It seems these days that most bass guitar manufacturers like ESP Guitars, Ibanez and Fender are producing 5-string bass guitars, so it seems logical there are a lot more bassists playing them. Years ago, 5-strings purely seemed to be the domain of funk and metal players looking for extended range, but in recent times we’ve seen a swathe of rock and pop musicians gravitate towards the instrument, which is slowly becoming as commonplace as its 4-string counterpart.
The first electric basses came with four strings, and were produced back in the 1930s by Paul Tutmarc from Seattle, Washington. However, very few musicians were interested in the instrument that Tutmarc made, and the market for an electric bass wasn’t there until the 1950s, when Fender popularized the instrument. For decades only 4-string electric basses were available, and a wide array of music has been recorded on the instrument since.
So why the need for a 5 string bass guitar?
The earliest 5-string bass guitar was created by Fender in 1965. The Fender Bass V used the E–A–D–G–C tuning, but proved unpopular and was discontinued soon thereafter in 1970. The 5-string B-E-A-D-G tuned bass we are familiar with today was created by Jimmy Johnson as a custom instrument in 1975.
The main reason for adding a 5th string is to add more range to the bass. More range means being able to play lower and/or higher pitched notes. It stands to reason the more strings you have under your fingers, the more notes you have within your immediate grasp, meaning we don’t have to move our hands around the neck as much.
5-string bass guitars exploded in popularity during the 80’s thanks to the advent of Electronic Music. As bassists were competing with and being replaced by computers and keyboards, bass players began adding 5-strings to their arsenals, accommodating the need for extended range, and enabling them to compete with their electronic nemeses.
Are 5 string bass guitars harder to play?
The player definitely requires heightened awareness and finesse to keep track of the extra string. It is common for beginners not to realize there is extra work in keeping the unused bass strings quiet or muted in addition to getting the notes they’re playing to ring out. The more strings there are, the more there is to keep quiet.
In addition, the strings on extended-range basses get closer together, making some playing styles, especially slap, a little trickier. This requires you to be more accurate, and as the neck gets wider, you will need to reach around more than with a regular 4-string. Regardless of what you choose, there’s always going to be work and practice involved. Regardless, you can always switch between basses down the track once you get used to their feel.
So how many strings should you get?
The 4-string bass guitar has been around the longest, and there has certainly been a lot of music that has been recorded using it. For most people starting out keeping to a 4-string bass guitar will be adequate, if not always perfect for them. Why get more strings if you’re not going to use them?
You may ask the question, is it possible to tune a 4-string bass guitar lower than its standard tuning? The answer is yes, and such tunings are much more common than you may realize. You can tune your bass down by two or three semitones if you need lower pitches from time to time, but since the instrument is not designed to be tuned that low, you may not get the best sound or playability, but it is certainly an option.
For most playing styles you’ll probably be okay with a 4-string bass guitar, but if you’re into the heavier metal and core genres which are popular today, you may want to consider a 5-string bass guitar where you can reach those lower notes without having to detune your bass.
An alternative to buying a 5-string bass would be to get a 4-string, before stringing it with the lowest four strings of its extended range counterpart. Some manufacturers are designing basses like this now, tuning them to BEAD, instead of the standard 4-string bass tuning of EADG.
So if you are buying your first bass, it is probably more common to start with a 4-string, but don’t be afraid to go for a 5-string bass guitar as it might just reveal a style and sound you may not have originally thought of.