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Bass vs. Guitar: The 6-String Debate

Q: I mean this in the most respectful of ways but, when I listen to six string bassists who play a lot of chords and solo. I can’t help but wonder why they don’t just play guitar.

A: I’ve heard this question before, and thanks for being respectful.

I’m a 6-string player, so I’ll share my views on the subject. Many of us who progressed into playing chords and soloing started on the bass, not the guitar. So that’s our instrument, that’s where our comfort zone is, and that’s where we love to play.

I primarily use chords and soloing in the beginning as a means of practicing harmonic concepts in a new way. I was simply trying to expand my vocabulary on the instrument. The shift to a 6-string while I was in college made it simply more fun to do that stuff, so I got really into it.

Fundamentally, the approach to music as a bassist shouldn’t be a question of whether it suits a guitar better or not. I have all of my students work chord shapes in every inversion over jazz changes, even if they don’t aspire to be a jazz bassist. It’s just a great way to expand your ability to see the notes on the fretboard. That, in conjunction with solo concepts and explorations, can really expand your harmonic concept and, hence, add to your bass lines, as well as your soloing.

Learning chords, voice-leading and different ways of navigating changes can really help you see how different chords relate to each other, and helps one to not treat each chord as a new tonality but, rather, a variation of the current tonality.

The real key is taste and moderation, which is, admittedly, where some folks get tripped up when playing a 6-string bass. When I’m playing bass, I’m playing bass. I’d argue that you have to resist the urge to throw chords over everything and jump up high and get “notey” just because you can. Exploring these things helps one to grow musically, but you also have to develop the maturity to use none of it when it’s not called for.

I’ve said this before but I take it as a point of pride when I’m recording a bass track and the producer or engineer have no idea that I can do the other stuff until they hear me noodling on my own, or something like that. When I’m playing bass, I want to be the best bass player I can be. I also do a lot of jazz gigs, and that setting demands that I have to take a solo. When I solo, I want to solo like a horn player or guitarist, not a (root oriented) bassist. That can only happen if you’ve spend a lot of time exploring the soloing process, melody and so on.

I know this can be a hot button issue, and I welcome your comments here.

Have a question for Damian? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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      tom drum

      There more rules to music then English…
      But like English, many can be broken, but to say there isnt any is ignorant.
      and lets not fool ourselves here, they look like ironing boards, regardless
      if your small hands can play them or not.
      Watching your tiny hands lose all their anchor points and have to come right off
      the neck so you can curve your hold arm to hit the top is bad range of motion
      and poor economy of energy, something even the pro’s talk about on the tiny necks
      dont pretend it doesnt effect you, you can NEVER be a worlds greatest (if you want it or not
      is another story) on such a large neck with tiny hands.

      Its all relative.

        Lewis Muse

        Lewis Muse

        Tom, there aren’t any rules to English or music. However there are things that people agree on. For example: I can say “ain’t nobody able to play on no iron board” when a socially correct sentence would be “nobody can play on an iron board”. In music, specifically bass, you would think that if there were a B7 alt chord leading to an E7 chord that the bass would walk on the notes B Cx (double sharp because altered 9) F# and to a leading tone to E because that is “in theory” correct when you could literally go up half steps until you get to the root and it would have the same effect. It’s not about the process, it’s usually just about getting there.

        And another thing, yes it does look like an iron board, but like every instrument there is a technique to it and he could be the best out there small hands or not.

        Ben Galinsky

        um…upright players do the same thing when they bring their arm around to fret higher notes…people probably thought the P-bass looked like a baseball bat when it first came out. Mind you – Les Claypool, Anthony Jackson, Steve Bailey et al absolutely tear six strings to pieces…whatever works, who are we to judge?

