Why Play a 5 String Bass

Have you ever been curious about making the switch to a 5 string bass guitar? I present several reasons why I think they're the coolest - read on to see why.

A little over a year ago, a friend of mine started shopping for his Christmas present – a new bass. He’s left-handed, and explained how difficult it is for him to ‘try before you buy’ even though that was the sage advice he kept hearing from everyone (myself included). Even guitarists looking for a left handed guitar have it easier because there are just plain more guitars out in the world than there are electric basses!

He lucked out and found a store with more than one left-handed bass of the style and make he was lusting after. When he described the bass to me I was a little surprised he wasn’t going to upgrade to a 5 string bass. Until then I didn’t realize how wrapped up I was in playing a fiver myself. It was his hesitancy to switch that left me asking the question: why do I prefer the 5 string bass guitar?

Part of the reason is that I was fifteen years old when I first started playing bass and my favorite band was Metallica. Their bassist at the time was Jason Newsted, who also happened to play a 5string bass. I bought tab books and noted on songs like Sad But True that Jason used the low B string that I didn’t possess and of course I wanted what I didn’t have.

I started out playing bass to complete a band composed of my brother on drums and a good friend on vocals and guitar.  Being too young to play bars, we played mainly high school events and local talent shows. At one such event a few years into my ‘career’ we played a show where another bassist had a black 5 string bass. Even though I can't remember the brand of 5 string bass he played,  I DO remember being incredibly envious of him.  I watched him like a hawk throughout his set… I don’t think he played the B string even once!

I eventually enrolled in my high school music class. It was a great experience but also a bit of an adjustment for me. I went from being ‘the low-end guy’ in a three piece band, to a part of the rhythm section consisting of several low end instruments like the tuba. At this time I learned that the keyboard could go lower than my EADG tuned bass – to me that just wasn’t right. I’m the bass player – nobody should be able to go lower than me! Hence my desire for a 5 string bass grew even more.

The local music store eventually brought in a blue Sammick 5 string bass guitar with gold hardware and I was smitten. I remember pining over that bass for what seemed like an eternity, but I never bought it. At the time my 4 string bass was the most solid piece of gear I owned; I went through a few different amp setups trying to find something functional and stable in my price range.

It wasn’t until I went to college that I finally scrimped up enough cash to buy my first 5 string bass – a natural finish Ibanez Soundgear 1205. I had that bass for almost twelve years and it served me well in that time. It took a while to get used to reaching to the second string for the E and to muting the B string when not in use. These were relatively small hurdles to overcome for those times when you can pull out a D or B in a song and add that extra slab of foundation that the 5 string bass provides.

The greatest challenge of playing a 5 string is in knowing when to use the B string and when to leave it alone: over use it and it can be overkill, never use it and you might as well have a 4 string. There’s also finding a neck that’s not too wide or small and the right string spacing. Lastly - the quest for the ultimate B string that is tight and well defined rather than loose and sloppy is one that consumes many players for years.

I’m not sure that there’s one particular reason for me liking the 5 string bass. I like that I don’t have to tune down for songs in D or E flat, I like the fact that I can throw in the low B to add a nuance to a classic cover song that didn’t previously exist, I even like how the extra string works as a great thumb rest while playing finger style! Plus, having five fingers and five strings just seems to make sense to me.

The only downside to playing a 5 string bass guitar that I can think of is the cost of the extra string; guitarists can purchase a whole pack of guitar strings for about the price of a single B string. Also, finding strings can be a pain if you live in a more ‘traditional’ town like I do. Sometimes I wonder if any of the store owners even know that 5 string basses are mass produced these days!

I don’t think I could go back to playing a 4 string bass exclusively, a 5 string bass just feels like home now.  Even though I've noticed a trend of late to string four string basses as BEAD - I'm sticking with my five.  I like having all the options of a standardly tuned four string with the extra depth of the low B, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Thanks for reading Why Play a 5 String Bass.

