Buyer's Guide

Should I Buy A 4 Or 5 String Bass?

So you’ve decided to get a new bass guitar. Yay! Should you get a 4 or 5 string bass? What about 6 strings? Let’s look at the pros and cons of each!

Buying a new bass guitar is very exciting since it’s something that will probably be with you for many years to come.

How are you supposed to know if you should buy a 4 or 5 string bass though? On top of that there are even 6 string basses out there. What’s the difference?

The 4 string bass is the most popular and the best choice for most beginners.

The 5 string bass guitar adds an extra low B string which is great for downtuned music, while 6 string basses are best for more advanced bassists who will use the upper register more for things like soloing.

The 4 string bass is the most popular and has been around the longest. Popularity of 5 string basses took off in the 70’s and 80’s when keyboards and electronic music became popular and used even lower notes than the 4 string bass. Bass players wanted to keep up so they added an extra string enable even lower notes.

In the late 70’s a bunch of great bass soloists like Jaco Pastorius came into the spotlight and showed how an extra higher string could aid in coming up with new melodies and solo ideas, and this is how the 6 string bass started to become popular.

Something To Consider Before Choosing

It’s important to not jump back and forth between bass guitars with different numbers of strings if you have more than one. Otherwise you’ll never develop your playing in a solid and meaningful way.

The 5 and 6 string basses should not be thought of as a 4 string with just some extra strings attached. They are each their own instrument and they take quite a bit of practice to get the notes and shapes under your fingers, and you will develop specific techniques over time for each guitar due to how you must approach muting.

First let’s look at some pros and cons of the 5 string bass!

4 or 5 string bass guitar image

Benefits Of A 5 String Bass Guitar

  • The biggest and most obvious benefit of a 5 string bass is the extended lower range because of the added B string. If playing in the key of Eb or D on a 4 string for example, the lowest root note would be up pretty high and you won’t get a nice low-end sound. This is where the 5 string bass shines. You get access to all those notes that would otherwise not be easily played on a 4 string.
  • A lot of music, especially in things like shows and musicals, is written with a 5 string bass in mind. If you turn up for a show that has written music with your 4 string, you’ll probably have a bad time.
  • It’s advantageous when playing with other instruments that are tuned down so you don’t have to go through the hassle of tuning. It can get complicated figuring out where all the notes are located when tuned down, so it’s better to stick with a 5 string and get used to the note placement and scale shapes with this extended lower range in its standard tuning.
bass 5 string picture

Reasons You Shouldn't Play A 5 String Bass

  • You might ask, “Is it harder to play on a 5 string bass?” Well, muting the low B string on a 5 string bass is hard. It will take some time and effort to practice muting it with the back of your thumb so it doesn’t rumble in the background while playing the higher notes. It’s something you’ll have to keep at practicing, but once you get it down it’ll become second nature.
  • Don’t think that it’s the natural progression of a bassist to go from 4 string to 5 and then finally to 6 when they get better.  The 5 string just serves to add an extra function should you need it, so don’t think of it as the “next step” in your bass playing journey.
  • Don’t get one if you have no intention on using the low B string. Just getting a 5 string bass to have an extra low string in case you might need it one day is not a good idea. It’s a whole different beast, and it’s much more beneficial to stick with a 4 string and nail down the basics while not having to worry about altering your technique. 
  • Because of the extra string and extra notes, it has a bit of a steep learning curve to it. Don’t even bother getting one if you aren’t willing to put in the extra practice time.
  • Because of the thicker neck to accommodate for the extra string, 5 string basses tend to be a bit on the heavy side. If you play standing up for long periods of time you might want to consider one of my recommendations for best lightweight bass guitar instead.

Is It Worth Buying A 6 String Bass?

As a beginner the 6 string bass shouldn’t even be on your radar. At the beginning stages of learning bass guitar you should be focusing on the basics and sticking to the low-end instead of the upper end of the spectrum. There really is no need to play an extra high string at this point in your bass playing. 

For you intermediate basists out there, it’s important to note that right hand muting can be an absolute nightmare until you put in the time practicing how to properly mute the low strings. There tends to be a lot of extra low-end rumble for those not fully comfortable with the muting techniques.

Since a 6 string bass has such a large higher register, it can also be tempting to jump around the neck playing lots of notes. A lot of people think that since you have an extra string you HAVE to use it, so they will noodle around trying to play more than they really should at times. This gets away from the core role of the bassist.

On top of all this, there’s much more information to learn. With 2 extra strings scale shapes and patterns are much larger and harder to memorize. This can be a major roadblock when it comes to learning the neck properly.

Lastly, because of the increased width of the neck 6 string basses tend to weight quite a bit which can be a problem during long gigs.

Despite all these negatives, there is a place for the 6 string and it really is a beautiful instrument. If you know what you are doing and are willing put in the effort to properly learn it, the tremendous capabilities will blow you away.

If you have a lot of experience with the bass and want to take your soloing to a new level, the 6 string could definitely be for you.

How Many Strings Should A Beginner Bassist Use?

The safest bet and the most common response you’ll get is to buy a 4 string bass guitar as your first. It really depends on the type of music you play though.

Checking out what kind of guitars your favorite bands use is a great first step.

If you are playing mostly downtuned metal, you’ll probably want to start with a 5 string bass so that you don’t have to constantly downtune your guitar.

If you like playing slap bass, the extra string on a 5 string bass might get in the way and the strings being a little bit closer might cause some troubles for you.

It’s just something you’ll have to test out to see what works best for you.

Go down to your local music store and play around to see what you like!

Okay I Made Up My Mind. Now What?

The first step once you know how many strings you want is to choose a bass guitar that is comfortable for you.

Don’t worry too much about the sound it produces since you can easily get the sound you want by swapping out the pickups.

Your goal should be to pick a well-constructed and high quality bass within your budget and preferences.

If I had to choose the most well-rounded 4 string bass to recommend it would be the Fender Precision, and for a 5 string I would choose the Ibanez GSR5.

We’ve also created a couple more specific buyers guides like the Best Bass Guitar For Kids and Best Bass Guitar For Funk, so be sure to check those out as well.

Still having trouble deciding? Head down to your local music store and ask around!