      Neil A Bliss

      SIT Strings among many, make string gauges to suit Low F# and even Low C# for that matter. Nothing stopping you from going 6 string low. It is the advent of being able to produce both lower strings and higher strings for a bass length has has at least in part driven the bass world towards the extended range. There have even been a few manufacturer production models with low F# strings, most noted being the Warwick Dark Lord. (F#,B,E,A)

      Brandon T.

      Brandon T.

      The issue at that point with super-low strings is “will the amp I use be able to produce that frequency” and most amps that I’m aware of don’t really go below a B-string’s 31 Hz (at that point you barely hear the fundamental). Honestly, though….who gives a flying f–k what a player plays? Just play music and shut up, and support your fellow bassists out there whether they play a 1-string washtub bass or 18-string bass. These debates about “picks vs. fingers” or “4-string basses vs. multi-string basses” are so childish.

      Richard

      Richard

      Kalium Strings make equal tension strings. A low F# is no issue anymore.

    Charles Owen

    Very well said,Matt!—Ive been playing for 36 yrs. Started on guitar at 12,and started on the bass at 30- I am a percussionist who plays a stringed instrument!!!—My main bass is a custom 7-string, and my primary plucking tech. is the plectrum-(80% pick-20% fingers) but I also use all types of picks rubber-felt-no hard pick smaller than 2mm.I have my own tone and style. I also have a 5-string fretless Jazz copy(75)-heck I like playing with my thumb-(picking not slapping)Its all in the beat pattern—some styles of music are have little movement-(rock)-but Latin Fusion has a far greater potential,for accenting and melodic lines.

    Lim

    Lim

    If you found Brian Bromberg boring on piccolo bass, you would probably also find him boring noodling away on guitar. I’m pretty sure I would.

    I don’t personally have an issue with what people play as long as they recognize that somebody needs to play the crucial lowest notes, and if all that entails is someone hitting an occasional half-hearted open string then the music will more often than not sound lacking.

    Zander Zon generally does an ok job of not completely neglecting the bassline, and he uses a piccolo bass. I also can’t really see how switching to guitar would benefit him.

Mcsplivens

Mcsplivens

I prefer 4 string meat and potatoes bass playing but to each his or her own. I love that people play all kinds of music on all kinds of instruments. Your answer actually provided me some insight into why some play six string bass.

Kelly

Kelly

I only play 4 strings bc that’s what I’m comfortable on. I harbor no hate of five or six gunslingers. In fact, I’m a little envious of some of them with ease they can play. But I have small hands and I’m set in my ways and comfort zone. I’ve been playing chords and soloing on 4 strings since I started in the late 70s. My heroes are Jamerson, Rocco Prestia, Paul Jackson, Jaco and Jeff Berlin. More recently I’ve gotten more into Richard Bona, Pino Paladino and this kid Cody somebody (kind of blank on his last name) who plays with Jonathan Scales Quartet and plays with a pick. I may eventually pick up a five string if I can find one with a thin neck but nothing has convinced me to make a full change. I’m happy where I’m at.

Roy Vogt

Spot on! Thanks from this 6 string player who still gigs on 4, 5 and 7 as well as upright when needed. Thanks!

Dale Carter

Dale Carter

I play 4, 5 and 6 string basses, but that doesn’t matter because I play the part, not the number of strings.

I can’t count how many players are surprised to see the 6 come out, but hear a 4-string “part”.

Play the song, not the instrument and you will never have a problem.

Tons of players in gospel and r&b play 6’s but have a groove big enough to lose a Mack truck. Lots of 4 players can noodle with best.

Bottom line? String count is a number.

Andres J

Andres J

Very interesting article Damian!
I also have very small hands, but play 5 and 6 strings only. In fact, I find Fender basses very cumbersome to play. For me, nothing beats my Tobias 6, 17.5 mm.
Even if I’m not always playing chords or soloing, I like to have the choice of playing the low E on the fifth fret of the B string, and have first position exercises start a bit closer, without having to reach that far out. That said, it’s always a pleasure to slap a low B that’s clear and sits well in the live mix.
Btw, Fodera offers basses with 16.5 mm spacing at the bridge as well.

