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Making the Switch from 4- to 5-String Bass

5-String Bass
Photo by Darrell J. Rohl

Q: I have recently made the move from 4-string to 5-string bass. I love the extended range (my bass is tuned E-C), but I’m finding I need to add more practice time to accommodate the additional string. There were exercises that I played on 4 strings and I am now expanding that to include the additional string/range. I can see that having the additional string might require more practice time for technique and finger board knowledge. Is that proper approach, or should I simply practice as I did with the 4 and address the new string as needed? I have found that just the wider neck offers new challenges on things I normally played easily. Any advice on getting acclimated and perhaps dividing practice time to address would be greatly appreciated.

A: Great question. I made the leap from a 4-string to a 6 in college and have played either 4 or 6 ever since. I was relatively comfortable on the instrument after a few weeks, and it felt like home after a few months. There were two things that really got me internalizing the instrument quickly.

  1. Practice past material. Take everything you can think of that you worked on with a 4-string and rework it on the 5 (while also expanding the range of certain exercises). If you were shedding scales in one position from lowest available note to the highest, re-learn the exercise on your 5-string starting on the lowest string and ending on the highest.
  2. Reading. Reading was really the thing that forced me to learn the fretboard well, very quickly. When I got my 6 string, I didn’t even touch my 4 string for a few years. I was really into the new instrument and wanted to spend every moment getting familiar with it. Because I was going to Berklee, I was spending much of every evening working on materials for various bass labs and classes. I didn’t allow myself to put the 6 down and grab the 4 as a security blanket. I worked every piece of music I had to learn and did it in multiple positions on the fretboard, thereby forcing myself to figure out where the notes were everywhere.

I would also grab cello suites, pieces written for bass, trombone, tuba… anything I could find in bass clef, and would practice sight-reading on the instrument. I didn’t really bother with working on one piece over and over again until it was memorized but, rather, kept flipping through different pieces and trying to read them at a moderate tempo on the new instrument.

I dug out old solo transcriptions (especially the ones that extended beyond my 4 string range in either direction) and re-worked them on the new instrument, paying attention to fingering and how I navigated the fretboard (trying to work in one position as much as possible).

If you think of something that you learned on the 4 string, make sure that you can play it on the 5.

If you don’t read, now might be a good time to learn! If you do, then now is a great time to challenge yourself with some new (and old) material.

Everyone is different but I know that, personally, if I just added the extra strings and range and then said to myself, “I’ll just use those strings when it strikes me in the moment and eventually get used to them…” well, I would never really use them enough to get used to them. I’m lazy, which is why I have to set goals and parameters for myself. If I don’t, I won’t do anything at all. I would remain in my comfort zone, choosing to travel up the fretboard on my internalized 4 strings and neglect the B and/or C strings except when it was obvious to me how I could use them in the moment.

Learning anything new (and learning it well) demands that you shift your focus and build a strong foundation. My advice is to start over and learn everything utilizing your new range in every position. Challenge yourself and don’t let yourself gloss over anything. If you apply some laser-like focus, you’ll feel right at home on your new instrument in no time.

Readers, how about you? If you’ve made the switch from 4-string to 5, 6 or beyond and have some advice, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Please share your thoughts in the comments.