I am sure you have seen them. Bass guitars that have five strings instead of four. You can even get bass guitars with six strings for bass players who don’t find that five is even enough.
Listing the Differences Between 4 & 5 String Bass Explained can be an interesting exercise. Especially if you find those differences confusing. I am going to take a look at them, but first, let’s talk a little about this low-frequency machine.
The Very First
The first electric bass guitar to be developed was the Audiovox 736 in 1936. It was designed to be played horizontally, so it wasn’t an instrument that could ever really be considered practical.
That was especially highlighted when you consider what was coming musically. You might be able to play steel guitar on your lap, but bass guitar – not really.
The First “Real” Bass guitar
If we are talking about a fully-functioning ‘low-frequency machine,’ then that was given to us by Leo Fender. With George Fullerton, he gave us the “Precision Bass” in 1951.
It could be played standing up. It had little or no feedback, and you could play it as loud as your poor little speakers could handle. Bass guitar amps and speakers came later. They arrived when it was apparent the standard amp and particularly its speaker couldn’t handle this ferocious beast.
The Fender Precision
It broke down barriers and created a whole industry with it. It was unique. And if you have a 61-63 Fender Precision today, then you have the best bass guitar the world has ever seen. Or ever will see.
Not the case now with what Fender produces, of course, but that’s another story. The Jazz bass followed and commenced the Fender domination of the bass guitar market.
They had four strings
Yes, they did, though today, you can get five-string versions for both. The standard tuning was E – A – D, and B. Although, Fender was just about to embark on an identity crisis. It was 1965, and the CBS sale was on the horizon.
Someone had a rush of blood to the head and gave us the 5-string bass. That may have been CBS-prompted. Judging by their general mismanagement over the next 20 years, it probably was. The Fender Bass V tuned up to E – A – D – G, and C. It flopped and was ditched in 1970.
A five-string bass with a “low B,” the most common variant today, was inspired by Jimmy Johnson. It was a custom-made instrument made for him in collaboration with Alembic.
It has arrived now, and today it is a fixture in the world of the bass guitar, for better or worse. So let’s take a look at the differences and see if it is for better or worse? Why do some people like them? And to put it bluntly, why do some people ‘pretend to like them’?.
Will it suit you? Let’s find out.
The Big Reason
One of the most often quoted reasons why players like the 5-string bass is that it gives the option of playing lower notes. It also offers more scales, arpeggios, etc. The trade-off for that is the width of the fretboard, by necessity, is much wider.
For some, this makes playing a little more difficult. We will return to that. Of course, the differences claimed for the 5-string go a lot deeper than being able to play lower notes. But let’s start there in this attempt to get the differences between 4 & 5 string bass explained.
We have already touched on the tuning of the 4-string bass. In its standard format, the 4-string is tuned to E, A, D, and B. The 5-string has an added low B string. Therefore, the 5-string bass guitar tuning is B, E, A, D, and B. The extra string will therefore give you an extra five notes, B, C, C#, D, D# to the E.
A Bigger Range
5-string players like to emphasize the added range that this extra string gives them. With a larger range, it means you can play more notes, especially in the low keys.
They claim that it will give them extra scales and allow more chords for you to play. A “playground for creativity,” as I heard it described.
A counter viewpoint
You don’t get any more “notes.” You already have the B, C, C#, D, D# on your fingerboard. Low down on the ‘A’ string and in other places. What the 5-string gives you are just lower versions of what you have already.
Do you really need that? Or is it just window dressing? I can see that a low note on occasions might be useful. But does its usefulness warrant a change of instrument?
This added string doesn’t actually give you extra scales per se. It just places some lower ones at your disposal. The scale is the same, even if it is a few notes down. There isn’t a scale on the 5th string version that can’t be played on the 4-string bass. It is just in a different position on the fingerboard.
And as for playing chords. How often do you play them? This is an instrument that is part of the rhythm section. Chords can be played, of course, but that is not the main purpose of the instrument. There are enough chords that can be produced on a 4-string if you happen to need them. Moving on.
The 5-string is More Versatile?
Not exactly sure how for most people. Yes, you can play lower ranges; we have just discussed that. Using the example of metal bands. Some like to play using a B tuning. That is fine. Then maybe there is a reason in there somewhere for a 5-string with a low B.
But other metal bands like to go down to ‘A.’ What are you going to do? Tune down? Or maybe create another bass guitar with a ‘Low B’ and an even ‘lower A’ underneath it. That will make the scales interesting to play, won’t it?
The versatility angle doesn’t wash. It is an argument created because there aren’t many others. Yes, there is a case for bass players in metal bands who may want to tune to B. But apart from that and the occasional deeper note in other genres, that is about it.
Is a 5-string Bass More Efficient?
Playing the bass guitar efficiently is something most bass players have to work on. It translates into control and ease of movement. This, when coupled with a good stretch and strong fingers, turns into precise notes. But precise notes that are produced with minimum effort.
These notes are not only produced by the left hand (for a right-handed player) but also in coordination with the right plucking hand. If the coordination is wrong, it doesn’t work. Finger positioning is also important.
