Getting to Know Your Bass: How Many Strings Does It Take to Screw In A Lightbulb?

7 string bass

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 and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. I find my 5 string much more comfortable to play than my 4 string and the low B string eliminates the need to drop D repeatedly throughout rehearsals, however, I would never play anything more than a 6 string.

  2. how hard is the transition from a 4 string to a 6 string? my 4 string spacing is 19mm and the 6 is 16.5mm, will it be uncomfortable for long? or will I be able to get used to it quickly?

  3. I think that most of the “basses should have x strings” debacle is absolutely idiotic. If you want to play a 35 string bass, and feel like you actually need those strings for your music, then by all means get a 35 string bass. Same goes for a one string bass. What works for you doesn’t necessarily have to work for everyone else.

  4. Thanks for another great column Ryan. Personally, I began playing with only four strings, but I’ve come to a point where I need the low B to actually feel I’m playing Bass, the E string is not reaching the low end enough. It’s personal taste and I also think it suits a lot of the stuff I play. I also love the C string (I play a 6er now), I hardly use it when I play with the band, but I like to write solo stuff for bass and that’s when it really comes in handy. I still own my second bass, a four string fretless, and it’s become quite a challenge playing it after I’ve become so used to the extra strings because I find myself confronted with coming up with something that sounds nice, but with a “limited” number of strings… but then again, so many bassists do amazing stuff with only those four strings, and that’s when I say to myself it’s good to be versatile in regards to playing with extra strings, and going back to basics. Anyway, just MHO.

  5. I think these 7 or more stringed things are not really basses, they are something unto themselves. I have played a 6 string since 1988, and I classify it as a bass beacause all the open strings sound below middle C. All electrics, physically, are more closely related to the guitar than the upright and so is the manner of playing them, yet we call them basses. When you get to 7 or more strings you leave the function of playing bass behind, and enter the world of “solo” playing. Why would anyone need to play a note lower than the A of a piano? It could only be useful in specifially orchestrated parts for the “effect” of such a low note to be appreciated. If you want to reach higher registers in your accompanied solos, more frets or a longer fingerboard would be more useful. Muting is a very serious consideration on a 6 and must be made worse by adding strings. I see more and more with 10 or 11 or more individual strings-how could you play that-people use to do “tapping”. Play a piano. You will never get the versatility of a piano out of a guitar played with a different technique. I think tapping is a gimmick. The sound of a tapped note on guitar/ bass is noticeably less full sounding and you can’t play anything really complicated like the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata without editing the score down to nothing so what’s the point? Anyway, that’s what I think.

    • I’m gonna have to disagree with you Charles. I play a 7-string Conklin. My main genre is gospel. Many, many songs have bass parts which go below B. I’ve heard Bb, Ab, even a G. My bass is tuned F#-C. Although, I rarely chord, I can if I want or need to. I haven’t seriously tried to tap, but it is just another technique available in the toolbox of bassin’. I have never “left the function of playing bass behind.” I can just do it higher and lower than most bassists.

  6. I do a lot of gigs and usually bring a 6 and a 5.When the 6 comes out of the case, I get the look{He`s going to be all over the place on that thing!}.After a set they always say,{Man That`s how you should play a six}.It`s all about note choice and playing what`s right for the music!

  7. I, like most of us I imagine, started off on a 4-string. After I had been playing a few years I got a 5, and it did take a while to adjust. Mostly I had to remember that my “bottom” string was no longer the E. Once I got used to that it was no problem. A few years back I got a 6 for a gig that required some soloing, and I adjusted to that fairly easily. Now I can go between 4-, 5-, and 6-strings with no problems at all.

    • Yup, the hardest part is adjusting to something different than the 4-banger you’ve started on. After that it gets a lot easier. I went from 4 to 5, and then even got a 7, which i adjusted to fairly quickly, though sadly i found out i don’t really need so many strings, lol.

  8. I play both 6 and four. different contexts call for the different basses. one thing that is great about the six is I can pretty much stay in first position for everything. that being said there is something great about digging into a four. having a low e as the fundamental is great for a lot of gigs.

  9. I have a large collection of mostly Fender Basses. 4strings, 5strings en teo 6string basses. I have no problem with spacing between any of the Basses I have. I switch from 4strings to 6strings and visa versa, and I even don’t notice any difference in string distance, I like 6string Basses a lot because it force me to use a proper technique for my “fingerboard” hand.. So to any gig I always have a 4, 5, & 6string with me. My band loves the 6string but I must say, it depends all on the song I play.. I do not hang a 6string on, just for the looks..

