The Differences Between 4 And 5 String Bass Guitars

Bass guitars can come in different shapes and sizes. Some have more frets than others. Some have more strings. If you have a little knowledge about bass guitars, you will know that they usually boast four strings – E-A-D-G.

Most of the time, these four strings are more than enough to drive a song and provide a backbone to any music track. So, why do some bass guitars have one extra string? Well, it depends on the genre of music you play, your style, and your playing experience.

When you see a bass with five or six strings, you may wonder if those two additional strings really make much of a difference. As soon as you start wondering about this, you may think that you need those extra strings to get the most out of your bass.

The Differences Between 4 And 5 String Bass Guitars

While the additional strings can be beneficial for some tracks, it’s down to your playing requirements. Most of the time, you could probably get away without further notes.

The main difference between four and five-string bass guitars is that a four-string model is one octave lower than the four lowest strings of a guitar.

A five-string bass guitar means that one string is added, whether to the lower or higher end of the four standard strings. This helps to increase the tonal range of the instrument.

To find out more about the differences, benefits, and whether you should use a four or five-string bass, continue reading. We will guide you through everything you need to know about these two variations of the instrument.

4 String VS 5 String Bass Guitars (The Differences)

Four-string bass guitars are what we call ‘standard.’ The four standard strings are tuned to E-A-D-G. Compared to a guitar that has six strings, bass strings are one octave lower than the four lowest strings of the guitar.

In other words, they are tuned to the same notes but the bass is a lot lower in tone.

Based on your preferences and playing style, the fifth string on a bass can be added to the higher or lower end of the existing strings. As you can probably guess, the lower fifth string will generate low-end notes while a higher fifth string will generate higher notes.

This means there are some additional benefits to using the fifth string. You have a wider range of notes to play at different octaves. These can have a significant impact on the scales and chords you play on the bass guitar.

Whether the fifth string is placed higher or lower on a bass, the standard tuning will mean that the additional string will be a fourth higher or a fourth lower than the existing strings.

Therefore, the tuning for a five-string bass would either be B-E-A-D-G for a lower fifth string or E-A-D-G-C for a higher placed string.

Benefits Of A 5 String Bass

Benefits Of A 5 String Bass

This extra string allows the player to use lower or higher notes with a broader selection of scales, chords, and arpeggios. Moreover, a five-string fretboard is much wider in girth than a four-stringed model.

This can affect playability and be a little difficult, especially for those with smaller-sized hands.

A fifth note also helps improve efficiency while playing. This means there is less effort when hitting some notes on the fretboard.

However, this tends to affect more technical and experienced bass players who can play quickly around the neck and with their plucking hand.

For instance, say you’re playing a riff around the fifth and seventh frets but then you need to stretch to a low F note. On a four-string bass, this will be the first fret of the fourth string (E).

Therefore, you will have to move all the way up the neck to hit your desired note. If you have the fifth string, you just need to move up one string and remain on the same numbered fret.

No more sliding up and down the neck means less stress on your fingers and more room to play around on frets close together.

There is actually a 25% expansion in regards to all the scales that are played horizontally across the five strings. Therefore, you can remain in a similar box position for scales without the need to move up and down the neck continuously to find notes.

Another key benefit of using the fifth string is the easy access to a low D. Instead of de-tuning your bass to drop D, you can simply find the lower note with the fifth string.

De-tuning is time-consuming and a little hard on the strings over time which can wear them out and cause early damage. A four-string bass that has standard tuning cannot reach the lower D note unless it is tuned down a whole step.

You may be wondering if drop D is that important. In fact, this tuning is used fairly often in many music genres, especially rock and metal. So, if you intend to play in these genres, that extra string could come in handy.

The D note on the low B string is readily available at all times for the bassists and the same applies to the C and B notes that are a step-down and a step and half down respectively. Without the need to re-tune your bass, the possibilities of what you can play are broadened.

A low B fifth string gives you the option of playing your low E string but in a non-open position. On occasions, you may want to play your low E string more conveniently.

This could be when you’re riffing up the neck and want to play this low E in the same space on the fretboard. The fifth string (B) means you can play a low E on the fifth fret as well as open on the E string.

This opens up more options when performing walking bass lines or playing notes in the scale of E without having to limit yourself to the open E position.

A fifth string simply offers a bassist more versatility in what they play. It means they can perform a wider range of genres and styles. One day you could play blues while the next you could play low-tuned metal. For session bassists who play all kinds of genres, this is a must.

