4 String vs 5 String vs 6 String Bass Guitar: Differences Explained

Aside from the 4 string bass, which is the most widespread variant, we also have 5 string and 6 string basses. There are also some other variants featuring more strings, but these are rare and mostly experimental.

4 String vs 5 String vs 6 String Bass Guitar Featured Image
Photo by Carson Ting

4 string, 5 string, and 6 string bass guitars are often compared by both musicians and music enthusiasts. This is why I decided to clear things up and bring up a more thorough comparison. So which variant is the best one? Who wins in this 4 string vs 5 string vs 6 string bass battle?

4 String Bass – Pros and Cons

The 4 string bass guitar is a standard even to this day. However, the concept of a bass guitar, both acoustic and electric, is relatively young. Back in the first half of the 20th century, the upright bass, also known as the double bass or the bass fiddle, was the way to go. It’s a fretless instrument, the largest one in the violin family.

Although an essential part of orchestras, it was usually considered too bulky and impractical. Having no frets was also a challenge for loud contemporary bands. The first solution came in the 1930s when Paul Tutmarc designed and started making horizontally-held electric fretted basses. Featuring one pickup, this Model 736 Bass Fiddle was made under his company Audiovox, along with their specially designed amplifier.

However, this one didn’t really achieve commercial success. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that this concept started getting more attention. Leo Fender designed his first Precision Bass model and started manufacturing it under his famous brand.

Although bass guitars took the same tuning from upright basses (E, A, D, G), they came with a few advantages. Firstly, their solid body design significantly reduced the chances of unwanted feedback. They were also much more practical, compact, and had frets, which made the performance much easier.

After Leo Fender’s success, other companies worked off of this concept and began making 4 string basses. At this point, it’s an essential part of almost every band out there, no matter the genre.

Practical Use

In the earliest days, back in the 1930s, a horizontally-held bass served to completely replace double basses in big bands. From the 1950s and onwards, their use slowly started shifting, and so did the music landscape. Blues and rock ‘n’ roll bands couldn’t go without a 4 string bass guitar.

This also goes for all of the other genres that emerged over the coming decades. Pop, funk, fusion jazz, funk, hard rock, heavy metal – a 4-string bass was in all of it, one way or another.

Scale Length and Neck Dimensions

4-string basses are pretty much how it all started, and their standard scale length is almost unchanged from the old days back in the 1950s. Although the 1930s bass, the Audiovox Model 736 Bass Fiddle, had a scale length of 30.5 inches, the established standard is 34 inches.

However, the scale length can vary. For instance, there are plenty of short-scale basses that are only 30 inches. At the same time, you can also find some extra-long-scale 4-string bass guitars that measure 36 inches. However, these are pretty rare to find and are only done by custom order.

The neck width at the nut usually differs from model to model. Most commonly, it’s 1.5 inches. But you’ll find so many different variants, spanning from a little over 1.4 inches to about 1.8 inches.

As far as the fretboard radius goes, most of them fall anywhere between 7.25 to 10.5 inches. Some flatter variants are available these days and they’re usually popular among more technical and virtuosic players. The rounder necks are more vintage-oriented, but you won’t often find anything below 9.5 inches these days.

Tuning

The standard tuning for a 4-string bass guitar is E, A, D, and G going from the bottom to the top string. More precisely, this is E1, A1, D2, and G2. This is exactly one octave below a 6-string guitar’s 4 bottom strings.

However, just like with regular guitars, you can tune a bass to what suits your needs. Other common tunings include drop D, standard Eb, standard D, drop C, and standard C, just to name a few. Short-scale basses can be a bit tricky for lower tunings so we’d not suggest going below the drop D or the standard Eb tuning.

Playability

Out of the three main bass variants these days, 4-string basses are considered to be the easiest one to play. This is due to having only 4 strings, as well as shorter scale lengths and smaller necks.

This is why a lot of beginner musicians and music enthusiasts go with a bass guitar. Of course, it takes a lot of time and effort to become a pro at it. However, it is a good way for beginners to get into music.

As mentioned, they’re widespread in almost all music genres these days. It’s also recommended for beginners to start with a 4-string bass instead of 5 or 6 string ones.

