Despite having just an extra string, there seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding the 5-string bass. Beginners tend to have many questions wondering whether or not they should pick one up, even if they’ve been playing with a 4-stringer for a bit. In this article, I will attempt to answer some of the most common questions about 5-string basses by covering their pros and cons.
Table of Contents
- The Benefits Of Using A 5-String Bass
- 1. Extended Range – You Get Some Extra Notes To Work With!
- 2. The Overall Tuning of The Instrument Doesn’t Change
- 3. There Are New Tuning Possibilities That You Didn’t Have Before
- 4. You Can Use The Low-String As An Anchor or Thumbrest
- 5. The Strings Aren’t Spaced As Far Apart (Most Of The Time)
- 6. It Prepares You For Future Opportunities
- The Disadvantages of Using A 5-String Bass
- 1. Unwanted String Noise
- 2. It’s Heavier (In Weight)
- 3. The Extra String Adds A Little Maintenance
- 4. It Will Probably Feel Uncomfortable (At First!)
- Final Thoughts & Conclusion
The Benefits Of Using A 5-String Bass
I think it’s always good to start things off with the positive aspects of an instrument; there tend to be more benefits than drawbacks anyway. I am personally a big fan of 5-string basses, but I will try to be as objective as possible throughout this article, even when we get to the cons.
1. Extended Range – You Get Some Extra Notes To Work With!
One of the biggest concerns about the five string bass that people have is whether or not the new string will make things harder because of the extra notes.
In most cases, you are getting only five extra notes, assuming you’re in standard tuning, and you are using the 5th string as the low-B. There are some people who use the additional string availability for a high-C one.
You actually get fewer notes if you’re using a high-C string, because most basses don’t have the 24th fret. At the end of the day, I think using the high-C is better for convenience and not having to make wider stretches, whereas low-B grants you access to lower pitches that you can’t get to without down tuning on a standard 4-string.
The extended range provided by the low-B string is by far the most popular way to use a 5-string bass, and the extra lower notes are quite important for certain types of music. For example, a lot of heavy modern music makes use of the lowest string especially ones that chug an open B-note
It can also give you an extra chord voicing that you wouldn’t be able to have on a 4-string bass. However, this benefit can also apply to the high-C as well. Additionally, you might have an easier time transposing and playing within certain key signatures by having those low notes that you didn’t have before.
Nonetheless, you should expect to take some time to learn where and what these notes are, but if you’ve been on top of your game already, it won’t be too difficult at all, and it can only benefit you in the long run. Knowing where the notes are on the fretboard can also sometimes prevent you from having to tune down at all, even if your guitarist did.
2. The Overall Tuning of The Instrument Doesn’t Change
Regardless if you’re using the 5-string bass for a low-B or a high-C, there is no change in tuning if you’re transitioning to a five-string bass from a four-stringed one.
The four strings that were there from the beginning are still an E, A, D, G, unless of course, you use alternate tunings, but since the tuning of these basic strings stays the same, it makes moving to a five-string bass a lot more seamless than what you might have originally thought.
So basically, if you go with the regular low-B, your 5-string bass will be tuned as B, E, A, D, G, and one that utilizes a high-C string will be tuned as E, A, D, G, C.
Not so bad, right?
The only thing you’ll never to be mindful of is the small handful of new notes that you will be getting with the extra string. Even with using a 5-string bass, you may find yourself using those notes only in select situations but still rely on the four original strings for the most part, so that should always keep things grounded and familiar for you.
3. There Are New Tuning Possibilities That You Didn’t Have Before
Even though the tuning doesn’t need to change when transitioning to 5-string bass, this doesn’t mean that you can’t use different tunings.
In fact, a 5-string bass opens up a lot of doors in this regard.
For example, if you’re in a band that uses drop-A riffs, this wouldn’t be possible without a 5-string bass. Well, it is, but it’s not a very good idea to do this.
If you dropped your E-string on a 4-string bass all the way down to A, that’s 3-and-a-half steps down! That’s insane!
By doing this, your E-string will probably be out of control and flopping everywhere, not to mention, producing an awful sound.
If you plan to play songs in these low tunings, just get a 5-string bass; you’ll thank yourself and sound much, much better in the process. It’s worth the investment.
