Pros And Cons Of Buying A 5 String Bass
A ‘B’ or not a ‘B’, that is the question. If you are thinking about whether you want to be getting yourself a 5 string bass guitar, or maybe even a 6 string bass or beyond, there are several things that are worth considering. Having experienced this dilemma myself, I thought I would share what I discovered when I was weighing up my options.
The first and most obvious advantage of opting for a bass with that additional low string is that it gives us the ability to extend the bottom range of what we can play. Standard strung 4 string basses can get us down to an E, but an additional 5th string on the bottom will enable us to plummet to the new depths of a B. If you are considering a 5 string bass, then I assume you already know this. If that was all there was to it, then I would highly recommend that everyone skipped the 4 string all together and just opted for at least a 5 string. However, as is often the way in life, there are pros and cons to factor in….
Is it harder to play a 5 String?
Musically speaking, no. One of the beautiful things about the way that bass guitars are strung is that the strings have equal intervals between all of them. So, unlike standard strung 6 string guitars, the patterns we learn for our scales remain constant regardless of what string we happen to start our scales etc. on, and this includes starting on the low B string if we have one. In fact, having the low B and a high C string (on a 6 stringbass) as options can actually make things more straight forward for our fretting hand because it means that we have more range in just one position. In other words, we don’t need to explore down the neck of the bass to reach certain notes, we can just venture onto the additional strings. On a 6 string for example, we can play 3 ‘C’ notes 2 octaves apart without having to move our fretting hand away from just one position. That’s not possible on a standard strung 4 string bass.
However, physically speaking, yes, it can be much harder to play a 5 or 6 string. More strings generally means more width on the fretboard, and this tends to lead to a need for more reach and longer fingers. Stepping up from 4 to 5 or 6 strings can be a string too far for those amongst us with relatively short fingers. Additionally, the strings can be spaced closer together, particularly on a 6 string, and this can make things more fiddly and technically challenging when it comes to getting sound out of the correct strings and ensuring that those either side of them on the fretboard remain quiet.
Looking the part
I recently showed up at a top London studio for a session where I was going to be playing bass. I arrived with my trusty 5 string ready for action. All was going well until I removed my bass and all 5 of its strings from its case and started to set up. The look I got from the Producer would best be described as sympathetic disapproval. I was then asked if I was going to remove the B string before I carried on! You see, there are certain genres of music where a 5 or 6 string bass is not only useful, but entirely appropriate. There are times, however, where a bass with more than 4 strings says the wrong thing. It was during the 80s when 5 strings started to become popular, and this was largely due to the fact that a lot of keyboard players were stomping in the bass guitarists territory, and getting lower than the bass players could. The low B started to appear to compensate for this to a certain extent, but also to accommodate the needs and wishes of a new breed of virtuosic bass player. A result of this heritage of the 5 and 6 string bass, is that they can, in certain circles be viewed as more ‘muso’ than ‘rock and roll’. That has certainly been my experience, anyway. There are some gigs where I know that my trusty 5 string will be welcomed with open arms, but some where it will simply be tolerated if I’m lucky.
So in summary, a 5 or 6 string comes with the definite advantage of being able to reach the parts other basses can’t, but also with the potential hindrance of weight, and, depending on the stage/studio in question, of image. Only you know how tough your shoulders really are, and what musical circles you are likely to be grooving in. I highly recommend that you think these things through and factor them into whatever decision you make. Thinking bass isn’t necessarily basic.