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5 String Bass – Pros and Cons

Although the 4-string bass remains the “standard” in some way, extended-range basses became a thing over the years. Knowing that music was changing, it was only a matter of time until someone would think about adding more strings to the instrument.

In particular, musicians were looking to go deeper than what the conventional bass guitar was capable of. The problem, however, is that the first commercially available 5 string bass was Fender Bass V which had a high C string.

But this concept didn’t last for long. Things are kind of blurry, but 5 string basses with an additional bottom B string have most likely emerged during the 1970s. To my knowledge, these basses were only available through custom guitar builders.

One thing led to another, and they became more widespread. Although not exactly certain when they actually became commercially available, their popularity grew along with the popularity of extended-range guitars. This was from the early 1990s and onwards.

It’s important to note that 5-basses today are different compared to Fender’s old Bass V from the 1960s. They are designed to support a much thicker bottom B string, which has a diameter from .125 to .145 inches, depending on the string set.

Practical Use

These days, a 5-string bass is actually pretty common. Although it’s mostly associated with some extreme forms of metal music, the instrument got a much wider use over the years. Plenty of progressive rock and jazz musicians use it. On the other hand, it has also become very widespread among players of pretty much all genres.

Therefore, we could say that its practical use is pretty much the same as we have with 4 string basses. It just allows you to go deeper than the 4-string bass. This, of course, finds use in plenty of different genres.

Scale Length and Neck Dimensions

However, as far as the scale length and its neck construction go, it’s a bit of a different deal. The neck is, obviously, noticeably longer, which automatically increases its scale length. This is expected with every string instrument that goes deeper than usual.

35 inches is what’s considered to be a standard scale length for 5-string basses. However, it’s also not uncommon to see 5-string basses that have a scale length of 34 inches. There are also some longer variants, although they’re not that common. As far as Fender’s old Bass V goes, the one with the high C string, had a 34-inch scale. The shortest scale length on a 5-string bass that I’m aware of is on Ibanez’s miKro GSRM25, measuring only at 28.6 inches.

Having an additional bottom string makes the neck much wider and thicker. For instance, the neck width at the nut is usually 1.77 or 1.8 inches. There are also wider necks, going up to 2 inches at the nut, as well as narrower ones that go as low as 1.5 inches.

The neck thickness is slightly different compared to 4-string basses. But with a wider neck, you notice quite a difference. As for neck profiles, it’s the same deal that we have with 4-string basses.

As far as the fretboard radius goes, 5-string basses are usually flatter. You’ll often find basses that have a 12-inch radius. However, it’s not uncommon to find rounder fretboards, like 9.5-inch ones. Some are also pretty flat, going to 16 or more inches.

Compound radiuses are also more prevalent with 5 string basses compared to 4 string ones. The fretboard goes from being slightly rounder at lower frets, usually 10 inches, and can go to about 16 inches in higher frets.

Tuning

The original 5 string Fender bass from the 1960s had a different tuning: E1, A1, D2, G2, C3. But the standard 5 string bass comes with a bottom B string, so it goes B0, E1, A1, D2, G2. This is an octave lower from the bottom 5 strings of a 7-string guitar.

But just like with any guitar or bass guitar, you’re free to use any tuning that you prefer. Aside from the B standard, we have the drop A or A standard. However, things can get pretty wild with 5-string basses.

For instance, some players add a bottom D1 string instead of B0. Some other examples also include this same tuning but one whole step lower: C1, D1, G1, C2, F2. The B standard, however, still remains the most prevalent one.

Playability

Switching over from a 4-string bass to a 5-string one can feel really weird. Although it’s not that hard to do the transition, a 5-string bass comes with some of its challenges. This is mostly due to the different neck widths and thicknesses. Your fretting hand has to get accustomed.

However, the picking side can also be a bit tricky. Having an additional bottom string that’s substantially thicker also requires getting used to. You should be more precise with your slapping technique, especially if a particular 5-string bass has narrower string spacing.

5-string basses are usually considered to be more challenging compared to 4-string ones. And, honestly, I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners.