Even if you do not need the fifth string for genres such as blues, jazz, folk, and funk, you can just move down to the fourth string and not play the fifth string. If you feel a lower note will fit a song, you have the option of adding it in when you like. With a four-stringed bass, this wouldn’t be possible.

Are 5 String Bass Guitars Harder To Play?

Although you have more tonal possibilities and greater versatility with a five-string bass, it does come with additional challenges. If you are used to playing a four-string bass, you will sometimes forget that you have that fifth string at your disposal.

This means your plucking fingers will probably play the wrong string when you first start practicing. Managing the extra string takes some time to master but, as with any musical instrument, practice will help you eventually.

One main issue many bassists find when they pick up a five-string model is the wider neck. This can negatively affect playability and is certainly more difficult to play than a narrower four-string bass guitar.

A chunkier fretboard means it is harder to wrap your whole hand around. For beginners, this can be painful and frustrating, especially if they have smaller hands.

Some people prefer to start on a five or six-string bass guitar to get used to the wider neck immediately. They may also choose such models because of the music they intend to play.

However, we recommend starting in the shallow waters. Four strings are easier to play with for beginners and are more than enough to learn the basics on such as notes, tuning, and scales.

You should also consider the distance between the strings of four and five-string bass guitars. On five-string bass guitars, the distance between each string is typically less or equal to 16.55 mm around the bridge area.

With a four-string model, the distance is usually around 18 mm. Some even have distances of 19 mm or 20 mm meaning there is more room to play and less chance of hitting the wrong string.

Once you develop some proficiency and become technically adept on a bass, the fifth string shouldn’t cause any issues. Instead, it should be a welcome bonus for an array of songs.

Which One Should You Choose? 4 Or 5 String Bass?

Which One Should You Choose 4 Or 5 String Bass

So, we have concluded that a five-string bass offers more versatility than its four-stringed cousin. But, does this mean it’s necessarily better? Well, not really.

Yes, having the additional range at your disposal can be very useful but only for certain players and genres. Most pieces of music do not require the extra range a five-string offer.

Nevertheless, you should consider some of the key reasons why a five-string bass may be right for you.

Reasons To Buy A 5 String Bass

  • You want or need access to lower notes on your bass
  • The genre of music (metal, funk, etc) you play requires lower notes but, at the same time, needs standard tuning as well
  • You want to experiment with different scales, arpeggios, and chords
  • You are a very experienced and technically sound bassist with many years of playing behind you already
  • You are tired or have mastered the four-string bass and want a new challenge
  • You do not like de-tuning your bass when you need a lower tone
  • You want just one instrument for all genres you play rather than two, three, or four for each live show

If any of these apply to you, then a five-string bass should be considered. On the other hand, if you cannot relate to any of these points, then it may be best to stick to a four-stringed bass guitar.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is More Common? 4, 5, Or 6 String Bass Guitars?

Four-string bass guitars are the most common and regarded as the standard model of bass. Browse online music sites or music stores and you will probably notice many more four-string models than any other variety including five and six-string models.

When it comes to comparing five and six-string bass guitars, most stores will have a few examples of five-string basses but a very small selection of six-string models. You may find it difficult to find a six-string bass in many music stores as they are not commonly played.

What Costs More? 4 Or 5 String Bass Guitars?

It goes without saying but an additional string equals additional costs. So, when you buy a set of four bass strings, you can usually figure out the cost of each string by dividing the full price against the four.

Therefore, an extra string should cost the same but on top of the final price.

This rise in cost also applies to the whole bass guitar. Six-string bass guitars tend to cost more than five-string models which, in turn, cost more than four-stringed basses.

This could be down to a variety of factors such as the materials used in the construction of the bass as the more strings the instrument has, the more reinforcement it will need to withstand the tension on the neck.

It could also be a simple factor of supply and demand as well. Some brands cost more than others. For beginners, we do not recommend spending a large sum on your first bass.

Start with a beginner model and when you progress, you can start thinking of more expensive models.

Why Is A 4 String Bass Easier To Play Than A 5 String Bass?

As we mentioned above, the fretboard of a five-string bass guitar is generally wider than a four-string bass. Therefore, it takes more effort to wrap your hands around the neck and master the larger fretboard.

The fewer strings there are, the easier it will be for a beginner to learn the ropes. Four strings are more than enough for you to learn basic notes, scales, chords, and the overall roadmap of the fretboard.

To learn basic theory and techniques, we suggest sticking to a four-string bass at first. As your skills progress, you may want to branch out and challenge yourself on a five-string bass. Time will tell what type of bass will suit your style best.

Andrew Patterson
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