Acoustic and Electric guitars have 6 strings and bass guitars have 4. If only it was that simple. The option of a 4 string vs 5 string bass guitars has actually been around since the mid 70’s. Today, the 5 string bass is more prevalent than ever as musicians look for special and different sounds.
This doesn’t mean the 5 string bass is for everyone though. In fact, many would argue that there is no reason to play the 5 string.
In this article we’ll dive into the key differences with the 4 string vs 5 string bass’s, the tuning for both instruments, and finally the pros and cons!
The Key Difference Between 4 String and 5 String Bass Guitars
The biggest reason to choose a 5 string bass over a 4 string is the lower range available thanks to the 5th string. This opens a wide range of possibilities for scales, arpeggios, and chords that are not possible on a 4 string. Many also feel the wider fretboard is more playable than the long, thin 4 string neck.
For many bass guitarist, these things don’t matter. Their main function in a band is to carry the bottom end of the rhythm and support the drummer.
If you want to play a melodic role, you love to play solos, or your band needs to hit lower pitch notes than the 5 string is definitely an option.
4 String vs 5 String Bass Tuning
The tuning for the 4 string and 5 string bass guitars is actually very similar. The 5 string adds a “B” note to the low end of the range, but other than that they are the same.
A 4 String bass guitar is tuned:
E A D G.
6 string guitarists will note that these are the same notes as the lowest four strings on their guitars. The notes are indeed the same, the difference being the longer neck and thicker gauge of the bass strings, resulting in lower octaves of these notes.
The 5 String bass is still tuned like a 6 string, just without the low E string. So, they are tuned:
B E A D G.
Because the B string becomes the closest string to the bassist, it actually makes the instrument much different and is a big adjustment for most musicians.
Physical Differences between 4 String and 5 String Bass
We’ve tested a good number of 5 string basses now, and across the board they simply feel different than a 4 string in your hands. Its not that they have different parts or are constructed widely different, but the changes made to accommodate the 5th string are noticeable.
Most 5 strings use a 35-in scale length on the neck to help keep the low-B string tight compared to a 34in that is standard for 4 strings.
We also noticed the neck was either much wider, or the strings were noticeably closer together when playing a 5 string. In the long run this might not be an issue, but right off the bat it made fingering and fretting difficult.
4 String Bass Pros
The 4 string bass has been around for a LONG time for a good reason. It works. It does a great job supporting the band, adding flavor and bass notes to rock, jazz, alternative and many other forms of music.
For beginners, not having the B string to worry about can actually be a blessing in disguise. As you’ll read about in the cons section of the 5 string, the added notes the B string brings doesn’t come without some drawbacks as well.
Bass players need to be concerned with hitting the correct notes, not a ton of them. This is much easier to do on a 4 string than on a 5 string!
The other big benefit of the 4 string bass is the size of the neck. The standard 3-inch neck is long, but playable and the string placement is comfortable.
4 String Bass Cons
There is a reason the 4 string bass guitar has found it’s way into countless bands, in multiple genres, and for decades. Because it versatile and very good at what it does.
The biggest drawback is the somewhat limited range of notes that the 4 strings limit you too. For many, many, many bassists, this won’t be an issue. For those that do need that lower end, you’ll need to either experiment with a octave pedal or bite the bullet and switch to a 5 string bass.
5 String Bass Pros
The entire reason people started to play the 5-string bass is the biggest pro. The extended lower range you get from a 5 string bass is something that simply cannot be matched with a 4 string bass guitar. The addition of the adds a range from a low -E all the way to a Low B.
In many cases, like for songs in the key of C, this allows you to play an entire octave lower than you otherwise would have. This allows you to play at a octave low enough that you’ll completely stand out from the rhythm and lead guitars.
The last benefit is thanks to the extra string many of your runs become simpler. While your ability to play a wide range of notes increases, your efficiency and hand placement gets easier in most cases.
This of course doesn’t come without some drawbacks as well.
5 String Bass Cons
One of the first things we noticed when picking up a 5 string bass is that our amplifier and cabinet simply weren’t made for the lower B notes. We were able to mitigate this slightly by standing further from the amp, but in the end it caused us to replace our amp setup entirely.
The biggest transition problem we found going from a 4 string vs 5 string bass was palm muting the B-string. The open low-B creates a constant drone if not held down and silenced. Once you get used to this need it shouldn’t be a problem, but it does take some getting used to!
Lastly, if you enjoy slapping your 4 string, the 5 string probably won’t be a good option. The addition of the B string makes slapping very difficult to learn and play correctly.
The Final Notes
Like many instrument choices that a musician will face, the choice between a 4 string vs 5 string bass may simply come down to personal preference. How you play, what you want to get out of your bass, and what your band needs will all be important factors.
The good news is you have plenty of good options for either instrument!