If I have to make a ranking of the questions that repeat the most among students and peers is this: should I get a 5-string bass?
Let’s face it, the time comes in the life of every bass player that you feel tempted to open up the game and bring home an extra string. But, when is the right time to do it? Should you learn how to play on a 5-string? Is it an extra flavor to add to your arsenal here and there?
I’m going to pour over two decades of experience into a single post that will help you make this decision and buy the right bass for you right here, right now.
Let’s get ready to ruuuumble!
Reaching Up to New Lows
Let’s start from the beginning: what is a 5-string bass? What note do you add with that extra string? Is it a lower or a higher note in pitch?
Well, the extra string above is a low B. This means you’ll be reaching up to new lows playing that extra-low note that’s now available. This means, for example, you can accommodate or transpose a riff that requires notes like an Eb while retaining that note’s low booming character.
Furthermore, if you play in a very heavy band, you can match your guitar player’s 7-string guitar or go for that immensely thick and heavy drop-A tuning.
In any case, when you go for the 5-string bass, your color palette opens up and suddenly you’re given one more, super powerful color to paint with.
I’ll dissect it a little further for you.
Let’s Talk Music Styles
Let me welcome you to the music of the 21st century in which most bass lines you hear on the radio are made using a keyboard or a synth. Yes, just like drum machines and samplers have flooded the top ten spots in any radio station, many bass players need to compete with the infinite possibilities a bass synth can give you.
In that scenario, it is absolutely paramount to play a 5-string bass to reach those low notes that are so trendy these days.
On the other hand, the rock and roll revival, and some of the newer funk-rock acts as well as timeless classics regard the 4-string bass and its versatility as the key to a song’s groove.
Yes, the bass guitar is and has always been the backbone of the word groove. Indeed, percussive techniques like slapping make it indispensable for styles such as funk and funk rock.
Two great examples are Mr. Pino Palladino, the godfather of groovy 4-string bass lines, and Mr. Flea, the wildest most amazing funk rock player alive. Both have 4-string signature basses built by Fender, a Precision Bass, and a Jazz Bass respectively.
Modern players like Adam Blackstone, on the other hand, rock a 5-string Jazz Bass from Fender’s American Ultra Series. This is a statement from a player who often works as a session musician trying to compete with bass synths.
So, the first couple questions you need to answer are: What kind of music style will you be playing with your bass? Do you need the extra low coming from the 5th string?
Let’s Talk Music Dynamics
Dynamics are the unsung heroes of every musical composition. Let me give you an example: have you heard Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette? And I’m not talking about the hits, but the entire album. If you have, you’ll know that by track 10 you’re kind of wishing she would change the intensity of the vocals and another instrument would step up to carry the melodic line.
This means that your ear gets fatigued from listening to something that repeats all the time. Likewise, if you go see a band that goes four-on-the-floor all the time, the surprise element is gone and the resource is futile.
Where am I going with this? Well, simply that the fifth string on your five-string bass is another color to generate dynamics with. For example, you can play the entire song using the bottom four strings and use the fifth for that amazing bridge that adds dynamics and changes the song’s feel.
If you abuse the resource in a five-string bass, you’ll be taking away its biggest impact: the surprise element. To exemplify this here’s a clip by Adam Blackstone; pay close attention to how many times he plays the fifth string. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
So, five-string basses give you an extended range to create more dynamics for your music.
Let’s Talk Tone
This is another question I get a lot when talking about 4-string and 5-string basses: does the extra string change the instrument’s tone?
The answer, as with everything when you’re talking, tone is subjective. In my opinion, no tone changes occur when you go from a four to a five-string bass.
Moreover, I think a maple fretboard vs a rosewood one, an active circuit vs a passive one, or even playing with a pick instead of the fingers change the bass’s tone more than the number of strings in it.
The one thing that does change is the size of the instrument. The fact that there’s more wood in every section of the bass might make the instrument sound rounder, fuller, and bigger.
But that’s just for highly-trained ears making a very fine appreciation of sound. Mostly, in a live situation, you won’t even notice the difference.
So, playing a 4-string or a 5-string bass makes virtually no difference in tone.
Your Body is Also an Instrument
I know, as a player who’s been in the business for over two decades, that playing a musical instrument is a physical effort. Moreover, your hands touch the strings, the metal, the wood; it’s all part of an experience, part of a feel.
Thus, talking about how a 4 or a 5-string bass sounds isn’t enough, I have to talk about how it feels and plays too, because that’s a potential deal-breaker for most musicians, me included.
Finally, I’m also going to address the learning curve associated with the extra string and the price difference. Yes, depending on where you are in your musical journey, playing a 4 or a 5-string bass can make a big difference. Also, the size of your hands and your ability to stretch or move fast might have a huge impact on your decision.
Without further ado, let me dive right into the feel side of this decision.
Let’s Talk String Spacing & Neck Width
One of the main differences when picking up a 5-string specimen if you’re used to playing a 4-string bass is the width of the neck. Yes, in some brands this is a more intimidating phenomenon than others. For example, Fender uses a wider neck that mimics the one in their 4-string basses with added mass. This is true for P-Bass and Jazz Bass.