  10. I play mostly 5’s but sometimes fours. I actually feel way less at home without the low B. At the point now where I want to get rid of all my fours so I have fives only. Just so transition is more comfortable. As for string amount, I don’t see anything wrong with people experimenting with whatever amount of strings they want, it’s very healthy for creativity. Of course you should take the bass most suited to the music for each gig.

  11. The right tool for the job – it can vary from one group to another. The 5 allows good pattern position playing without a lot of shifting, then again there’s nothing like a really nice 4.

  12. I have little hands but I addapted to a six string bass well. I started and a four than went to five. I just wanted more range. I really just stay in standerd tunning and it gives me the tradional feel of bass with E A D G but the extra B and C has alowed me to add much more flavor to my music Ideas. Esp since I am at a point where I don’t really get a chance to jam with other players as much any more. So in a way I don’t become bored when playing lol.

  13. Hi, all,
    I’ve never posted here before, but had to stick in my two cents. I usually play a custom 5 (mbasses.com, although mine’s an older neck-thru model), but have and play many 4s as well. One advantage to the 5er is not just in increased range. Instead of thinking “up and down” the fingerboard, think “across”. I play a lot of shows and if I”m following notation under strict time and tempo pressure, I appreciate the extra range I can get without shifting.
    For instance, if I’m in the 8th fret area, playing in the key of C, and I need to hit a low G (remember, I’m reading notation so there’s little choice), I can reach that G on the 8th fret of the B string without having to shift to the 3rd fret, which I would have to do on a 4 string.
    So, increased range in a specific position (without moving your fretting hand) is a major advantage to a 5er. In fact, I rarely go below low E on it… even though I can. But I do used that extra range while in position.
    B

  14. I played 4 string for many years. Once I began studying Jazz in college I made the leap to 6 string. However, I found myself rarely using the low B string. I use the high C all the time for soloing and playing chords. So recently I decided to get a 5 string and tune it EADGC. I also play mostly fretless. So currently I don’t even own a standard 4 string bass. I’ll usually use a friend’s bass if the occassion calls for a regular 4 string fretted. At some point I’ll get a good, “normal” bass.

  15. Each to their own, always.

    Personally, I want a 5 string with a high C instead of a low B. Mostly for melodic/technique reasons as I’m starting a band with just a drummer and myself but (I’ll be honest) not having to deal with a guitarist would be nice.

    Calm down treble fretters, it’s a joke!

    To be honest, if someone handed me a bass with no strings on it I’d still attempt to play a tune on it.

  16. I play 4,5 and 6 stringed bass and the only problem I got is if I didn’t play the 6str. often with the string spacing.Anyway, i can deal without the high C, but without low B…. ;]

  17. Speaking for myself, I had long thought of switching to a 5 string just to have a fretted E note instead of the lowest note of my instrument just flapping in the breeze but always hated the string spacing of 5 string basses. Even though I primarily play blues, I’ve always been quite aggressive with my right hand “technique”, that is to say I’ve played mostly Fenders over the course of my career and tend to manhandle them to get my sound and tone. A few years back I bought a Fender Jaguar and strung it with the low 4 strings of a five string set and tune it BEAD (string gauges.130 to.065) and basically haven’t looked back…It took a bit of time to build the stamina to play it for a full night but now it’s become an integral part of my playing, I OWN the sonic area that it sits in, both musically and tonally and I finally got that fretted E without tuning down…kind of a best of both worlds type of thing and it also comes in super handy when playing with 3 piece bands where everyone might have tuned down a half or whole step before to get a fuller sound, now that isn’t necessary to do so, I’ve found… as far as a punchline to the proposed question? My answer would be “None…if you need that many strings, just get the keyboard player to do it with his left hand” :-)

    • … as Mary said to the Bishop. : )

      On a serious note Mike… its always good to hear musicians talk about their sound and owning their “sonic area”. I recall fondly many of your gigs over the years and that meaty sound! Cheers!

    • Well said Mike!!! I totally agree with you, I have been stringing my basses BEAD with .134-.075 SIT stainless power wounds and LOVE IT!! I currently have 2 Fender P-basses, a Hamer Cruise, and my Univox Stereo (Ric copy but with a 34″ scale) set up this way and everyone of them demands attention with every note played. It does take an aggressive right hand to manhandle them…..but is there really any other right hand technique for us old school guys? I think not!