Famous 5-String Bass Players

5-string basses are usually very popular in metal music. For instance, David Ellefson is one of the biggest names. Then we also have other metal musicians like Fieldy of Korn, John Moyer of Disturbed, Jason Newsted, Rob Trujillo, Steve Di Giorgio, Ryan Martinie, and Alex Webster just to name a few.

Of course, there are plenty of jazz bassists who prefer 5-strings. Some of the names include Steve Swallow, Steve Bailey, Jimmy Johnson, Abraham Laboriel, Hadrien Feraud, Etienne Mbappé, Dominique Di Piazza, and many others.

6 String Bass – Pros and Cons

These days, 6 string basses are considered as one of the ultimate tools for virtuosic musicians. Although there are other options for extended-range basses, going to some ridiculously high numbers of strings, 6 is where most people draw the line.

And the story behind 6-string basses is pretty interesting. Contrary to popular belief, 6 string basses actually predate 5-string ones. But here’s the weird part. The first 6-string bass (or at least the first known model) was Fender’s Bass VI. This was pretty much an electric guitar with longer scale length, three single-coil pickups, and the standard E tuning dropped down an octave. So just like the first 5-string bass, it extended the range with higher rather than lower strings.

Although Fender Bass VI practically served as bass guitar, it was technically like a regular 6-string guitar with a longer neck. The pickups, electronics, and its other parts are pretty much what you’d find on other Fender guitars. Although it was an octave below the standard 6 string guitar, it still sounded more like a guitar rather than a bass.

However, standard 6-string basses today have an additional bottom string and an additional top string. It’s not completely certain when this concept first arose, but it is believed that it came sometime during the 1970s.

There are different approaches to the 6 string bass. However, the most common and the “standard” variant has an additional lower string and an additional one at the top.

Practical Use

Almost exclusively, 6 string basses find their way into the hands of virtuosic musicians. While there are technically no limitations to genres here, 6 string bass guitars are most commonly used in jazz, progressive rock, and progressive metal. It’s also not uncommon to see them in Latin and pop music.

With an added higher string, the instrument also finds its way into lead sections. If you’re not using it for this purpose, you might as well have a 5-string bass. The higher string already enters guitar territories, although the sound is noticeably different.

Scale Length and Neck Dimensions

Interestingly enough, a scale length of 6-string basses isn’t really that long. Most of them are only 1 inch longer than the standard 4 string basses. So 35 inches is enough, just like we had with 5-string basses. However, you can also find those that have a scale length of 34 inches.

There are also longer and shorter variants. However, these are pretty hard to find and are limited to more prestigious bass guitar brands or even some custom builders. So 35 or 34 inches is the standard for 6-string basses.

With six strings on a bass guitar, it’s only obvious that the neck will get wider. At their narrowest part, the nut, 6-string bass necks are usually above 2 inches. It can go from slightly above 2 and up to 2.5 inches.

As far as Fender’s Bass VI, which also has its versions today both by Fender and Squier, was different. These all have a 30-inch scale length and a standard electric guitar nut width. The most noticeable difference would be the string gauge. They’re much thicker than regular guitar strings but are also noticeably thinner than bass guitar strings.

Tuning

As mentioned, 6-string basses come with one additional string at the bottom, and one additional string at the top. So, from the bottom to the highest string, the standard tuning on a 6-string bass goes B0, E1, A1, D2, G2, C3. Of course, this can change depending on the needs of a bass player. Some prefer to go with B0, E1, A1, D2, F#2, B2, a tuning that has the same distribution of intervals as a 6-string guitar.

Fender Bass VI and its alternatives go an octave below the standard E tuning. This is E1, A1, D2, G2, B2, and E3. But these bass guitars are not that common and are somewhat experimental.

Playability

An instrument like a 6-string bass is way more challenging compared to a 4-string one. The neck is substantially wider and it takes getting used to. Additionally, such an instrument is also intended for lead sections. But the approach to higher frets isn’t as comfortable as with 6-string guitars.

Unless we’re talking about Fender’s or Squier’s Bass VI, 6-string basses are more difficult to play. With wider and thicker necks, they require more experienced players. They’re absolutely not something a beginner would want to play.

