Ever looked at a 5 string bass and thought, ”Why do bass players need the extra string? Many famous players have done just fine on 4, right?”
Well, ever since I learned the key reasons for using a 5 string, I decided that 4 strings are enough for my bass playing endeavors. However, it may not be the same for you, as it depends on your style, genre, and playing experience.
This is why my helpful post is here to answer the key differences between the 4 and 5 string bass. I will also explain why players like having the extra string, and whether a 5 string bass is suitable for you based on your playing requirements.
The main reason for a 5 string bass compared to 4-strings is the added low range the 5th string offers. It allows the player the use of lower notes with more choice for scales, arpeggios, and chords compared to 4 strings. The 5 string fretboard is also much wider in girth affecting playability.
This Video Explains All (Watch Below)
The In-Depth Answer
Before I can explain the differences further, let’s compare tunings.
Standard tuning on a regular 4 string bass is E A D B.
Whereas a 5 string bass in standard tuning is B E A D B.
So the extra string (the low B) allows for 5 extra notes, being the:
- Low B (Root)
- Low C
- Low C#
- Low D
- Low D#
Why Five? #1 – Range
With this in mind, the main reason players adopt the extra string is for the added range the instrument offers.
Range simply translates to being able to play more notes in lower keys and the choice of more scales, chords, and arpeggios on the one instrument.
Simply range gives you more of a playground for lower notes, chords, scales, arpeggios, riff possibilities, and tuning variations.
But there are more benefits…
Why Five? #2 – Efficiency
If you didn’t know already, playing efficiently translates to hitting notes around the neck with less effort, drag and right-hand movement.
Technical bass players can play fast complicated licks around the neck because they are quick and efficient with both fretting hand and plucking hand.
How Does a 5 String Promote Efficient Playing?
Well, for example, let’s say you are playing a lick around the 7th-5th fret and you need to finish the lick with an F (which is the 1st fret on the 4th string.) You will have to move across the neck to hit the F note on the 1st fret.
Whereas having the extra string simply means you can instead move up a string to the same note on the 6th Fret of the 5th string.
Therefore, you do not have to move your hand side to side of the neck to hit notes as you can just up move up a string, which is more efficient than moving your hand a larger distance horizontally.
The Counter Argument
Using the additional string is argued as being more efficient with your playing. However, using the low notes on the 5th string, compared to the 4th string, makes it sound too warm, thick and round, and this is true!
Simply an F note played on the 6th fret of the 5th string does not sound as piercing as playing an F on the 2nd fret of the 4th string. Which makes sense because the 5th string is thicker, warmer, tuned lower and at a lower frequency.
But what notes you prefer to use is totally down to personal preference. For example, One funk player may prefer the crisp pop of the first few frets, whereas the fusion player may like using the higher frets of the 5th string for a smoother, lower tuned vibe.
Why Five? #3 – Convenience
Having the extra string means you have the option to play in other keys without needing to tune down your instrument, making it more convenient and versatile.
Picture the scene: you are trying out for a new band and the other guitarist play in E flat. If you had a 4 string in standard tuning, you would have to tune all the strings down half a step (1 note).
But with a 5 string, you could stay in standard tuning and simply use the 2nd fret of the 5th string (C# or E flat) as your open note. Simply jam away using the second fret of the 5th string as your E# reference.
Why Five? #4 – Versatility
Let’s say you play a wide range of music. Some days you like to play low tuned metal.
No problem. As discussed, the 5th string is tuned to B in standard tuning on a 5 string. B is already a very low tuning where some metal bands like to operate (some metal bands even go as low as A).
On other days, you like to play blues, jazz, and funk for example. Well, simply move down a string to the 4th string, which is simply standard tuning (E).
So, as you can see, you have more options for playing different styles and tunings without having to tune your guitar down if you were using a 4 string, hence, making your 5 string a more versatile instrument.
5 vs 4 String Bass – How to Decide
At first glance, it seems the 5 string is more versatile because more is better, right?
Not exactly! Although having the extra range can be useful, it is not exactly necessary for every player and can be seen as overkill by some players.
So, here are the top reasons why you could want a 5 string. If you cannot relate to any of these points, then stick with your original bass.
- You play genres of music requiring lower notes (metal, funk, gospel, etc.) but still want to stick with standard tuning
- You want access to lower notes on one instrument
- You want one single instrument for playing a range of genres
- You have mastered the 4 string and want to master the additional fretboard
- You want to experiment with new chords, scales, and arpeggios
- You have many years of playing experience under your belt
Should a Beginner Choose 4 or 5 String Bass?
When we compare the 4 and 5 string bass through the eyes of a newbie, I can say with confidence that if you are a beginner with less than 3 years experience, you should choose a 4-string bass. For good reasons too…
Why is 5 Harder to Play than 4?
First, the fretboard of a five-string bass guitar is in most cases wider. This is not good for playability and is certainly harder to play than a narrower 4 string fretboard.
It is more difficult to wrap your palm around the chunky fretboard and may be slightly overwhelming for a beginner.
Although some beginners can start learning on the 5, or even 6, string. In my opinion, less is more when you are just starting on any instrument.
The distance between the strings of a 5-string bass is usually less and equal to 16.5 mm in the bridge area; the 4-string bass guitar has a distance of 18 mm; and the most common guitars like Fender has a distance of 19mm and even 20mm.
Learn the Fretboard First
The second reason beginners should stick to 4-string is that you need to learn the basics on the 4 string first.
Learn your notes, the scales chords, and the roadmaps of the basic fretboard before delving into a more difficult instrument—this includes learning your theory, musical knowledge and learning all the basic techniques.
Other Points to Know
- On a four-stringed guitar, it is easier to master some sound-extraction techniques (the three-finger method or slap play) because the four-stringed bass has a narrower neck and a greater distance between the strings.
- You do not require an instrument with the option for lots of low notes. You can simply tune down your 4 string bass.
- A four-string bass guitar is more common than a five-string bass, so it is easier to find bass tabs for transpose for a regular bass.
- Five-string bass allows you to add more “meat” to the melody (due to the thick fifth string) – or expand the range towards high frequencies, adding to the four standard ones the first string from the six-string bass set (for spectacular solos).
- For a five-string bass guitar, you have to spend money on a powerful combo amplifier that will not rattle at low frequencies.
- If you realize that you made the wrong choice, a four-string bass guitar is easier to sell.
- If you are a beginner guitarist, you should attend guitar lessons from scratch before you buy. The teacher will demonstrate to you the possibilities of both types of bass guitars and teach you simple tunes that you can play in the music store.
- Some theatre session gigs require bass players to play music on a 5 string as the music is recorded and tabbed on this instrument.
Bass, as it were, connects drums and other instruments in a group, connecting rhythm and melody. It is more often used for accompaniment than as a solo instrument.
Hopefully, this article has cleared the confusion about the differences between both instruments so you can now make an informed decision.
Thanks For Reading
Before you go, do you think a small guitar amp can serve as a good bass practice amp?
Well, you need to read my post: “Can You Play a Bass Through a Guitar Amp?” You will learn the 101 about whether it is dangerous or a good amp substitute for any learning bassist.