Bass players who have a very technical style will be able to play great licks with consummate ease. They do this by using the correct finger patterns along with the other requirements I just mentioned. When you need the differences between 4 & 5 string bass explained, this is at the top of the list.
So, is a 5-string bass easier to play?
In some circumstances, you could say it is. When playing away on a 4-string, you may have to end the run on a deep F or G note. That means getting back to the E string on the 1st to 3rd fret.
You may well have to cover a lot of fingerboard distance, especially if you were playing up around the 6th or 7th fret at the time. If the song has a fast tempo, you’d better be quick.
Using a 5-string, you can just drop down to that “low B.” There, you will find the note without having to move your hand hardly at all. That certainly is what might be called “easier” playing.
A Counter Viewpoint
The only counterargument to the validity of this point is the sound. And by that, I mean the sound of the note produced on that Low B. There is a point to be made for the efficiency and ease of playing here, but the sound produced could be too warm and thick.
It certainly isn’t going to cut through. As an example, the ‘F’ that is played on the E string, first fret, will still have a little sharpness to it. An ‘F’ that is played on the 6th fret of the Low B string almost certainly will not.
The ‘Low B’ has just got a lower frequency. That is the point, isn’t it? But it doesn’t always work in your favor. If you don’t mind what is likely to be more of a throb than a note, then it will be fine. If you are looking for a clear, sharp finish, you might struggle using the Low B.
Not a Positive picture
I make no apologies for not painting a more positive picture for a 5-string bass. Having that lower note can be an asset occasionally. But only occasionally. It certainly isn’t something most bass players would use that often. In fact, some may never use it at all.
So, why should you get a 5-string bass guitar? In my view, there is only one reason for having a 5-string bass. It is those few extra notes and the depth they give you.
Bass Playing is Art
It is an art form all on its own. It needs to help produce the rhythm, but it can add harmony and undertones. It wasn’t built as a solo instrument. Part of the reason some people buy the 5-string is so they can solo. I would make two comments about that.
Firstly if you are going to solo on a 5-string, you’d better be good. Most I have heard aren’t. Secondly, if you are intent on changing the bass from a rhythm instrument to a solo instrument, you are probably playing the wrong instrument.
The job of the bass is to join all the instruments together. It sits under them, holding them all together like glue. But at the same time keeping the tempo and working with the drummer.
I am not sure where arpeggios or new and extra chords fit into that job description. An occasional chord or arpeggio is fine. But you don’t need a 5-string for that. A four-string will do the job.
Understand the Role of the Bass
Part of being a good musician is understanding your instrument and the role it plays. Then you hear some of the arguments for using the 5-string. Some just don’t seem to be understanding the instrument or its job. Take away the guitar player, and a lot of people wouldn’t notice. Take away the bass player, and you have a train crash.
Specialists on the 5-string
There are plenty. And some very good musicians as well. I am not sure many bands would like to have them as part of their rhythm section, though. They are soloists rather than “bass players.”
Mohini Dey is exceptional, but then she is almost unique. I am presuming you can’t play like her. A four-string wouldn’t work for her as a 5, and even the 6-string bass does. Victor Wootten is one of my favorites. But the best bass solo I ever heard him play was on four strings, not five. And it wasn’t one of the “look at me can’t I play quick” demands.
It was actually quite slow. Had plenty of harmonics and slides, a few subtle chords, and was just beautiful to hear. He kept his tempo tight, and the rhythm stayed the same. A master at work. On a 4-string.
A fashion item for some
I tend to think that some people, not all I hasten to add, buy it to stand out rather than for what it gives them. I already referred to it as window dressing. Unfortunately, there are quite a few musicians like that. And not just on the bass.
The Most Important Thing
I have left this to the very end because to me; it was always the most important problem with the 5-string. With the extra string comes extra width on the fingerboard. We have already mentioned that earlier. But it is a big problem for some.
We aren’t all built like The Incredible Hulk. The extra girth required to play a 5-string bass changes just about everything for the smaller-handed player. For a good number of people, it is going to be a problem.
And a problem that is going to affect your technique. It is going to make the bass inefficient rather than efficient for those people.
For Me Personally
Everything I want to do on a bass guitar I can do on a 4-string. Yes, I have played a five-string. Admittedly not for a few years now. It was a Fender Jazz. I tried my best with it, but the neck felt like a baseball bat.
On my 4-string Precision, I can play my chords when they are needed, and the bottom end is enough for what is required. But above all, they feel comfortable. That makes them efficient.
If you are considering your next bass, here are some options for 4 and 5-string bass guitars. One of the most underrated bass guitars out there for the money is the Squier by Fender Classic Vibe 60’s Precision Bass. If you want to spend big money, there is the Fender American Professional II Precision Bass. Or, the 5-string Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass V.
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The Differences Between 4 & 5 String Bass Explained – Final Thoughts
The differences between 4 and 5-string bass guitars are there, and for some, they might be important. But for me, the five-string does not make the bass a better instrument. And that is what it should be all about.
Until next time, let your music play.