The 5 string bass represents a fascinating branch of the electric bass guitar class. Can you guess the name of one of the original bass guitar makers that held off on adopting the 5 string to its main product line despite introducing the first ever electric 5 string instrument? Read on to find out more about the 5 string bass
Origins of 5 String Basses
5 String basses didn't really start to appear until the late 70's when Alembic, Ken Smith and (by his own admission) Michael Tobias built one. The first veritable production 5 string was the Musicman Sting Ray 5 which debuted in 1986. Within a couple of years, 5 string basses were surfacing in more and more low-priced models by major manufacturers such as Ibanez, Peavey, Yamaha and Washburn. Strangely enough, because a certain bass manufacturer stayed away from offering 5 string versions of its bass guitars until the1990's, a cottage-industry of lookalikes started to appear. Custom bass guitar luthiers began to rise in popularity by meeting the need for a 5 string bass guitar with vintage styling. Companies like Sadowsky, Lull, Lakland and finally Allevo Coppolla filled this void.
Companies including Spector, Warwick, F Bass, MTD, Ken Smith, Zon, Fodera, Pedulla and ESP offered 5 strings with their own unique designs. One particularly unique design is the fanned fret system used on Dingwall basses that helps extend the scale length of the low B string substantially.
Producing the perfect 5 string electric bass required some particular considerations, with the uneven number of strings, the neck had to be assembled for increased stability. Figuring out the best string spacing, neck width, neck radius, electronics and scale length took many years and a lot of different attempts. Early five string bass concepts often had necks that were too broad, or that attempted to cram 5 bass strings into the same size neck as a four string bass; neither of which were ideal for most players. 35" scale basses became progressively common as a method to 'tighten up' or add definition to the low B string.
While adoption of the 5 string attained mainstream acceptance in the 90's with players like Tom Hamilton of Areosmith, Jason Newsted of Metallica, David Ellefson of Megadeth and Billy Gould of Faith No More et al., many other celebrated bassists chose to remain with the four string bass. Bassists such as Geddy Lee, Flea, Marcus Miller, Billy Sheehan and Victor Wooten proceed to do the bulk of their recorded or live performances entirely with four string basses.
A recent movement towards detuned 4 string basses with a 35 inch scale that share the equivalent low notes as a low B equipped 5 string happened in the early to mid 2000s. While the five string bass appears to be here to stay, it seems that it has yet to fully replace the 4 string bass in the fashion that the electric bass essentially supplanted the acoustic bass in the 1960s.
5 String Electric Bass Tunings
The more common tunings for the 5 string bass are either E-A-D-G-C (high C) or B-E-A-D-G (low B) with the latter tuning embodying the most prevalent. Low B tuned five strings are popular in Gospel, Hard Rock and Metal music genres while the high C tuned 5 string bass is more common in Jazz, Fusion or bass solo recordings.
The Perfect Low B
With the low B string, 5 string electric bass players have fought to find the right amount of punch and presence to give definition to the lower frequencies without it sounding like 'mud'. Finding the 'perfect low B' in terms of sound and feel is a perpetual quest for many players - often warranting the expense of arranging a custom-made bass guitar from a luthier.
I hope you enjoyed this taste of what the 5 string bass guitar is all about. As for my question at the top of this article - Did you guess that the company was Fender? That's right, Fender introduced the "Fender V" in 1964 in limited quantities. It seems that this particular instrument didn't feature a low B string, and John Paul Jones was known to have played one for a time in Led Zeppelin.
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