Have you looked at a 5 string bass and thought… ”Why do bass players need the extra string?” Are more strings better than a standard 4 string bass guitar?
Well, look no further. My valuable post will answer the key differences between a 4 and 5 string bass. These include the function, benefits, pros & cons, and how to decide if a 5 string bass is the ideal instrument for you.
Sound good? Let’s go…
What is the difference between a 4 string and 5 string bass guitar?
A 4 string bass has a narrower neck, wider string spacing, and is easier to play. In comparison, a 5 string bass has an extra string allowing an extended lower range to play notes in lower keys and the choice of more scales, chords, and arpeggios but has a wider neck and a heavier instrument.
|4 String Bass||5 String Bass|
|Standard Tuning||E, A, D, G||B, E, A, D, G|
|Additional Notes||Low B |
|Note Range||20% more|
|Neck Width||33mm – 43mm||44mm – 48mm|
|Weight||8.3lb – 9.6lb||8.5 lb – 12lb|
|Playability||Easier to play||Harder to play|
|Hand Size Suitability||Easier for small hands||Harder for small hands|
|Price||Cost 3% – 10% more than four-string version (same model)|
4 String Vs. 5 String Bass
As we all know, all bass guitars in standard tuning are tuned exactly an octave lower than regular 6 string guitars.
So with a 5 string bass, what is the function of the extra string? And what are the benefits of this setup?
Five String Pro #1 – Extended Lower Range
If you didn’t know already an extended lower range means that you have more access to low registry notes on the same instrument.
To understand the function of a 5 string bass first let’s compare the tunings…
On a regular 4 string bass standard tuning is E-A-D-G.
Whereas on a 5 string bass standard tuning is B-E-A-D-G.
This means the extra B string allows for five additional ‘low notes,’ being the:
- Low B (open)
- Low C – (1st fret)
- Low Db – (2nd fret)
- Low D – (3rd fret)
- Low Eb – (4th fret)
Now, these five additional ‘low notes’ mentioned above are absolutely critical to the function of a 5 string bass. Why? These low register notes correspond to the most common tunings including Eb, D, and C#.
These ‘low notes’ essentially ‘fills in the gaps’ that a 4 string in standard tuning can’t produce in a ‘low’ and ‘deep-sounding’ register.
Essentially a 5 string bass gives you these important low register notes while the other strings can remain in standard tuning. Allowing your memorized scale patterns, keys, and note positions on the fretboard to remain unaffected.
Of course, you do have these notes available on a 4 string bass in standard tuning. However, because they are only available in a ‘higher register’ (further down the neck) they sound too ‘bright’ and ‘piercing.’ Whereas playing them in a low register they sound ‘deeper,’ ‘warmer.’ as a bass should sound.
On a 4 string, to achieve the desired low notes in a low register, the only option would be to tune down the strings to Drop D or Eb.
But as mentioned, you would then have to transpose your memorized scale patterns and key positions on the fretboard which is inconvenient. Therefore a 5 string bass gives you these notes in a lower register while remaining in standard tuning.
Five String Pro #2 – Don’t Have to Re-Tune
This ties in with the first point. With access to the important notes such as Eb, D, and C# on the low B String.
It means that all of the strings can remain in standard tuning as these notes correspond to the most common tunings in western music.
This is good because tuning to an unfamiliar tuning can skew your understanding of where all the notes are on the fretboard. This can be a bit complicated and frustrating.
Benefit 1# – You Have Access to Eb
For example, let’s say you turn up for some session work and the guitarist plays in Eb. With a 4 string, you would have to tune down to Eb. In comparison, with a 5 string bass, you have the Eb note on your 5th string meaning you don’t have to tune down your bass guitar.
Benefit #2 – You Have Access to Drop D
Another example, let’s say your band plays a specific song in Drop D. With a 4 string, you would have to tune down to Drop D or bring another bass guitar in Drop D.
