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Technology, Constraints, and why I love my Scordatura

Another excerpt from my upcoming book tentatively titled “How Do I Bass?”

Music is all about constraints. You can’t avoid them, so you might as well be aware of them and learn to work with them. Unless you’re Harry Partch or you have an “Ustad” before your name, you’re probably working with the standard 12 tones. But even if you’re dealing with more, you’re still constrained by them. Each instrument has a range of pitches and textures it can reproduce, which you have to keep in mind when playing or writing for it. Even the most bizarre free jazz relies on interplay between the musicians, which means everyone is to some extent constrained by what everyone else plays, even if the connections are not immediately obvious. You could write a thick book about all the different dimensions of musical constraints and how they interact, but you get the idea. Every development in music technology, from the ascendancy of the piano to the development of synthesis, is exciting to musicians and composers because it represents the relaxing of constraints. The constraints of the bass guitar expanded back in the ’70s, when fancy luthiers started adding a low B string under the standard E, A, D and G. It was a popular innovation, and these days you can spend anywhere from under $200 to over $10,000 on a 5-string bass. Once a novelty, the 5-string bass is now just another type of bass. In fact, the number of strings you can get on a single instrument is limited only by your budget and hubris.

But are fewer constraints always better? You can tell from how I frame the question that I think not. When I joined Ava Luna, I quickly realized it would be better to have access to some pitches below the standard bass guitar register. The band had not previously had a bass, so all the low parts were handled by a synthesizer. I had to double important notes in the synth parts, and it just wasn’t that effective when I was an octave higher. I knew some sort of scordatura would be necessary. I thought about tuning down my E, but there were a few issues. Once you go below D the string gets noticeably looser in a way I didn’t like. There were intonation issues if I went high up on the neck, which the parts often required. And even after over a decade of training in music theory, I still think of the fretboard in mostly visual terms. Tuning down just one string would mess up all my familiar scale and chord shapes.

A 5-string bass would have solved all of these problems, but I didn’t like the idea. If I needed the low B, what did I need the high G for? Think about it: if your strings are tuned in 4ths, every string only has 5 semitones that the one above or below it doesn’t have. So by sacrificing the G, I was really only losing the 5 semitones at the very top, and I knew I would mostly be playing low. I have a tendency to overplay if I’m not watching myself, so I liked the idea of limiting my noodling range. This constraint allowed me to concentrate more on the simple, supportive parts the music required. And I already had a 4-string I liked very much, so fixing it up was cheaper and more convenient than buying a new one. I was fortunate to know a world-class luthier who did the conversion.

The more I played with it, the more I grew to love it. If you’ve read my post about the irreducibility of the fretboard, you might remember my assertion that every instance of a particular pitch on the bass is unique. So by adding the low string, I didn’t just gain an additional 4th of range where I wanted it (and lose one where I didn’t want it). I also gained the ability to play all the low notes on the E string in a different position, and with a different timbre. I also like the way the 4-string bass messes with the audience’s expectations. If you see a 5-string, you expect me to go low. If you see a 4-string pumping out low Bs and Cs, you might just think I’m so fucking spectacular that I am actually producing lower pitches than are normally possible through sheer skillz.

The drawback to setting up your instrument for an alternate tuning is if something goes wrong onstage, you’re screwed. I am fortunate to have only had this happen to me once, at Shea Stadium. We were just about to play, and I was tuning, when my A string went all floppy. I was prepared for breakage, I had an extra set on hand, but the string wasn’t broken– the tuning peg was. It just came completely unmoored and could no longer tighten the string. The gear inside it had worn down and the teeth were no longer catching. I was mentally calculating how it would be possible to play an entire set missing a string right in the middle of my range, when I had an idea. Earlier in the night this afrobeat band had played, and the bass player and I had chatted about bass stuff after their set. He had a 5-string. With minutes to spare, I went out into the audience to find him, and asked if I could use his bass. This is kind of an imposition, and I wasn’t sure he’d say yes, but he seemed like a nice guy and I was desperate. I explained the situation, and he gladly agreed to lend me his bass. The extra string was a little confusing, and his action was way lower than I was used to, but I could hit all the notes I needed to and I got through the set. Had he not been there, I would have played the set on my bottom two strings to the best of my ability, or borrowed a normal bass and transposed my parts on the fly.  It wouldn’t have been ideal, but I could have done it.

We were leaving for a monthlong tour the next day, so I didn’t have time to take my bass to the shop. I needed to buy and install a new peg myself. This was when I learned that Ibanez tuning pegs are not exactly the same size as any other ones, and have to be ordered directly from the manufacturer. There was no time for this, so the only way I could get the part in time was to buy a bass from the same manufacturer and take one off of that. I found the cheapest Ibanez that had the same tuners, a shortscale monstrosity that somehow weighed about 20 pounds despite its small size. I took it home, took the tuner off, and went on tour. While away, I ordered a new set of tuners, and when I returned I installed them and reassembled the bass I had bought.

The plan was to actually go back and return it, since I hadn’t used it at all and it really was good as new. That would have been pretty cool if it had worked out, but I missed the return window by one day and had to sell it on Craigslist instead. I now have two 4-string basses set up for low B tuning: a primary, and a backup. And I carry an extra set of tuning pegs.

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