Bassists are arguably the most underrated musicians in a band. People with a good understanding of music know that bassists provide the rhythms and grooves that hold up most tracks. However, few people understand the different types of bass guitars and their uses.
If you are interested in picking up the bass guitar, you may be wondering which kind to get. The question of “4 string vs 5 string bass?” has plagued aspiring bassists for many decades. Today we will break down each bass type and help you determine which is right for you.
The Main Difference Between the 4 String and 5 String Bass
If you have ever ventured into the bass guitar section at the music store, you may have marveled at the different types of bass guitars on-display. The store likely stocks Fender’s signature Jazz basses which are known for their stratocaster-like shape and punchy defined bass sound. They may also sell Rickenbacker’s iconic 4003 bass, known for its crested wave body shape and aggressive treble-rich sound.
If you take a closer look at the aforementioned bass guitars, you may notice that both types possess four strings each. Indeed, the four-string design is standard on most bass guitars. This is because these four strings provide a wide range of notes which are sufficient for playing most songs.
Spend a bit more time browsing the bass guitar section at the store, you may start to notice bass guitars with more strings. Five string, six string, or even seven string bass guitars are often stocked alongside their four string counterparts at music stores. However, the five string design is usually the most popular variety after the standard four string design.
As you may have guessed, the additional string is what differentiates this bass from a regular four string one. However, this single string can mean a world of a difference for some bassists. Let’s examine these two basses more closely and which areas each one excels in.
What Does the Extra String on a Five String Bass Do?
You may be inclined to believe that the fifth string on the bass guitar is always at the bottom, making it the thinnest one on the instrument. However, many five string bass guitars feature a fifth string that is at the top, making it thickest string on the instrument.
If the standard four string bass is tuned to E-A-D-G, the five string bass with the thin bottom fifth string will be tuned to E-A-D-G-C. If the five string bass has a thick top fifth string, its tuning will likely be B-E-A-D-G. Bassists should understand the differences between these two tunings before deciding which type of five string bass to purchase.
In either case, the added fifth string expands the range of notes that the bassist can play. For example, owning a five string bass with a bottom fifth string allows you to hit higher notes and without having to move to the higher frets on the G string.
Conversely, owning a five string bass with a lower fifth string allows bassists to play notes lower than E. This allows them to hit some truly deep notes that enter into sub-bass territory. Such a fifth string arrangement saves bassists from having to tune down their strings to lower pitches manually.
Should a Beginner Learn on a Four String Bass or a Five String Bass?
If you intend to start learning the bass guitar, you may be wondering if it is worth investing in a five string bass. After all, why not start with a five string bass if you intend to upgrade to one in the future? This logic may seem sound at first. However, you should note that learning to play on a five string bass may be more challenging than learning on a four string one.
So why might this be the case? The five string bass typically has a wider neck than a four string bass. This added width is needed to accommodate the fifth string. Having such a wide neck may make it difficult for bassists with small hands to grip their instrument and press down on the frets properly.
In addition to this, the added note range from the fifth string may make it difficult for new bassist to navigate and find the right note to play. This can be especially confusing when they are attempting to play a song while looking at bass tabs made for a four string bass.
If you plan to get a five string bass with a low-B string, you will also need to learn to mute this string when you are not playing it. Failing to mute this string while playing will cause it to produce a rumbling drone, which can make your instrument sound muddy during performances. New bassists may struggle to keep up with this palm muting action as they learn the basics of their instrument, so they should hold off purchasing a five string bass until they are more comfortable with palm muting.
Where Does a Five String Bass Truly Shine?
If you’re a novice bassist that has spent many months or years understanding playing techniques, it may be worth upgrading to a five string bass at some point. As mentioned earlier, having a five string bass with a thick top fifth string allows you to hit notes on that low-B. Such notes may seem like unexplored territory, but they can provide some pleasing sub-bass frequencies that you would otherwise need an octave pedal or an alternate tuning to hit.
Songs that Use a Five String Bass
The five string bass may seem like an oddity if you are new to the bass guitar world. However, many famous songs have been recorded using a five string bass. This includes:
- Riding with the King – B.B. King and Eric Clapton
- It’s too Funky in Here – James Brown
- Fight for your mind – Ben Harper
- Red Rain – Peter Gabriel
- New State Of Mind – Yes
Consider picking up a five string bass if you want to learn to play the aforementioned songs, or if you would like to compose songs that utilize a similar note range.
Is a Five String Bass More Expensive Than a Four String Bass?
Price considerations should always be kept in mind when you are purchasing a new instrument. This is especially true if you are on a limited budget. You may be wondering if a five string bass is more expensive than a four string one.
In most cases, a five string bass will be more expensive than its four string counterpart. This is due to the extra wood needed for the wider neck as well as the cost of the additional string. Five string basses are also made in more limited quantities compared to four string basses. This makes them more expensive to produce due to economies of scale.
You should also note that your choice of basses will also be far more limited if you are looking at five string basses. Most large music stores will have a handful of five string bass models in stock. This is in contrast to the dozens of four string bass models that they likely sell.
As you can see, four string and five string basses differ in quite a few ways. Five string basses certainly do serve an important purpose for certain types of players and songs. However, you should definitely review the above guide before setting out to purchase your first bass.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.