Playing the Double Bass Tuned in Fifths: C-G-D-A
Review by Joel Quarrington
In 1987, when I began experimenting with tuning a bass in fifths (CGDA, an octave lower than a cello) I had no idea where it might lead me. I didn’t know of anyone else who played that way and wasn’t even aware of the long history of that tuning. At the time I owned many basses so it was easy to give one over to this new tuning, and so I would practice Bach’s Cello Suites and different orchestral excerpts in fifths just for fun. I wasn’t thinking that I was “switching to fifths,” but rather just trying to learn another skill.
Frankly my reading skills in fifths stunk and I knew I couldn’t evaluate fifths tuning properly until I was fluent in reading music for it. But I was convinced that it could take my intonation to a much higher level, at least when I played in ensembles, because even my very first attempt at playing in my chamber orchestra with my fifths-tuned bass, opened a portal into a world of intonation that up until then I had been excluded from. For the first time I felt literally “in tune,” not only with the cellos but the entire ensemble. Even violas! The wonderfully clear ring of my bass was noticed by everyone and they were very appreciative for the great and useful sound I was providing for them. I could hear myself playing in the group perfectly well and it was not because the sound was brighter. It was open, focused and rounder.
Tuned in fifths, my instrument sounded and felt the way I had always wished it would! With such an exciting and dynamic new instrument in my hands, I found it impossible to turn my back on it, even though some part of me realized that this was probably going to be about the same as announcing I had been abducted by aliens!) In the years since then, I have heard from players from all around the world who have lived exactly the same experience and feelings as I had. Playing in fifths ignites a passion and enthusiasm for the bass that is so powerful that many have said they would prefer to stop playing rather than be playing in fourths.
This same passion has given the bass world a true labor of love in the form of an excellent book by Dennis Masuzzo, “Playing the Double Bass Tuned in Fifths: C-G-D-A”. Dennis is a graduate of the Juilliard School and has freelanced in the New York metropolitan area for many years, playing in all manner of different genres of music from Boulez and studio recordings to jazz and theatre work. For the last ten years or so, he has used fifths tuning and his devotion to fifths led him to create this book, which aims to introduce bassists of all levels, as well as electric players, to fifths tuning. It presupposes some reading ability, but even someone who plays by ear should be able to benefit from his work.
After a warm and informative introduction, Dennis shows through scales and arpeggios the basic means of fingering in fifths tuning. He does this in a most thoughtful way that clearly shows the inherent beauty in the “geometry” of fifths. He wisely chooses to illustrate patterns using only “rhythmic fingering,” or what I call “binary” fingering. No more than a whole tone is ever encompassed in the hand and you shift on a strong beat. This basic style of fingering makes it possible for anyone trained in the so-called “Simandl” style to use and appreciate this book. Playing in fifths might involve slightly more shifting than fourths depending on the key, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that “cello fingerings” have to be used. He systematically arrives at the universal fingerings that can be used to play in all keys and all positions.
“Playing the Double Bass Tuned in Fifths: C-G-D-A” is around fifty pages in length and the last ten pages are given over to musical examples; several orchestral excerpts are presented as well as the Menuetto and Gigue from the 1st Bach Cello Suite. As well, there is some useful advice about actually setting up the instrument, with information about different string choices. If only I had had Dennis’s book when I was starting out!
Every aspect of his book reflects Dennis’s love for this subject. Even the physical quality of the book is wonderful with its high-grade paper and clear typesetting that is large and easy to see, making the message itself most accessible and true. In what is probably a sensible point of view, Dennis Masuzzo advocates teaching young people in fourths before any study in fifths. He did not intend to write a comprehensive method book, but rather an introduction for all bassists (and other string players) that have any curiosity at all about fifths tuning. I am grateful that Dennis has generously shared his experience, enthusiasm and expertise through his book and I feel our double bass community is all the richer for it.
– Review by Joel QuarringtonReprinted with Premission of Bass World Magazine.