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17 Responses to “Why Play a 5 String Bass”

  • medoose

    interesting, I play 5 stringed bass too. My opinion is the range between string are comfort and not tiring my fingers. I also could play the more melodic notes since I feel my fingers play faster in 5 stringed bass.

  • edward kozel

    Hi fellow bass player, Ive been playing bass 25 years and guitar. first a few fenders 4 string now a spector lx 4 . recently i picked up an older spector in yhe corner of a music store, a 5 sting in very dirty shape anyway i picked it up cheap worked on it but never played a 5 this pastweek ive been practiceing on it. i coud not believe the potential , amazing cant wait yo use it on our next gig. realli had no trouble adjusting to a 5. thanks for listening to my experience your bass buddy Ed.

  • Michael Ippersiel

    Hey Ed - thanks for dropping by the site, don't be a stranger!

  • bob

    thinking of buyin bass myself. played mostly guitar for 30 yrs. just like the idea of a 5 string over four. been using a guitar with my buds with all bass up and treble down to sound like bass they love it when u said 5 fingers five strings my brain went click nice post think u used thesaurus hey what's another word for thesaurus?

  • MatthewWright

    I am 100 percent with you all the way my compadre, I've just turned seventeen and been playing for about two years now, I also would like to add i found your piece about the Bass Amp EQ extremely helpfull too as I'd never had lessons and completely taught myself I was to embarrased to ask my band mates and found solice in this site so thank you. I have become so attached to 5 string Basses I now have five, yes they are a bit costy, I have the Ovation Electric-Acoustic 5 string extremely expensive to re-string but good for when Im not bothering with an Amp, I feel the comfort of having that extra string to drown out the over enthusiastic "Big-Egoed" Lead Guitarist Is Always a joy. My first Bass was an Epiphone 5 string, fantastic neck could be better though and i fell in love, my second was a beautiful, Ibanez my faviroute make, Paul Gray Ex-Slipknot Bassist, it is a dream to play an amazing playable. Only Downside i see really, is Slap Bass when i first started strings are a bit closer together and do not have as much room to breathe, as to speak, but easily overcome. A four string now just feels extremely alien, espicially due to the HUGE gaps between strings.

    Sorry for the essay
    lots of love
    Matthew Wright

  • Michael Ippersiel

    Matthew,

    Thanks for the comment. It's always good to hear when other people benefit from some of the information I've shared here. Don't be a stranger and let me know what other bass guitar posts you'd like to read here.

  • Yehuda

    Hey Bass-brothers. I just want share with you the feeling of playing on the Warwick 5 string "Stage II"bass made in Germany. Freind of mine owns it. The sound is undescrible, just perfect. The neck is as slim as 4 string bass so it's very easy to play on it (but how easy to play is just my opinion cause all people have different hands and fingers). Suggest you guys to play on this guitar because of the sound!

  • Hey Yehuda,
    Can you tell us more about the particular model that put you into bass bliss? This was the cheapest one I found Warwick Streamer $ Electric Bass (5 String, Oil Finish, Nirvana Black) but others were listed around $5,000!!! I never played a Warwick and couldn't justify the price when I could get a custom built bass in my backyard for about 3/5ths the price. Did you play the high priced version or the more affordable one?

  • Brandon

    Hey i just began playing bass i started with a four string i was playing that for about one month at my church but at the same time of getting my four string a week later i purchased a 5 string Schecter Stiletto bass and i just recently tuned it and started playing some licks and instantly fell in love with it.

  • Hey Brandon - thanks for writing. It's always cool when you find that bass that speaks to you, whether it's a five string bass, four string or six plus strings. Keep playing man!

  • Steve Dallman

    I played a 4 string with a Hipshot D tuner in the mid 80's. When I foundI left it in D most of the time, I figured it was time for a 5 string. In 1988 I got my first 5 string and that was it. I haven't played a 4 since, except for giving bass lessons. a 5 string gives me more of what I play bass for. I'd give up the G string before I'd give up the low B. Playing a 4 string feels like I have a finger missing.