Famous 6-String Bass Players

Plenty of jazz bassists prefer to go with a 6-string bass. Even those who are mostly associated with 4-string basses would occasionally go with a 6-string one. Some of the names include Nathan East, Anthony Jackson, Alain Caron, John Patitucci, Jimmy Haslip, and others. Thundercat could also fit here, although he does a lot of different genres aside from jazz.

As I mentioned already, 6-string basses have massive popularity in some subgenres of metal music. Having an additional high C string (or B in some cases) does help with a lot of unconventional lead or backing parts. As far as progressive metal music goes, the most prominent name, without a doubt, is John Myung. But other names worth mentioning are Jon Stockman of Karnivool and Stefan Fimmers of Necrophagist.

Interestingly enough, Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh also plays a 6-string bass. He has an interesting Alembic model that comes with a shorter scale, as well as lighter strings. At the first glance, it could easily be mistaken for a baritone guitar.

Other names also include Tye Zamora, Anthony Jackson, Oteli Burbridge, and Steve Bailey, just to name a few.

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4 String vs 5 String vs 6 String Bass: Which One Should I Pick?

At the end of the day, you’re the one choosing what bass to pick. But at the same time, there are some things that you should know before making this important decision. Going with one or two strings more than you need can make things harder performance-wise. And going with one or two fewer strings, you end up with an instrument that doesn’t live up to your full potential.

But let’s use what we discussed in the guide and see which one would be the best choice for your needs?

4-String

No matter the genre, a 4-string bass is the standard and is the most common choice. With only 4 strings, it’s almost exclusively a backing instrument. The scale (the distance from the nut to where the strings make contact with the bridge) is most commonly 34 inches. But you also have other shorter variants for smaller hands.

But no matter the scale, having only 4 strings is somewhat limiting if you want to do more with the instrument. However, if you just want a normal bass guitar and serve as a backing musician in most of the genres, you’ll be more than fine with four strings.

On the other hand, there are bass players who use these four strings to a full extent. The likes of Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, or Sean Beasley play some of the most challenging and mind-blowing things on a 4-string bass.

5-String

Sure, 4-string basses can be down tuned to get into lower registers. But a 5-string does that with ease. It’s still almost exclusively a backing instrument, yet it allows for lower notes. Additionally, it can also be downturned in case you need to go even deeper.

I would recommend 5-string basses to anyone who’s looking to play in the same band with one or more 7-string guitars. Doubling down on those 7-string riffs is a pretty common practice in some subgenres of metal.

Additionally, a 5-string bass can be good for plenty of other genres in case you really need to go lower. This even goes for pop, disco, and funk.

Aside from that, you need to bear in mind that 5-string basses are a bit more challenging to play. The string spacing is slightly smaller while necks get slightly wider. It requires more precision with the picking hand, especially when using the slap technique. Meanwhile, the fretting hand might require more practice.

Generally speaking, 5-string basses are for more experienced players. However, it isn’t impossible for a beginner to learn how to play on one, although it would be challenging.

6-String

On the other hand, a 6-string bass is something I’d recommend particularly to experienced players. With narrower string spacing and wide necks, it can be pretty hard to get a firm grip over the strings. Additionally, having one higher string may also feel a bit confusing to lesser experienced players.

Additionally, a 6-string bass mostly finds very specific use. Be it metal, jazz, or any other genre, it’s mostly an instrument that should also serve a lead role in some cases. Or, at least it would double down on some of the lead guitar parts and make them sound unique. But as I said, it’s an instrument for those who are already very experienced and who would know how to implement all of its 6 strings.

Other option includes using a Fender or Squier Bass VI. It’s a bit of a different deal, and a less experienced bassist could get a good hold of it. If you’re up for something different and exciting but are still not at a pro skill level, then this could be an interesting alternative to regular modern 6-string basses.

Wrap Up:

That does it for this article. If you’re still having trouble deciding which type of guitar is right for you or the differences been a 4 string vs 5 string bass or a 5 string vs 6 string bass let us know in the comments below. We will provide more information and help you choose the right type for your intended use case and preferences.

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