Getting to Know Your Bass: How Many Strings Does It Take to Screw In A Lightbulb?
Ok, this column’s title is a bad joke (feel free to come up with you own punch line).
In the past few columns of this “Getting To Know” series, we’ve examined a number of topics that relate to what your instrument can do, why you prefer it, and how that impacts your playing ability on the instrument. After discussing tone controls, scale length, action, and set-up, we’ll now move on to the highly debated topic: number of strings!
Fifty years ago, this issue was about as important as wireless Internet… it simply didn’t exist. If you wanted to play more than 4 strings, you had to pick up a guitar. Today, it’s almost as common to see someone playing a 5-string bass, or even a 6-string (sometimes more). So let’s talk about why this happened.
The decision to play one over the other usually comes down to a handful of issues: comfort, technique, what you desire to play in a creative setting, what your gig requires and your personal ideology of traditionalist vs. modernist bass playing.
Having the extended range of a 5- or 6-string bass is a great tool, specifically in certain playing situations, but there are just as many technique-related reasons to choose one bass over another.
First, in order to de-mystify the “that bass is bigger than you are” theory, it’s not particularly difficult for a smaller person to play a large instrument. Think about it this way… Steve Bailey often plays a six string and Stanley Clarke plays a four. Your ability to play the instrument has less to do with size and more to do with developing good technique.
If your fretting hand can get used the wider neck, then a 6-string may be a good tool to have in your arsenal. The high C string can come in handy for playing chords, since you’ll have different options for voicing and playing through progressions. Tapping into the higher range is also beneficial for soloing, since you’ll have a greater variety of notes at your disposal. The higher notes will be more audible in the overall mix, so if your bass solo tends to get lost under the other instruments (if they’re actually playing during your solo), then the notes in the higher register will stand out more.
While a 6-string can be fun to play, it may not always be appreciated “on the job.” For instance, if you show up to a blues or rock gig and take advantage of the full range of a 6-string, you might get “the look” from some of the other band members. Even if you’re sticking to the standard four strings and making appropriate musical choices, the other players may judge you based upon the “fancy” appearance of your instrument. However, if you’re doing a modern jazz-fusion gig, then that may be just the right time to bring the 6-string.
For many players, the good ol’ 4-string bass is just the ticket. Chances are, all of the notes you’ll need to play are present on those strings and having a lighter-weight instrument is a huge advantage, especially on the days when you have an extra long practice session or run from one gig to the next. Plus, all of the great sounding vintage Fenders happen to be 4-strings.
If you’re a long time 4-string player and then decide to buy a 6-string bass, you might have a difficult time adapting to the width of the neck and the spacing of the strings. The last thing that you want is stress on your joints or pain in your wrist or elbow due to a shift in your technique to play the instrument. That said, if you’re used to playing a 5- or 6-string bass and then decided to go back to a 4-string, there may be a period of adjustment for you as well. Although every bass is different, the strings on a 4-string are usually farther apart, so the little bit of extra movement could impact your speed chops.
While the number of strings affects your fretting hand technique, it can also make a big difference with your plucking hand. As someone who is frequently asked “why a 5-string?” the real answer comes down to my right hand technique. Most of the time, I rest my thumb on my low B string instead of the pick up. It brings my plucking fingers closer to the other strings, mutes any rumbling from the low B string and gives me flexibility with positioning. I don’t always have to keep my hand over one of the pick-ups and can anchor in different places along the string. It’s great to have access to some of the lower notes, particularly the D, Eb, and fretted E, but the impact that the low B string has on my technique is the real reason why I prefer five to four.
Finally, the “string theory” comes down to a very subjective issue: what I will label as your “personal bass playing ideology.” I’ve spoken with many players who take an old school approach to the instrument and believe that basses should only have four strings. While some may scoff, that is a completely legitimate theory. Violins, violas, cellos and upright basses all have four strings (historically) and that doesn’t inhibit players’ ability to create music. The original electric basses only had four strings, and if you really need that low D, you can tune down. Plus, a vast amount of music you listen to or attempt to play is recorded using a four string (including all of those James Jamerson and Paul McCartney bass lines).
Other players take a very different approach to the theory of bass and inquire, “why should we be limited to only those four strings?” Why not have lower notes at our disposal to add more bottom end to the music, or higher notes for the times we step into the spotlight to solo? These days, a great deal of music is recorded using a 5-string, so having the low B string for rock, modern country, R&B, and Gospel can really come in handy for staying true to the record.
At the end of the day, there’s no wrong or right when it comes to the bass you play, as long as it gives you what you need from a musical, technical, and professional standpoint. You want to feel confident in your ability to play the instrument well and do whatever job you’ve been hired to do. Take a moment to think critically about your instrument and try to define why it works for you (or why it doesn’t). If you think another instrument may be a better fit for your, then perhaps it’s time to hit the bass forums and guitar shops.
What’s your take? Tell us your thoughts on the “number of strings” debate, and tell us about your gear (or give us your punchline for the title) in the comments.
Photo by Zach Haddock
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!