Joel Quarrington


Please click this image to download Mr. Stephen Bright's thesis, Red Mitchell: Tuning in Fifths and the Walking Bass Line. An excerpt from the abstract and introduction is follows.



In 1966, Red Mitchell began tuning his bass in fifths to meet the demands of film composers who required a low C. Having played in fourths for approximately twenty years, Mitchell required only nine days to adapt to fifths tuning. This thesis examines the changes that fifths tuning had on his walking bass lines through the transcription, analysis and comparison of three blues from each of Mitchell's tuning periods. The analysis will probe changes in pitch, range, intervals and motives. Other chapters include a biography of Mitchell's career and one that discusses why he chose fifths. Included in this section are brief summaries of other bassists who have adopted fifths tuning. The chapter on bass line grammar discusses those elements that were affected when Mitchell changed tunings. The concluding chapter discusses the findings showing that tuning in fifths did have an effect on Red Mitchell's walking bass lines.


Two bassists have left a lasting impression on my playing. Hearing Ray Brown for the first time made me want to play jazz. Classical bassist Joel Quarrington, perhaps the world's leading proponent of tuning the double bass in fifths inspired me to play orchestral music and ultimately to tune my double bass in fifths. In July of 2007, I attended the first of six, double-bass master classes taught each summer by Quarrington in Orford, Quebec. This is where I first heard his reasons for choosing this tuning. He needed the low C2 to meet the demands of orchestral repertoire but ultimately it was the improved intonation between the bass tuned in fifths and the other orchestral instruments that compelled Quarrington to play in fifths.

The first prominent bassist to pioneer tuning in fifths however was Red Mitchell, who began tuning in fifths in 1966. In Cats of Any Color, Mitchell recounts to author Gene Lees how he learned fifths tuning in nine days. That anyone could learn to play an instrument in a different tuning in nine days seemed incredible to me, yet Mitchell did it without affecting his job as principal bassist of the MGM Orchestra.

At that time, I was considering tuning in fifths, and wondered how the new tuning affected Mitchell’s walking lines as well as my own. The purpose of this study is to examine Red Mitchell's bass lines and determine what effect tuning in fifths had on his walking bass lines.

I chose to examine only Mitchell's walking bass lines, not his solo playing. Walking bass lines in jazz are improvised, yet still follow certain predetermined conventions. These conventions provide a more consistent model than solo playing on which my research is based.

The focus of my research is to examine how Mitchell's walking bass lines were affected when he switched to fifths tuning. Transcriptions were made of blues bass lines with the same key of F major and similar tempi from Mitchell’s fourths period and from his fifths period. The blues is also well represented in Mitchell's recorded repertoire throughout his entire career. The analysis will look for changes in melodic and harmonic intervals, pitch, open strings, range, and use of motives that can be attributed to playing in fifths.

In April 2011, I changed the tuning of my bass to fifths. My intention was not to duplicate Mitchell's process but to understand it and use it in my research. The relearning of the note positions on the fingerboard and reading music presented the greatest challenges.

Applying this new tuning to my research, I played through the three transcriptions in fifths tuning, then tuned the bass to fourths and played through the three transcriptions in fourths tuning. The purpose of this exercise was to make note of fingerings, left-hand positions, and use of open strings in both tunings.

I extrapolated and notated Mitchell's left hand positions by using photographs and film footage of his playing as a model as well as from my own experience as a bassist. My research found no film footage of Mitchell playing in fourths tuning therefore my notation of his left hand positions is based on photographs of Mitchell playing and from the bass pedagogy method books he referenced in his interview with Tricia McGarvin.

The double bass is a transposing instrument, meaning that the instrument sounds an octave lower than written. The notation of examples and transcriptions throughout my analysis will show the bass lines as written in the bass clef and where Mitchell's lines go into the upper registers of the bass I have used the treble clef.

The notation of positions was borrowed from the concept presented in Dennis Masuzzo's book, Playing the Double Bass Tuned in Fifths CGDA. This concept uses tablature as a visual reference where positions are comparable to frets on a bass guitar. These findings were used to produce a chart that gives a visual representation of each performance.

The evidence shows consistencies and trends in the three blues in fifths tuning that do not appear in fourths tunings. This is due to the increase in the range of notes that fall under the left-hand in a single position. The rearrangement of notes and the new positions required to access them made Mitchell adopt new shifting strategies resulting in lines that encompassed more of the upper range of the bass fingerboard. This in turn expanded Mitchell's use of open strings to facilitate these shifts.

In addition to the analysis of Mitchell's work, I have included a biographical sketch of Mitchell's life that details specific events that impacted his musical development relevant to this thesis. The chapter entitled Reasons for Tuning in Fifths is an examination of the events that led to his decision to retune the bass.

The chapter also relates the experiences of other jazz and classical bassists who also tune in fifths. I have included a chapter called Bass Line Grammar that discusses the conventions used by jazz bassists in the creation of a walking line. This is intended to give the reader an understanding of what would be considered in the analysis of Mitchell's bass lines that could be affected by the change in tuning systems.

Most of the literature I found on Mitchell is biographical in nature, with an emphasis on his expatriation to Sweden. Several authors have written about Mitchell's melodic, horn-style soloing. John Goldsby, David Hunt, and William H. Grimes have contributed articles on Mitchell's playing, providing transcriptions and analyses of his unique style. Dr. Chris Budhan and Diane Mitchell have developed the website,, featuring recorded interviews with Mitchell, a comprehensive discography and transcriptions of Mitchell's solos by Budhan.

Although the majority of literature written about Mitchell is concerned with his soloing, the research presented here is the first to explore not only Mitchell's bass lines but also the subject of tuning the double bass in fifths and its effect on walking bass lines. It is hoped that the reader will gain an insight into Mitchell's remarkable ability as an accompanist and through his original, innovative approach to playing the double bass.

Images by Fred Cattroll