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5 String Bass Guitar Basics

The 5 string bass is a fascinating offshoot of the electric bass guitar. Read on to find out more about the 5 string bass guitar, how it was developed and the special considerations you need to learn to play this amazing instrument.

5 String Bass Guitar History

Perhaps oddly enough it was Fender that came out with the first 5 string bass in 1964. It was dubbed the Fender V and didn't seem to catch the imagination of the bass playing community. I first heard about this instrument through bass player magazine a few years ago, but I can't recall the month or the cover story - so I'm still tracking information down. I know that John Paul Jones played one for a time with Led Zeppelin, and I have the feeling that the Fender V was tuned E-A-D-G-C rather than with a low B string.

It seems funny to me that Fender pioneered 5 string basses since the same company was reluctant to introduce the extra string to versions of their basses until well after most other major bass guitar manufacturers had embraced the concept. The 5 string bass guitar didn't evolve to the instrument that we know today until the 1970's, when both Alembic and luthier Michael Tobias created 5 stringed basses as custom ordered requests from high profile customers.

The first regular production 5 string bass guitars was the Musicman String Ray 5 which debuted in 1986. Within a few years, 5 string basses where showing up in more and more affordable models by major manufacturers like Ibanez, Peavey, Yamaha and Washburn.

It wasn't until the 90's that Fender began to adopt the 5 string bass into regular production. This allowed for boutique luthiers to rise in popularity by filling the need in the market for a 5 string bass guitar with a vintage Fender-like style. Companies like Sadowsky, Lull and Lakland helped to fill this void.

When Fender finally got around to adding the fifth bass string to their Jazz and Precision basses, they were criticized as not being true to the classic Fender sound. The recently released Fender 5 string bass guitar versions of their J and P basses offer some modern touches but remain true to the Fender sound. These more modern Fender basses can compete against the boutique 'clones' that cost far more to make by hand.

There were other companies that came up with their own 5 string bass designs including Spector, Warwick, F Bass, MTD, Ken Smith, Zon, Fodera, Pedulla, Esp and Modulus Graphite. The Peavey 5 string bass guitar has come a long way in recent years in the quality of both the looks and sound and is still affordable for most beginners.

Creating the perfect 5 string bass required special consideration, unlike 4 and 6 string basses that have an even number of strings, the bass guitar neck on a fiver need to be able to handle the uneven tension. Coming up with the right string spacing, neck width, neck radius, electronics and scale length seemed to take a while to get right for most bass instrument manufacturers. Scale lengths of 35 inches became increasingly common as a way to 'tighten up' the low B string.

While adoption of the 5 string bass reached mainstream acceptance in the 90's with players like Tom Hamilton (Aerosmith), Jason Newsted (Metallica), David Ellefson (Megadeth) and Billy Gould (Faith No More) among others - many other bassists chose to stick with the 4 string bass they were familiar with. Bass players like Geddy Lee, Flea, Marcus Miller, Billy Sheehan and Victor Wooten continue to do either the bulk of their performing and recording duties almost exclusively with a 4 string bass guitar.

Recently, a trend towards de-tuned 4 string basses with a 35 inch scale tuned B-E-A-D surfaced. While the 5 string bass guitar appears to be here to stay, it hasn't replaced the 4 string bass guitar in the way the electric supplanted the acoustic bass in the 1960s.

5 String Bass Guitar Challenges

While 5 string basses can be tuned either as E-A-D-G-C (also known as high C) or B-E-A-D-G (also known as low B), the latter tuning is more popular and is used most often in metal, hard rock, rap and gospel music. The high C tuning is more prevalent on jazz, fusion or bass solo recordings. Bassists using the low B string have lamented the difficulties of finding the right amount of punch and presence with the lowest string to reach those low notes while still retaining the definition or feel of the other bass strings.

Finding the "perfect low B" in terms of sound and feel is an almost unending quest for many bassists, Some justify purchasing custom-made boutique bass guitars that cost many times more than a good quality mass production 4 string in order to find their ultimate 5 string bass.

Factors that may affect the sound quality of the low B string include:

  • String Gauge - many bassists opt for a thicker string gauge like .130 to tighten up the B string.
  • Head stock configuration. Several luthiers like George Furlanetto of F Bass feel that a 2 + 3 tuner configuration on the headstock leads to a tighter low B. This set up has two tuners (B and E) on the left with the A, D and G tuners on the right; it allows for the B string to be set further back from the nut.
  • Bass guitar neck width and spacing. Finding a neck that is stable and playable with the string spacing not too wide or narrow seems more difficult for 5 string bass players.
  • Tone woods. The woods that comprise the body, neck and fingerboard of your bass have a large impact on the overall sound. While ash and maple are a favourite for many 5 string bass guitars, there are literally dozens of other wood choices available. Bass luthiers like Michael Tobias are renowned for their knowledge of tone woods and how they interact with each other to achieve a certain overall sound.
  • Bass guitar electronics. 5 string bass guitars tend to more often have active electronics allowing you to boost or cut the bass, middle and treble frequencies. Sweep able mid-range frequency pots (or simply sweep able mids) that allow you to dial in to specific middle frequencies (in between bass and treble) are often included on production 5 string basses. Ibanez 5 string bass guitar models like the Soundgear line were among the first to make active electronics standard on their moderately priced models.

5 String Bass Amps and Cabinets

Traditional amps were challenged with the increased low end that the low B equipped 5 string bass can create. Bass amps needed more power to reproduce the low frequencies and bass cabinets and speakers needed to be redesigned to handle them without distortion. This has resulted in two and three-way cabinet designs with increased wattage ratings to handle the power of newer bass guitar amplifiers without blowing up or catching fire.

The use of Neodymium speakers in new bass cabinets has also benefited the practitioners of the 5 string bass. They use neodymium magnets that are far lighter than traditional magnets, resulting in lighter speakers and bass guitar cabinets. Having the best sound no longer means also having the heaviest gear!

Lastly, even bass guitar cables have been evaluated in efforts to get the best possible quality signal from the bass guitar to the bass amp. If you want to have an excellent sounding low B sound, besides the other factors that have been mentioned above, and the quality of the bass guitar you play, having a high quality bass instrument cable that can handle the extra low frequencies of the 5 string bass guitar is a must.

The 5 string bass has come of age; it's no longer regarded as a novelty or considered out of place for just about any gig - from rock to gospel. The extra string serves to give the electric bassist more tonal options to explore than ever before to support the music. Whether your preference is for a 5 string fretless bass guitar or a 5 string acoustic bass guitar, there are plenty of different options out there for bassists that want the extra range allowed by adding a low b or high c string to the bass. However, the 5 string bass seems to be awaiting a hero, someone who (like Jaco did with the fretless bass guitar) will represent the instrument to the world and prove what it is truly capable of!

Thank you for reading this article about the 5 string bass, you may also want to check out my other post entitled Why play a 5 string bass?

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