I'm arranging a piece where the electric bass plays a low Eb on the recording. I think it's probably unfair to expect a bass player to perform in an alternate tuning just to appease this demand. Should I write the Eb up the octave instead?

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    If you consider it t be a problem (which I don't) then the simple solution is to write the whole thing up a semitone to use E instead. – Tim May 15 at 20:04
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    Consider the possibility that the electric bass in the recording is using an alternate tuning. I've heard of metal music being tuned to Drop C and even Drop Bb, with the bass presumably following suit. – Dekkadeci May 16 at 14:08
  • Context would help. If the overall tonal center is a flat key, tuning down overall might make sense. If it's an isolated note, a temporary de-tuning might make sense. Or you could just avoid it and play an octave up. – wrschneider May 17 at 17:34
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    I don't see the issue with tuning down, it's not a big deal and, as Dekkadeci mentioned, it's commonly done in metal. If you're recording, you're supposed to check the tuning between takes and if you play live, you'll re-tune regularly anyways. Eb is really not a big deal, neither is D. Below you may need thicker strings to maintain tension so it can't be changed on the fly. – Thomas May 17 at 19:22
  • The bass player shouldnt be upset about tuning down a half step, full step would be pushing it without a setup/string gauge change, but half step should be fine – element11 May 17 at 19:28

There's plenty of 5-string basses out there. I'd just write it. You can give a 4-string player a get-out like this. But he'd do it anyway.

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    Agreed - best practice is write the low Eb, and leave it to the player to decide how they want to proceed. – user45266 May 16 at 2:12
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    I agree with the general idea, but the notation seems weird to me. I'd expect it to have only one stem. – trlkly May 16 at 4:19
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    This would work, but I can't see (hear!) any bassist worth his salt jumping up to the high Eb. I'd be tuning the bottom string (on a 4 string) down to Eb, or easier still, drop the odd notes in in an edit. – Tim May 16 at 9:00
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    Context is all. In real life bassists cope with this sort of situation all the time, playing from a hastily transposed cabaret part, from a piano copy, from a arranger who misunderstands which octave to write the bass part in... But yes, if it was for a recording they'd probably take more trouble. – Laurence Payne May 16 at 11:38
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    Truee - if I was playing this live, a quick high Eb would go unnoticed by 99% of listeners - which wouldn't include all of the audience! – Tim May 16 at 19:20

There is a big difference in the sound of the lowest Eb on a 4 string bass and an Eb an octave lower so if that is the sound you want go after it. As a bassist if I know someone wants that note or any note lower than an E I will do one of three things:

If I’m playing 4 string and I need an Eb or a D for a song or two I drop my E string down to a D which can be done manually or by a special E string tuner with a lever that does it on the fly. Playing the low string tuned a step below isn’t much of a stretch for an experienced player and some guys who have the lever are completely comfortable with it.

Another option is to tune the entire bass a half step down and transpose up a half step. This is a little more cumbersome say in a live setting but doable if there is time for the transition or if a bassist brings an extra instrument for that purpose.

The other option already mentioned is of course a 5 (or 6) string bass with a low B string. 5’s have become very common and most pros own at least one and are comfortable playing them. Many times I will even choose to bring a 5 to a gig or recording because I want to have those extra low notes available to me.

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    OP says it's for a recording. What's simpler than drop that one note in when the rest has been finished? I agree that most bassists who record would have a 5 string in their armoury anyhow. – Tim May 16 at 8:57
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    @Tim True, it could be easily edited in but depending on context it might be better to play it as part of the phrase it’s in. – John Belzaguy May 16 at 19:47

I would consider, if the low Eb is really important, one of the following options:

You can simulate the "depth" of a low Eb by playing the higher Eb with the Bb a fifth up from it (i.e. an "Eb power chord") on the bass. My experience is that this is more effective on more mellow bass tones- think "tone knob rolled all the way down", and it still sounds a bit different than a single note. Still, if you want the low Eb to be a dramatic moment, this could work.

You could arrange the piece to be played one half step higher than the original recording, and then the bassist would need to play a low E- which is clearly not a problem.

  • Paul McCartney played 5ths on “And I Love Her” and especially on the C#m chords it does have the a similar sound to a C# an octave lower. – John Belzaguy May 15 at 19:10
  • Could you clarify, do you mean playing Bb fifth above Eb, or fourth below? – user1079505 May 15 at 20:45
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    @user1079505 above. If you add the low B♭ it'll become very muddy (and the high B♭ is actually an overtone of the low E♭ – which is why this works to emulate the low note – while the low B♭ is not). – leftaroundabout May 15 at 22:18
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    @leftaroundabout: If one plays an Eb with the Bb above, the notes will be consecutive overtones of an Eb one octave below the one that's being played. If one plays an Eb with the Bb below, the notes will be consecutive overtones of the Eb two octaves below the one that's being played. – supercat May 17 at 20:56

Consider how important the low Eb is in the arrangement you're doing, and also who is going to play it. If they have a 5-string electric bass with low B string, then a low Eb is no problem. You could mark both Eb's on the score to let the player know they have the option (or perhaps little bit of text to say play down 8ve if possible).

  • Depending on the context, you could also just change the note. For example, an Eb that accompanies an Eb major chord might work as G instead. – Aaron May 15 at 18:37
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    @Aaron I hear this advice a lot from EDM producers (who are constantly annoyed that C1 is too low for their bass, but the C2 is too high.) Still, playing a different chord tone feels very different than playing the root, to me at least, so I would be careful about playing a different chord tone to get the right "depth" of the note. – Edward May 15 at 18:44

I would just tune down a semitone. If need be I'd bring two basses, the second in standard tuning.

  • I guess that's an option for an electric bass. Lugging around 2 acoustic basses might be somewhat impractical... – Darrel Hoffman May 17 at 19:33
  • true @DarrelHoffman however the OP specifically states that he is playing electric. Since you raise the point, I shall address it; I would not object to carrying two acoustic basses as they are lighter than electric basses, and not uncommonly shorter scale, even if a little more physically bulky – bigbadmouse May 18 at 8:05

Laurence Payne's answer is the best one. If you need a low E-flat, write it that way and make the bassist go out an get a 5-string (good excuse for buying a new fiddle anyway) or play it an octave higher accompanied by the fifth above. Changing key will change the tonal character of the piece and it might not always be exactly what you are after. Retuning the bass down a half-step is also a terrible idea (especially for a gigging musician who uses charts) because then you have to carry around another bass or transpose everything else that does not require a low E-flat on the fly.

  • I bought a 6 string (I wanted a 5 string but a friend had a 6 string for sale, so it followed me home one day) for exactly this reason...I kept running into scores with Eb in the bass part. – Duston May 18 at 13:52

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