4. You Can Use The Low-String As An Anchor or Thumbrest
One of my favorite perks of using a 5-string bass is being able to position my thumb on the low-B string.
While placing your thumb on a pickup is totally acceptable, especially if you’re using a 4-string bass, transitioning from the E to the A, feels kind of wonky because the distance between those two strings is different when crossing from the A to the D, for instance.
For me, this has always created somewhat of a “lag” when playing at very fast tempos, like triplets at 180 bpm, and even the slightly extra distance between the pickup and the string caused things not to be as seamless as I’d prefer.
Perhaps you have also run into this same problem before.
However, with the 5-string bass, this can be completely rectified, and you can play those fast lines and cross strings more comfortably from the E-string.
Of course, you’ll run into the same problem if you play fast stuff from the low-B, but most of the songs you play use the E-string, I think you can benefit from a 5-string bass, just for its anchoring possibilities.
5. The Strings Aren’t Spaced As Far Apart (Most Of The Time)
While there are some exceptions to the rule, in general, the strings on most 5-string basses are spaced closer together than on a 4-stringed one.
I think this is a nice perk because it makes crossing strings a fair bit easier than on a 4-string bass, especially if I am playing a fast scale or fill. It lets me be slightly smoother and quicker because my fingers don’t need to travel as far – this has to do with the economy of motion, which is a concept that can be applied to guitar picking as well.
For picking, you want to avoid excess tension and movement, and try to make the distance between point A and point B shorter, because this will increase speed and efficiency, and this can absolutely be applied to fingerstyle as well; however, this is a topic of technical ability and control, and not really related to the construction of the instrument.
Even when playing on a 5-string bass, you’ll still want to keep these things in mind, but the closer spacing can make things easier for you, just like how some guitar necks are “faster” than others, they are thinner which helps increase comfort, playability, and therefore, speed.
6. It Prepares You For Future Opportunities
The 5-string bass isn’t an exotic instrument; it’s actually been around for decades now, and it gained popularity because synthesized bass started being used often.
To avoid being replaced by keyboards, people started using 5-string basses because it gave them the notes that the synths were using.
If you start performing with other musicians, I can almost guarantee (unless you establish your own group) that you will run into an instance where you will have to play their music that requires the use of the low-B string.
By getting used to a 5-string bass, you will be very prepared, and you will open the doors for more possibilities. You don’t want to be the person who loses out on gigs because you aren’t comfortable playing with a 5-string.
Instead, you should strive to be the bassist that everyone wants to play with, and a 5-string bass should never be your limiting factor. It’s not the same as playing with a fretless bass, which will take a lot more effort to get familiar with.
The Disadvantages of Using A 5-String Bass
Even if the 5-string bass is easier than you thought, there are still a few extra considerations you should make. Overall, I don’t believe they are things that can really make a break a person’s decision to get one; rather, these cons of using a 5-string bass just some “annoyances” that you should become aware of. Fortunately, some of them are actually within your control, and won’t be a problem forever.
1. Unwanted String Noise
When you first start playing a 5-string bass, there is a pretty good chance that you might have a little bit of trouble adjusting to the feel of the instrument (which will be elaborated on in a later section).
For example, you may be used to the old spacing on your 4-string bass, so there is the possibility that your hands might be positioned differently, causing you accidentally hit the wrong thing, whether it’s a fret or in the area that you pluck or pick at.
A lot of these extra sounds can be fixed by just spending more time with the instrument and adapting to it, but paying attention to your technique can, as well.
The floating thumb or movable anchor right-hand technique can prevent some of these extra strings from ringing out; the side of your thumb is an excellent muter as it goes up and down the strings while you are playing. This is something that simply comes with practice, but I find that it’s not too hard to implement. It’s also very ergonomic, and you won’t have to bend to reach over to the higher notes.
You can also benefit from using a fretwrap on your bass as well for noises that can’t be controlled with your technique. Many pros use them, and they can be an effective way of getting the clearest possible tone from your bass.
In reality, the extra noise can also happen with the 4-string bass, too, but you’ll just need to be extra careful about it if you get a 5-stringer.
2. It’s Heavier (In Weight)
On average, 5-string basses tend to weigh more than their 4-string counterparts, which might take a while to get used to.