Have a pleasant day everyone!

Ernie Leblanc

All string-innovations welcome!

If I may please offer, my 5-string is set up as “Low-E to High-C” and I just can’t put it down! My other basses cry and whine about that all the time! —–> “I Know!”

The number of strings should not distract the bassist and the listener from enjoying the music.

As Damian has said, “The real key is taste and moderation, which is, admittedly, where some folks get tripped up when playing a 6-string bass.”

Be well,

– Ernie Leblanc, “Into the Bass!”

Russ rhoades

Russ rhoades

Play the way you want to on what you want to play. Be less concerned about what other people play and how they play and be more concerned about what you do.

Gavin Lloyd Wilson

I’ve gone the other direction and often play a 2-string bas, which is NOT all about playing the root notes. I find that it challenges and encourages me to play more interesting basslines using just the two strings available to me. Yes, it was partly a reaction against multi-string basses. I find it is actually a really versatile instrument. See: http://guitarz.blogspot.com/2015/10/shonky-2-string-fretless-upright.html

Ben Galinsky

I had a six for a while and didn’t get on with it, now I have a 5 and a 4, you approach both instruments differently but they’re still basses. As for 6+ strings, why not? If what you do is musical and cool and, most importantly, if it satisfies an audience who dig it then who are we to judge? At the end of the day it’s a plank of wood, some strings and some magnets, go crazy! Me? I’m happy with 5 thanks but never say never

Michael Bowman

Michael Bowman

I’m sorry but a Bass should sound like a Bass not a guitar which is why I play only 4 string Bass. I like songs that do not have the D and G strings touched.

Chris Astier

Having played a 6 string bass for about 2 months now has led me to firmly believe that a 6 string bass carries with it the legacy of the (get this!) 6 string electric guitar, not the 4-stringed bass viol!

You all dislike guitarists whose chordal knowledge and application aren’t enough to give you much to work with harmonically or mainly seeing the guitar as a “melodic ” instrument, right?

Funky/slap lines are available, and you can do this chordally, too… Country musicians call it chicken pickin’, but if you bother to play like a guitar ON YOUR GUITAR, that should make logical sense, right?

Tubas play the bass part and i doubt that anyone reading this would gripe if a particular tuba had more valves than another, right?

Dave Guettler

Dave Guettler

Hot button? Controversial? How can that be? A bass player’s job is to add the bass element to the song, whether it’s a four, five,or six string, keyboard, or single string washtub.

    Damian Erskine (Author)

    Funny isn’t it, Dave. Many people feel like like other people need to be “wrong” in order for them to be “right”. I never quite understood that. The lines are much fuzzier than many make them out to be and, often, there need not be lines at all.

Kari Oja

Kari Oja

A good answer… The point in my opinion is the feeling You transmitt with Your instrument. Regardless of the number of strings, The public is looking for the feeling and that can be done with 4 or even less strings or with 42 strings. I play what I have because it feels good, and I think everybody should do the same. Play whatever “tonemonster” makes You feel good!!!

Ryan V

Ryan V

IMO bass chords sound much different than guitar chords. Having a bassist that can throw some chord hits or flamenco picking in once in a while can add a lot to the songs that a guitar just can’t. Respecting the bass as an instrument with many capabilities is important, I think it has a lot more room in the mix than a lot of bands allow it to.

TheOtherMarkEgan

I know right? I mean these extended range basses are almost as bad as that bloke from Florida who defretted his J bass. Why didn’t he just stick with an upright ? This is music, people, we can’t have things changing! (Btw besides being a sarcastic so and so, I’m a 4 string player but love listening to my brothers and sisters on the extended range ‘baritone guitar’)

Tom Jones

Tom Jones

Just play that bad boy.

Steve

Can you convert a 6 string lead guitar into a 6 string bass guitar by simply changing the strings?