While most bassists play a 4-string solid body bass like a ‘P’ or ‘J’-style bass, you can get basses that push it further with 6,7, or even more strings. This might seem like overkill, but in any case, there will come a time in the life of a 4-string bassist when they ask themselves: “Do I need more? Is my 4-string the bass of my dreams or am I secretly yearning for a 5-string?”
Maybe You Want to Cut Mustard Like Abraham Laboriel
Before you push the button and make the switch, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few more questions. As soon as you know the answers to these simple questions, it’ll be pretty obvious where your heart truly lies.
1. What kind of music do you play?
2. Who are your bass heroes that play the same kind of music?
3. Which of these legends has the best, fattest sound?
4. What bass do they play?
5. How many strings does it have?
If you’re a beginner, then getting the same kind of bass as your hero is the best thing to do since it sets you up with an inspiring learning tool that you’ll always want to pick up. If you’re more advanced in your bass-based education, and you don’t yet have the same bass as you hero, then you’ve probably already broken out in a sweat: the first symptom of what’s known as GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) … and there’s only one cure.
Fieldy (Korn) Fieldy © pitpony.photography / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Maybe 4 is Already Enough
It’s likely that all of the basslines of your favourite albums and tracks have been played with a 4-string bass, in the standard EADG tuning. Even if you play music where you’re constantly using lower tunings, an extra string is not exactly essential since you can just use a set of strings with a higher gauge so you can comfortably tune down to D-standard (DGFA). Also, if you weren’t born with freakishly large hands, then spending some time seeing how comfortably a standard 4-string bass suits your fret hand is probably a good idea. If it feels like just enough, then your body has already made the decision for you, and a 4-string bass is it.
4 Strings? Always a Good Idea!
Even if you do go for an extra string, it’s always good to have a 4-string in your arsenal. If it’s not the bass you’re going to be playing regularly, then it’s best to go for a ‘universal’ model, which narrows it down to maybe three possible models: the Music Man Stingray, the Jazz Bass, and the Precision Bass from Fender or something that looks a lot like one of these three models. The only question you need to ask when picking one out is: which one do you think sounds best? It’s also never a terrible idea to actually try each of them out before making your final decision.
Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) © Nationaal Archief
Could the Neck be a Little Smaller and/or Thinner?
Do you want to play a 5-string bass, but the neck feels way too wide and thick? Then be careful with yourself. No one wants you to develop RSI just because the bass you’re playing isn’t a good fit for your body. And while it’s painful, it might actually make sure that you’re never able to play the bass again. Not to worry though – since modern basses like the 5-string Soundgear models from Ibanez have a smart design that’s likely to feel much more comfortable. If this kind of solid-body bass is not really your thing, maybe have a chat with your local bass and guitar builder. They might even be able to do a 5-string conversion, or build you your own custom bass. Of course, all of this will cost money, so your budget might dictate what’s possible.
Are You Really Going to Use That Fifth String?
A lot of bassists will tell you that Jaco Pastorius could have done it with 4 strings. But in the end, it’s whether you feel like you can work with a 5-string model and if you think you’ll actually use that fifth string. If your bass idol often plays a 5-string and you’re worried that your 4-string is one string short, then getting a 5-string is an obvious choice. If you’re in danger of just using the fifth string as a thumb-rest, then it’s not likely to add to much to your playing experience and 4-strings is just enough.
Don’t Say No to a Low-B Too Quickly!
Most 5-string basses have an extra-thick string and are tuned to a standard BEADG tuning. If your hands feel comfortable when wrapped around a wider neck, and you often find that you’re missing a low D or C note when playing your 4-string, then there’s a big chance that you were born to play a 5-string bass. You might be more than content with your 4-string, but just miss an extra string, then maybe upgrade to a 5-string model that looks most like a 4-string – the Stingray, Jazz, and Precision basses all come in 5-string versions as well, you know.
A High-C for Solos?
If you have a great set of playing claws and want to be able to stretch them even further during bass solos, but find you’re missing the range, then an extra high-C string will give you all the notes you need. Have another chat with your local bass builder and see if they can hook you up with a new nut. If your 5-string has been set up for a low-B, then a thinner gauged set of strings is going to have too much room to slip around in the nut grooves so you’ll need to upgrade. If your fret hand is comfortable with an even wider neck and you want the range of both a high-C and a low-B, then why not go all the way and think about a 6-string!
So, Do You Know What You Want?
Do you already know what’s enough for you? Whether it’s a 4, 5, or even a 6-string, we wish you all the playing pleasure in the world! If you’re still struggling to find what you’re looking for, then feel free to contact us for more advice.
If you’re already playing a 5-string, let us know how much you actually use that extra string in the comments below.
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