In comparison, with a 5 string bass, you have the D note on your 5th string meaning you can avoid tunning your bass to a drop tuning.
The point is that a 5 String offers more in terms of convenience and flexibility. The lower extended range gives you two benefits – lower-sounding notes and more tunings on the same instrument.
Five String Pro #3 – More Note Coverage
The extra string also has another benefit. Instead of moving further distances across the neck to hit notes, you can simply move upwards on the 5th string to play the same notes.
Which some players argue is more efficient by decreasing sideways movement and drag. In simple terms, You have more note coverage under your hand in one position. Without having to shift your hand across the neck to connect notes. Which some argue is smoother and promotes less drag.
For example, let’s say you are playing a lick around the 7th fret and you need to finish the lick with an F (1st fret on the low E string.) With a 4 string bass you will have to move your hand a distance from the 7th fret to the 1st fret to hit the F note (a long distance.)
Whereas on a 5 string bass, you can simply move up to the 5th string to hit the same note on the 6th Fret.
Meaning you don’t have to move across the entire fretboard to hit connecting notes. You can simply move upwards on the extra string which some players argue is more efficient and decreases sideways movement.
- Looks Badass
- You can transpose your known bass lines to the lower registers
- You can transpose songs to lower keys because you have more notes on one instrument
- Low notes sound cool and vibey
- You have more musicality on the same instrument
- More musically versatile and convenient
Five String Con #1 – Muting the 5th String
Although the extra string offers so many benefits… it does bring a few cons. The first common drawback is keeping the damn 5th string silent while jamming on the other strings.
Bass players unfamiliar with the 5 string commonly knock the 5th string causing it to ring out. Taking the shine out of their performance. It also ruins studio recordings on playback hearing the faint sound of a ringing B string.
Unintentional contact can happen during certain riffs, bass lines, or during certain bass techniques. Therefore, you need to identify what causes the unintentional contact in your playing and work on it.
This is very common with players who came from a 4 string background. This is another aspect to understand if you are thinking of transitioning.
Keep in mind, learning to effectively mute the 5th string is a separate skill within itself. It will require some practice to get used to when transitioning from a 4 string.
Knowing this, you will have to commit and master your own technique to keep the 5th string quiet. Obviously, this issue does not happen on 4 string bass so players prefer the simplicity and less fiddly nature of a 4 string.
Five String Con #2 – Playability
To accommodate the extra string, a 5 string bass’s neck is substantially wider compared to 4 string bass. Now interestingly, this affects playability for a number of reasons.
The first is that a wider fretboard means that the neck will feel much girthier in the palm of the hand. Now, this is a problem for players who have small hands and short fingers. As stretching for notes can feel awkward and unnatural.
For some players with larger hands, it will feel ok and easy to adapt to. On the other hand, some players find the neck too bulky to uncomfortable to navigate.
For some bass players despite the benefits of the extended lower range, they find 5 string necks too wide and ‘weighty’ therefore revert back to a 4 string due to better comfort and playability. Again, it all boils down to personal preference.
To accommodate the extra string, 5 string basses also have less space between each string (known as string spacing.)
This means that the strings are closer together requiring a touch more accuracy and finesse. The reason is there is more chance you can accidentally knock other strings creating weird contact noises and undertones.
On the other hand, 4 string basses have a wider distance from each string giving more room between each string.
Keep in mind, some players like tighter string spacing whereas other players prefer wider. The point is that it is something that sets both basses apart when it comes to playability.
Five String Con #3 – Heavier Instrument
5 String basses are commonly much heavier than 4 string basses. Why? well, thanks to the wider neck, bridge, pickups, and general size increase. It results in a heavier bass guitar.
But what is the weight difference?
4 string weight = 8.3lb – 9.6lb
5 string weight = 8.5lb – 12lb
As you can see, the heaviest 5 string bass can weigh as much as 12lb. This is something to know if you have to play standing for long periods of time. Or have problems such as back and neck problems.
