Finding middle C on the bass guitar is not difficult, but it can confusing for a couple of reasons.
First, the bass has such a deep range, that middle C is rarely played on the instrument. Second, there is a difference between how sheet music is written for the bass, and how it actually sounds.
Therefore, I decided to write this guide to clear up any confusion you might have about where to find middle C on the bass guitar.
After reading, you will both know where to find it and play middle C. You`ll also learn why it can cause some confusion, and why it is important to know where it is. This way, you will never have to question where middle C actually is on the fretboard and why it’s useful.
Where is middle C on the bass guitar?
On a bass guitar tuned to E standard, Middle C is located at the 17th fret of the G string and the 22nd fret of the D string. On 6-string basses, middle C can also be played at the 12th fret of the high C string.
The bass guitar has a low-frequency range. Thus, while middle C is more accessible to most string instruments, there are only two ways to play the note on the bass guitar.
This also holds true for 5-string basses with a low B string, as it has the same high reach as a 4-string bass.
6-string basses are generally tuned B-E-A-D-G-C. This means middle C can be played in 3 different ways on it:
These are the only place you can play middle C on 4, 5, and 6-string basses in standard tuning.
If you tune your bass down, you will have to reach even higher on the fretboard to play middle C. Depending on how low you tune the bass, you might only be able to play it in one spot.
For example, if you tune down to A standard, you can only reach middle C on your highest string if you have 24 frets. With fewer frets or an even deeper tuning, you simply won`t be able to play middle C at all.
E standard is however the go-to tuning in most genres of music. Thus, as long as you have 22 or more frets on your bass, you will generally have two ways of playing the note.
Some common bass guitar models, such as the Fender Jazz and Precision bass, tend to have 20 frets. On these instruments, middle C can only be played on the 17th fret of the G string.
Is middle C C3 or C4?
Middle C has a frequency of 256hz and is thus always a C4. It is often confused for a C3, as some instruments such as the bass guitar are transposing instruments. This means that a note written as C4 in sheet music is in actuality a C3.
The reason it`s called middle C is that it is located in the middle of the grand staff. This is the staff that combines the treble and bass clef in sheet music and is commonly used among pianists and classical musicians.
Yet, middle C is not written in the middle of the grand staff in bass guitar sheet music. When comparing the piano and the bass, middle C is in fact written an octave higher for the bass:
The reason for this is that the bass is a transposing instrument. This means that in sheet music, basslines are written an octave higher than they actually sound.
Because of this, a note written as a middle C in sheet music, will not actually be a middle C when played on a bass guitar. Rather, the note in the middle of the grand staff is a C3:
Therefore, bassists who read sheet music need to account for this. A note that looks like a middle C will sound out an octave lower and be a C3. A C that appears to be an octave higher than middle C, is in fact a middle C.
Why is middle C important?
Middle C is important to serve as a reference point in sheet music and when collaborating with other musicians. Using middle C to navigate notation is thus done for the sake of coherency and efficiency.
You don`t need to know where middle C is to learn the bass. It is also not a necessity for playing in a band. In the vast majority of bands I`ve played in, middle C was never even mentioned.
Middle C is however incredibly helpful for reading sheet music as a bass player. It`s helpful to have a reference point when reading music, especially when you’re just starting out.
Note: For this purpose, it`s common to use C3 as a reference point. This is because It is easier to navigate sheet music using the note in the middle of the grand staff. This holds especially true when composing or learning songs on your own.
When I first took lessons and started reading music, middle C became an important reference point for me. It helped me stay on track when reading and made the whole learning process easier. Years later I still find myself using middle C as a reference point, and I don`t think that’s ever going to change.
Thus, how relevant middle C will be for you as a bass player depends on what type of musical journey you are on.
Your typical garage band won`t care for it, and it`s less common to see bass lines in C, than in E and A in genres like rock for this reason.
However, if you are looking to teach, be a session musician, or read and write sheet music, middle C is an incredibly helpful tool.
Unless you switch tuning, you can always find middle C at the 22nd fret of the D string and the 17th fret of the G string.
Because the bass is a transposing instrument, this can cause some initial confusion when reading sheet music. However, all you need to know is that the bass is written an octave higher than it actually sounds. This means that middle C is written as a C5, and C3 is written as a middle C.
You can still use the C at the middle of the grand staff as a reference point when reading sheet music. As a navigational tool, it makes no difference that this in reality is a C3.
Knowing where middle C is a helpful tool for a multitude of purposes, all relating to reading and writing music. It is not something you need to know to play the bass, but it is very beneficial for teaching and composing, as well as session musician work.
Knowing where middle C is is helpful when taking bass lessons. This is because it is common to use sheet music when learning new music with the help of a tutor. To find out more about whether taking lessons is right for you, check out my guide on whether bass lessons are worth it.