But why is this important? Well, because Fender’s decision is to respect the string spacing of their traditional basses. This makes playing these basses more natural if you’re used to playing a 4-string bass but also adds significant mass to the neck which can be a potential drawback depending on your hand’s size.
On the other end of the spectrum, brands like Ibanez choose to reduce string spacing and make 5-string basses with smaller necks, closer to the necks of 4-string basses.
This is a pro in a sense because you have less mass to maneuver with and allow you to play a super low open B on the 5th string even if your hands are childlike. On the other hand, you have more strings in the same space, making it more difficult to get used to playing the right string with your picking hand.
So, if the width of the neck is an impediment to opting for a 5-string bass, you can go to brands like Ibanez. On the other hand, if string spacing is an impediment, you can always count on Fender.
Let’s Talk Weight and Comfort
I talked about comfort above because it is a major issue when it comes to choosing an instrument to play. Furthermore, if you do what I do which is playing shows and studio sessions, you’ll very likely encounter yourself holding your instrument for hours at a time.
This, with time, can transform into chronic back pain, so it’s something to bear in mind.
Also, the size and shape of the instrument’s body make a big difference in terms of comfort. Going back to the brands I talked about before (Fender and Ibanez), both brands offer highly-contoured bodies to make space for the belly and the picking arm.
What I can say about this is that the mass difference between a 4-string and a 5-string bass body can be a thing, even more, if you take into consideration the weight of that extra string, the bigger neck, bigger bridge, the extra tuner, bigger pickups, and the extra wood to accommodate all that.
So, if you opt for a 5-string instrument, make sure you ask the sales clerk for a strap, a comfy one, and try it on before making a decision. While you’re at it, try the weight of the same bass in a 4-string configuration to measure that difference.
Maybe it’s a deal breaker for you; I’ve grown used to it with time and the extra notes make up for the discomfort in my case.
Let’s Talk Learning Curve
Finally, this is a huge item on this list: the learning curve.
If you are a beginner reading this, you might be thinking: should I get started with a 4-string and make the change when I’m ready?
Well, let me spoil a scoop for you by saying that a 5-string bass isn’t by any means a step in your “evolution” as a player. There are countless examples of amazing players and even virtuosos like Jaco Pastorius who made a mark in music history using only 4-string basses (and no frets!).
So, playing a 5-string bass can be an initial choice as is the case of Fieldy, the bassist of Korn who never played a 4-string bass and created a style of his own by making that initial choice.
Nevertheless, if you’re reading this and are not a beginner, you can think of the 5-string as another color you can paint with. Yes, a wide color palette is paramount to getting gigs as a professional live musician or studio session player because you can cover more sonic ground.
I talked above about the new musical styles that require the super low notes made with bass synths but that’s not all, because ‘70s disco classics like Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers had 5-string basses in their formations and playing those iconic riffs anywhere else on the fretboard will not make them justice as they will sound less powerful.
So, in a nutshell, playing a 5-string bass as a beginner will require extra effort because there’s simply more to learn and take care of, like muting techniques, slapping, and scales. Playing a 5-string as a seasoned player will also require you to adjust your technique for that extra string.
That being said, in both cases, the extra effort will pay off in the shape of more gigs, a broader tonal palette, and more fun.
Let’s Talk Prices
Finally, before moving on to the overall pros and cons and wrapping this guide up, let’s talk prices. Is there a difference in price when you go from a 4-string instrument to a 5-string one?
Well, the difference between the same bass in a 4-string or 5-string configuration is minimal. Let me give you some examples:
TheIbanez miKro GSRM20 and the Ibanez miKro GSRM25 have a price difference of only $50, which is a lot in this price range if you think about it in percentage, but not so much money. If you go up in the Ibanez line between the Ibanez Prestige SR5000 and the Ibanez Prestige SR5005 there’s twice as much, $100. Nevertheless, $100 in the $2000+ range is not as meaningful as $50 in the $200 range.
If we move to Fender, the difference between a Fender American Professional II Jazz Bass, and the Fender American Professional II Jazz Bass V is also $100. But in the Squier line, the difference between the Squier Contemporary PH and the Squier Contemporary PHV is only $20.
So, having these differences in mind, I have to say that price shouldn’t be a deal breaker when it comes to purchasing one or the other.
Overall Pros of 5-String Basses
- Extended tonal range
- Easier for transposing songs
- Great for playing modern music
- Getting more gigs
- Virtually no price difference
Overall Cons of 5-String Basses
- Steep learning curve
- String spacing requires higher accuracy
- Muting strings is challenging
- Some basses have a floppy 5th string (if you feel that, you need to use a multi-scale bass which will increase the learning curve. This is a great example of such a bass)
- Wider neck and bigger body might be uncomfortable
The Bottom End
Broadening your color palette is a must if you’re a serious musician. You can add effects pedals to your collection, learn different instruments, or get a 5-string bass. Dare to be yourself and speak a language of rumbling lows as you never did before.
Perhaps, you’ll create your own style!