  • Hey Steve,
    I couldn't agree more with you brother - no looking back since I went to the five. Shocked the hell out of me that Jason Newsted said he preferred playing a four string. He was one of the 5 string pioneers (in metal at least) and a huge part of the reason why I got a five string as well. I haven't owned a four string bass for over 5 years even...
    Thanks for stopping by!

  • I too use 5-string Basses for most of my playing: your story of Jason Newsted being a huge influence at a crucial time in my early playing is much the same as yours (I believe we started playing and moved from 4-string around the same time) but adding John Myung of Dream Theater into the mix had me purchase an Ibanez Soundgear 1206 six-string... in Natural, the same as your Bass but with a High-C! 😉 It was my "Go-To" Bass for 5 years of Original Band/Professional Cover Band/Sessions & Live Gigging in the NYC area until I underwent a "Midlife Bass Crisis" and reworked my entire bass-life which included moving from the 6 to mostly 5s.

    However, I do have to admit that as my collection of Basses as grown (I refer to them as part of "My Toolbox" as each has something unique & different from the others... The Better-Half, though, simply calls them "Too Many!" 😉 I've found a certain charm in going back to ye-olde 4-strings now and then. Some of it is technique-based (I'm certainly a better Pickstyle player as well as Slapper on 4s, which I could and should reduce or negate with a trip to the Muting Woodshed), some is sonic-based (NOTHING sounds like a Spector 4-string with EMG PJs, not even the 5-string version of the same Bass: call it the increased body & neck mass, pickup design differences & other indefinable aspects), and some are simply unique 4-strings which don't have a 5-string version or the 4 & 5-string models of the same Bass have differences that change the inherent "tone" of the Bass: my Epiphone Jack Casady semi-hollowbody and Taylor AB-2 Acoustic Bass Guitar are the former and my Music Man Sterling, of which the 5-string's pickup is designed with different Magnet types & Wiring, making the 4 & 5-string Basses sound inherently different is the latter.

    I supposed that my point is although my "Main Bass", the one I'd take to a session/live gig/jam on a moments notice is and will likely always be a 5-string Bass for the reasons you so eloquently state in the article, that for 5 years I *defined* myself as a "Six-string Bassist" (literally, I specified that as my credit in the liner notes or live gigs I did), then for about 5 years I was a "Five-string Bassist". For the past 4+ years I've filled out "My Toolbox" with a few 4-strings (some equipped with Hipshot Bass Xtenders - there are classic songs where the bassline is uniquely defined by the Open D/Fretted Octave D that is sonically different from a Fretted low-D/Fretted Octave D) and I've simply referred to myself as a "Bassist" and felt just fine about it.

    (...although I'm about to place an order for my long-awaited Chapman Stick, so I suppose another "redefine" will be in order soon. 🙂

  • Hey Ian,

    Awesome observations on how the way we define ourselves as bass players and musicians changes over time. I wrote the post over five years ago and while a five string is still my 'go-to' instrument, I would tend to describe myself more as a musician or a song-writer instead of as a bassist. I'm not sure who said it first, but the quote of "I don't play bass, I play music" makes a lot of sense to me. It's got to be about the music first and foremost, whether the bass is in the front seat or languishing in the background is secondary to whether it's serving the song.
    Let us know how the Chapman stick experiment goes - that is definitely a huge switch to undertake. But since you braved the six string bass at one time, I'm sure you'll be able to handle all of those 'extra' strings.

  • frankie

    Need to know about a bass guitar called ambrosa bass don't have much info: but thinking about buying one to try it's a 6-string can anyone share some input plewase do so jazz.

  • Hi Frankie,

    I can't say that I've ever heard of an Ambrosia bass. Hopefully one of our readers has? Google doesn't seem to show anything for that term either...?

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