Saint-Andre


Although the first five of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello lie quite naturally on the bass (when tuned in fifths, that is!), the sixth suite in D major (BWV 1012) is a slightly different story because it was originally written for an instrument with an added string above the usual four. The exact identity of this instrument remains a mystery - some think it was written for a viola pomposa or viola de spalla, others for a violoncello piccolo (not that any of those instruments are well-understood). Whatever the truth of the matter, playing music written for a five-string instrument on a four-string instrument introduces new challenges: in particular, it requires intricate playing high up on the fingerboard. Modern cellists try to overcome this challenge through heavy use of thumb position, an innovation that post-dates Bach's lifetime; however, that doesn't make the task much easier. While working on the prelude to the sixth suite, I've realized that playing it on a five-string electric bass would make a lot of sense. Ideally such a bass would be tuned in fifths with a high E string, C-G-D-A-E. This seems achievable by using strings for a six-string bass and discarding one of the strings; for example, La Bella makes a six-string set normally tuned B-E-A-D-G-C and I would tune B up to C, discard the E string, tune A down a step to G, keep D as-is, tune G up a step to A, and tune C up two steps to E. After conferring with Marek Dąbek of Stradi Basses on whether the high E string will work, I'm happy to report that we're transforming the "Mocha 4" into a "Mocha 5".


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