Many beginner guitarists are surprised to learn that the bass guitar has only four strings, unlike a standard six-string guitar! Inexperienced players might find themselves wondering why the bass is missing those two strings that they’re so used to playing on guitar.
Most modern bass guitars only have four strings because they’re typically used to play only one note at a time. However, some bass guitars have five or six strings to increase pitch range and playing efficiency.
This article will explain why most bass guitars only have four strings. It will also explore the difference between bass guitars with four, five, and six strings. Read on to find out the pros and cons of each type to understand which bass is right for you.
Why Do Bass Guitars Only Have Four Strings?
The truth is, not all bass guitars have four strings! Some have five—or even six—strings. However, the majority of electric basses used today have four strings. Basses are built this way for a variety of reasons. Primarily, the nature of the bass’s playing style and its purpose in most songs explains why there are four strings instead of six on a bass guitar.
The four strings on a modern bass follow E-A-D-B tuning. In other words, when played on their own, the four strings of the bass (from the lowest pitch to the highest pitch) play the notes of E, A, D, and B, consecutively.
Bass Lines Have Fewer Notes
Basslines in music typically consist of only one note at a time. Meanwhile, guitars are usually played by strumming chords or picking multiple strings at a time. The purpose of the bass is to support the song rhythmically by tying the melody and the rhythm instruments together. On the other hand, the guitar is more prominent and guides the song melodically.
Because it only needs to play a single note at a time, fewer strings are necessary for the bass guitar. Instead of playing full chords consisting of various notes, a bass player will usually pick each string individually to carry the song’s beat and tie all of the other musical parts together. This difference in purpose is the main reason bass guitars have fewer strings than standard guitars.
Some Bass Guitars Have More Strings Than Others
As I mentioned previously, it is possible to buy a bass guitar with five or six strings. Six-string basses are the least common type of bass. Still, they’re popular among jazz players and those looking for maximum efficiency in their playing. Members of The Beatles are known for incorporating six-string basses into their music.
A five-string bass is capable of even lower notes than a four-string bass! As I mentioned earlier, four-string basses typically follow EADB tuning. However, five-string basses follow B-E-A-D-B tuning, which creates the possibility of five lower notes for the bass player to utilize.
On the other hand, six-string basses provide the added lower notes of five-string basses while simultaneously increasing the instrument’s range on the higher end! Six-string basses typically follow B-E-A-D-G-C tuning, adding higher notes for bass players to use in their music.
History of the Bass Guitar
The bass guitar’s history plays a significant part in understanding why the bass only has four strings (Why Are Bass Guitars So Quiet?). Throughout hundreds of years, the bass underwent an evolution responsible for the creation of the upright acoustic bass, the modern acoustic bass, and the modern electric bass.
The Upright Acoustic Bass
The earliest documentation of the acoustic bass dates back to the 16th century! This historical version of the acoustic bass had four strings, much like the standard four-string bass we know today.
However, the acoustic bass of the 16th century was much larger than the contemporary bass. In a modern context, you may recognize an acoustic bass within an orchestra. The player sits down and props the instrument upright to play despite the bass’s size.
The Modern Bass Guitar
The modern bass guitar first surfaced in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 50s that popular genres started incorporating it into their music (Question: Why do bass guitars have longer necks?). Unlike the upright acoustic bass, this version had pronounced metal frets and could produce notes at a much higher volume. This increased volume made it a better-suited instrument to the louder contemporary music gaining attention in the 50s.
Introducing Basses With Added Strings
It wasn’t until the 1980s that five and six-string basses started to grow in popularity. This rise in popularity progressed along with a rise in the popularity of the bass as a solo instrument.
As I mentioned before, the bass is typically a supporting instrument in a song; it helps to link rhythm and melody. But in the 1970s and 80s, more bass players experimented with soloing and using the bass as a primary melodic component. These players started using basses with five or six strings because they wanted the extra range in notes they could use.
What Difference Do More Strings Make?
There are a few differences in playing a five or six-string bass compared to a four-string bass. Although additional strings add to versatility and range, there are some downsides to basses with more than four strings.
Upsides to Having More Strings
Many bass guitars find that having a five or six-string bass is perfect for them. They take advantage of the added strings and appreciate the versatility that comes with them.
Greater Range of Capability
As I mentioned earlier, having an additional string or two adds to the range that the guitar can produce. A five-string bass can typically play notes that are five steps lower than a typical four-string bass can. What’s even more impressive is that a six-string bass can play a range from 0B to 5C. That’s almost five complete octaves! Many bass players see this expanded range as an advantage.
A bass with five or six strings will often have a wider fretboard than a regular four-stringed bass. These basses are built this way to make room for the additional strings. Some bass players find that having a wider fretboard is more comfortable for their fretting hand and prefer it to the narrow fretboard of the four-string bass.
Increased Playing Efficiency
More strings mean that there are more notes available in one place. The added strings mean that you don’t have to shift your hand as much when playing a variety of notes. This reduced movement is especially beneficial for anyone trying to play as quickly as possible. Some bass players choose a five or six-string bass for this reason—there are more notes available to their hand per position, which increases their playing speed.
Downsides to Having More Strings
Although an extended range might sound like an advantage, some downsides to having a five or six-stringed bass include added complexity and change in instrumental tone.
As you might imagine, it can be challenging to keep track of six strings when you’re used to playing just four. Although the additional strings add musical range to the instrument, they can also add complexity to the playing experience.
Change in Tone
Some bass guitarists argue that the added low notes of the five-string bass make the instrument sound too warm and round. A warm tone means that instead of sounding crisp and cutting through the noise of the other instruments, the bass line is more sustained and smooth in terms of how it sounds.
Although some bassists see this change in tone as a downside, others might find the warm tone of a five-string bass preferable to the tone of a four-string bass.
How Do I Know Which Bass Is Right for Me?
A few factors, like your personal experience and style preference, can dictate which type of bass is right for you.
Experts recommend that beginners start with a four-string bass. Because there are only four strings, it’s easier to become familiar with the instrument and practice the fundamentals. After a few years of practice, it doesn’t hurt to progress towards a five-string bass.
Style of Music
Overall, the type of bass you choose depends on the style of music you want to play. Some styles, like jazz, rock, and metal, tend to favor the six-string bass. However, five-string basses are also heavily used in metal music due to the benefit of their added range.
As you might expect, four-string basses are the most widely used today. Still, they’re considered a staple in blues and classic rock music in particular.
Finding the Best of Both Worlds
If you would like a lower range but you’re not sure that a five-stringed bass is right for you, it’s possible to tune your four-stringed bass lower than standard bass tuning.
Instead of tuning the strings to E-A-D-G, you can lower each string’s pitch to the notes B-E-A-D. These notes are the same as the lowest notes on a five-stringed bass. However, you should note that you would still miss out on some of the benefits of a five-stringed bass (like the wider fretboard and increased playing efficiency).
Bass guitars typically only have four strings due to the instrument’s simple musical nature. However, five and six-string basses are also options for players looking to increase their playing efficiency and range. Reflect on your personal playing experience and individual needs to determine which type of bass guitar is right for you.