Although you can purchase lighter 5 string models and heavier 4 string models. Yet, the weight difference is very noticeable. If you transition from a 4 string to a 5 string you can notice the weight immediately.
Therefore, the weight does impact playability and how effortless it is to play for long periods of time. With that said, some players simply ‘man up’ and forget about the extra weight but enjoy the pros of the added range and musicality.
- Some bass amp speakers struggle to transfer the super low frequencies of the low B string
- Moving fretting hand positions across the neck helps memorize more fretboard notes
- Moving upwards to hit notes instead of across the fretboard can be seen as ‘lazy’
- Integrating the 5th string into your playing can be challenging for 4 string players
4 String vs. 5 String – Which is Best for Beginners
Many beginners ask…”should I start on a 5 or 4 string bass?”
On the surface, a 4 string bass sounds like the most obvious answer because side-by-side. It is lighter, easier to play, and less technical. Which sounds more appealing to a beginner.
Although it does sound plausible, the truth is that a 5 string bass is not a more advanced instrument than a 4 string. You should not view a 5 string bass as the next level up from a 4 string bass. They are both equal.
Being able to play a 5 string bass does not automatically make you a more advanced musician than a 4 string player.
A 5 string bass is just a different tool and a personal preference. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with starting to learn on a 5,6, or even 7 string bass if it is more inspiring than the other choices. It all boils down to personal preference.
If you want to learn on a 5 string go ahead, if you want to learn on a 4 string go ahead. It makes no difference.
The point is a beginner should either choose either 4 vs 5 string based on what instrument inspires them the most to play. And importantly, which instrument keeps them learning, progressing, and having fun as a bass player.
How to Decide as A Beginner
To help you make a decision between both instruments, here are some things you can do/ask yourself?
- Play both basses in a music store and decide what feels more natural to you?
- Does the 5 string feel too heavy?
- Does the 5 string bass have too much of a wide neck?
- Does the 4 string feel more comfortable?
- Do you have smaller or larger hands?
- Decide which bass inspires you the most to play?
- Decide which bass looks cooler and appeals to you the most?
- Do your bass guitar heroes play 4 or 5 string bass?
- Are your favorite bass parts/songs written with a 5 string or 4 string bass?
4 String vs. 5 String – Which is Best for Playing Metal
On the surface, it would appear that a 5 string bass would be better for playing the ‘detuned’ sound of metal. Because a 5 string bass offers lower notes being B-E-A-D-G. Compared to a 4 string tuned to E-A-D-G.
So is a 5 string better for Metal?
As a general rule, a 5 string bass is not a necessity ‘better’ for playing metal over a 4 string bass. The reason is that most players who adopt 4 string basses for metal simply tune their bass down to deeper tunings.
For example, some popular metal tunings on a 4 string bass are…
- Drop D – D-A-D-G
- Drop C – C-G-C-F
- B tuning – B-E-A-D
- Drop B – B-F#-B-E
So if a 4 string is sufficient and not better? Why do players use a 5 string bass for Metal? Here are a few reasons…
Range & Efficiency
It’s all about the range! As mentioned before, a 5 string offer an extended lower range. Meaning that bass players can hit lower notes without moving across fret positions on the neck. And this makes sense for some metal players.
A lot of metal genres such as thrash, death, and speed metal have fast, technical, and complicated licks across the fretboard. Therefore, instead of moving across the fretboard they simply shift upwards to hit the connecting notes without ‘drag’ and unnecessary sideways movement. Allowing them to play faster and more challenging bass parts.
No Need to Re-Tune
As mentioned above, there is a large number of bass metal tunings. Therefore, constantly re-tuning to different tuning configurations can bring playability issues. For example, going from Drop D all the way to Drop B means the strings will lose a ton of tension.
If you don’t have thick enough strings for that tuning it means that the strings will be too loose and limp. Also, the tone will lack, punch, and responsiveness due to the lack of tension. Furthermore, the truss rod will need adjusting making everything very inconvenient. Therefore, having a 5 string bass solves the issue of being able to play in a number of tuning variations without re-tuning.