To accommodate for the extra string, your bass needs more wood on the body and the fretboard, and in some cases, on the headstock, to fit an extra tuning peg onto it.
All of this extra wood adds up, and there can be a considerable difference in weight compared to your 4-string bass, and putting one on for the first time can be somewhat surprising. However, they should still be playable, and the discomfort of using one of these should pass fairly quickly.
On the plus side, more wood means more tone, and not will your 5-string bass probably be heavier in terms of weight but sound as well. The type of wood that an instrument uses impact the sound, of course, but some people often forget that simply having a bigger chunk of the wood can as well.
Therefore, you have a pretty even tradeoff here, but in the long run, that extra weight on the bass that contributes to a more powerful tone should be worth it.
3. The Extra String Adds A Little Maintenance
One of the benefits of playing bass is that they’re much lower maintenance than a guitar. You can go months without changing your strings on a bass, but on a guitar, it’s recommended that you do it every few weeks or so, because they get grimy a lot faster.
Even old strings on bass can be acceptable in certain scenarios because it produces a specific kind of tone, and some people don’t like the super-bright sound and clankiness of fresh strings, which can actually last for quite some time.
I personally like it somewhere in the middle, but as long as your strings aren’t nasty looking and produce a dead tone, you should be good.
Nonetheless, you will have to change your strings every once and a while, and if you didn’t enjoy it on your 4-string, you’d probably find that having a 5th one just adds to the hassle.
Some people don’t really mind this, though, because it’s not something that they have to do all of the time like guitarists.
Either way, having some extra work to do is not something that people typically look forward to doing, so I consider it one of the cons of having a 5-string bass.
4. It Will Probably Feel Uncomfortable (At First!)
If you’ve been considering getting a 5-string bass, you may have already thought about how the neck of one and have been worried about whether it will feel good in your hands.
Since you have an extra string on there, the fretboard will need to be wider to make space for it, and naturally, this will most likely feel a little strange if you pick one up for the first time.
The feel of a 5-string neck will take some time to get used to, but it won’t take as long as you think. Just practice as you normally would, and eventually, it won’t be a big deal anymore.
Who knows, after a while, going back and playing a 4-string might feel odd! That’s what happened to me anyway after playing my 5-string exclusively for about a week.
If you decide to get one, just expect that you might need to adapt to the feel of the new neck, and importantly, do not give up! All bassists who have started using a 5-string had to go through the same process.
If this something that you are concerned about, you can also consider a brand that is known for having slimmer necks on their instruments and being pretty light-weight. Ibanez is a good example, and I recommend their SR series basses like this one on Amazon because I find them comfortable to play, and you probably will too. I found a video review of the same model, just in a different color, but you can hear how it sounds and also get a better view of how thin the neck is for 5-string standards.
Final Thoughts & Conclusion
If you’ve been pondering the question “should I get a 5-string bass?” for a while, I hope this article has given you some insight into whether or not it’s the right purchase for you.
Some people worry if they’ll get enough use out of them and others wonder “is a 5-string bass harder to play?” but they never actually get around to figuring out some of these things on their own, and end up missing out on a great instrument.
So, is a 5-string bass hard?
No. Not really.
Like I mentioned before, it can be uncomfortable to play initially, but it doesn’t take long to adjust. In fact, I don’t even discourage complete beginners from getting one. I think by starting out with 5-string bass, some of these cons can be bypassed because they don’t really know any better and don’t have a reference to a 4-string bass and how it feels.
I do want to point out that I believe it’s wrong to think of 4, 5, and 6-string basses as indicative of a person’s skill level, and they’re not used to gauge progression. For example, 4-string basses aren’t for beginners, and it’s not a “rite-of-passage” to move up to a 5 or 6 string bass as you keep improving.
A majority of the greats have used a 4-string for their entire career without ever touching a 6-string one because they don’t need one.
Still, it’s common to transition to them either due to curiosity or a need for the benefits that they provide.
So, I wouldn’t worry about whether or not its too soon to play a 5-string bass, if it interests you, I say go for it. You might realize that you made one of the best musical decisions of your life – 5 strings have a lot to offer, and you just have to take advantage of these wonderful instruments.