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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