Comparing The Price Difference
When it comes to comparing identical bass models with both 4 and 5 string options. Typically the 5 string versions are more expensive. This is handy to know if budget is a big factor when deciding which bass to choose.
How expensive? Well, my handy comparison graph below gives you an idea of how much identical bass models vary between 4 and 5 string versions.
|Bass Model||4 String Price||5 String Price||Price Difference (%)|
|Squier Affinity Series Jazz Bass||$299.99||$339.99||12.5% Increase|
|Squier Classic Vibe ’70s Jazz Bass||$489.99||$499.99||2% Increase|
|Fender Player Jazz Bass||$849.99||$949.99||11.1% Increase|
|ESP LTD Stream Bass||$601||$655||8.5% Increase|
|Ibanez RGB Series Bass||$399.99||$449.99||11.7% Increase|
|Schecter Stiletto Extreme Bass||$599.99||$649.99||8% Increase|
|Schecter J Bass Series||$899.99||$949.99||5.4% Increase|
|Schecter CV Bass Series||$749.99||$799.99||6.4% Increase|
|Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special HH Bass||$2499||$2599||$3.9 Increase|
How To Decide – Key Points To Know
- A beginner can start learning on a 4,5 or even a 6 string bass – it’s personal preference
- It makes no difference what bass you start learning on
- 4 and 5 string basses have their separate pros & cons –
- Neither bass is better than the other – it comes down to preference
- A 4 string bass is not a less advanced instrument than a 5 string
- A 5 string is not the natural progression from a 4 string – it’s a separate tool
- A 5 string bass player is not an automatically more advanced musician than a 4 string player
- Do not transition to a 5 string if you have no use for the extra string
- You can transition to a 5 string down the line to experiment
- Choose the bass you feel most comfortable on
Why Choose a 4 String Bass
- You dont require the extended low range on the same instrument
- You don’t mind re-tuning your bass to different tunings to achieve low register notes
- You typicaly utilize one or two tunings
- You like playing across the neck to hit connecting notes
- You prefer a lighter and easier instrument to play
- You find 5 string necks to wide and cumbersome
- You have smaller hands
- You prefer the simplicity of a 4 string bass
- You don’t want to master muting the 5th string on a 5 string
- You like the idea of a 5 string but won’t utilize the extra string to its full potential
- You feel more at home on a 4 string
- You have multiple bass instruments in multiple tuninings
Why Choose a 5 String Bass
- You need the additional string to hit notes in lower registers while remaining in standard tuning
- You love the sound of the low notes
- You need the extended lower range for certain songs and arrangements
- You like to play in standard but also have the option to play drop D and Eb and other keys when you need them
- You like to play and transpose bass riffs to lower registers
- You like the idea of experimenting with different note variations
- You are a session musician, that players for theatre productions and musicals
- You are required to read and transpose music for session work
- You prefer having a consistent tuninnig with more convenience and versatility
Why Session Musicians Need a 5 String Bass
If you are a session musician or aspire to expand into theatre/musicals or studio work in the future? A 5 string bass is a necessity and a required instrument (for good reason.)
First, sheet music in session work is typically written for 5 string bass. Therefore, turning up with a 4 string will not look professional. Of course, you can transpose the music adapted to a 4 string but makes the task difficult. Simplicity is best.
Also, theatre composers utilize the low B notes to mimic the sound of synths and organs. Meaning on a 4 string, you can not recreate the low registry notes unless you tuned down. Whereas, a 5 string bass will give you access to the low register notes while maintaining standard tuning.
The note versatility and convenience are also super handy for common session situations. For example, if a vocalist wanted to move the key of the song down to suit their voice. Then you have the low notes available on your 5 string meaning you don’t have to re-tune.
It’s pretty apparent that if you aspire to session work in theatres and shows? A 5 string bass is the more versatile instrument for theatre/production work.
Before You Go
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.