    • Interesting – I would worry about the effect on the neck from the extra tension that larger diameter strings would exert, but if it’s working for you, then that says it all. As a guitar player who doubles on bass (regular old 4 string) my impressions from playing and listening to 5 and 6 string basses are that many bass amps have a difficult time with the deeper low end (mud) and they are uncomfortable as hell to play (too damn wide). Good on you for finding your own path Mike.

    • Graet sound you bring to the stage, always enjoy having you up there with me mike!

    • Yeah I ave also been thinking of switching to three (or four, maybe five) drumsticks but when I put the snare right in the middle of my kit I can play the third stick okay but the damb snare is in the way of the kick pedal so the moral of the story is if it aint broke dont fix it. lol

    • Wheres all the drummer jokes?? :)

    • its a bass players site Dave, the drummer jokes are implied ;)

  18. Ever since I heard “Rock On” by David Essex, I knew I had to have a 5 string. Generally played 5 strings since maybe 1985. Still have 2 ESP 5 strings. Both have necks equivalent to 4 strings, which are a rarity nowadays. Possibly looking to modernize as these basses are falling apart.

    I recently acquired a Hamer 12 string, which I love but which is a far different animal.

  19. I play 7 string Conklin basses fretted and fretless I think that the four strings that you actually need are in there somewhere?

    • I have the same 4 strings that every one else has, but I also have the other 3 that they are missing.

    • In reality all basses and guitars come from the same instrument: the Viol from the 15th century. Most had 6 strings (a few had 4 and 5) and frets. Several virtuosi had 7 strings. As far as how many strings on a modern bass? Play what works for you! If you don’t feel comfortable with more than 4, than stick with 4. Just don’t be afraid to give more a try, you may find out it’s worth the effort in both playability and tone. Also, the luthier can play a HUGE role in how well a 5+ string bass performs and feels. In the early nineties I had a Yamaha 6-string and never felt comfortable with it. But then I met Bill at @[527611605:2048:Conklin Guitars]… I played the very first (anywhere) prototype 7-string bass and instantly fell in love– and have never looked back! I always try to play ‘in context’ and consistently get rave reviews on my tone. BTW– Victor Wooten once told me ‘if the number of strings is an excuse, we’d all be playing 1 string basses’.

  20. I prefer the 5, however for the majority of us; it’s all about supporting the: Singer, Song, & Soloist – so the number of strings is moot. However, I mightily endorse the author’s recognition of the fact that keys such as Eb and D benefit greatly from that low B. Let me add that a 5 string says alot about a bass player’s attitude too: we’re not moonlighting guitar players – bass is our primary instrument. The 5 string is not about chops or flash: you must choose your notes wisely as you get fewer of them, so the 5 string player must be educated. And, the B string makes for killer passing tones. It’s all in the way that you use it – just like everything else in life!

  21. I have a 4 and 5 string electric. I love my 5 string, because I enjoy not having to tune down (sometimes to the low B). I had to use my 4 in a certain situation, and I’m renting an upright bass with 4. It’s good to have options, and at least 1 spare. Other than preference, the only thing you have to worry about is extended ranges with extra strings. I agree with John J Smith, “the “basses should have x strings” debacle is absolutely idiotic.”

  22. Here is my bass story. I borrowed $200 from my dad to buy a bass and an amp. A squire p bass and… an amp (I believe its called a boxer 10). Then for my birthday my parents bought me a Thunderbird (I was a big Nikki Sixx fan ok!) I played both of those for about a year and a half before I started listening to heavier music that needed the lower notes. I saved up my money and bought a Schecter 5 string. At this point I was really just playing as a hobby and along to records. over the next 3 years I really started to learn how to play bass (everything from the notes on the neck, to reading notation). When I decided that I wanted to go to school for music I decided that I “needed” an upgrade. I ended up deciding that I would go back to 4 strings and bought a Fender Jazz bass. I must say that the transition back to 4 strings was strange. It took me about 2 months to feel comfortable on it. Now whenever I play my old 5 string it feels weird. I love my Fender but always long for that extended range (and bigger neck). I know I’ll get an extended range bass soon, I just need to figure out how far I’m willing to go (That Ibanez BTB 7 string looks quite nice).

    • PRaeym

      Can just tell, that BTB 7 IS a very nice tool, i know i’ve got one :-)