Playing the bass guitar well takes a combination of passion, practice and natural skill.
For many, the 4 string is the first type of bass guitar they learn to play. In fact, many may never play anything else. However, for those who want to switch to a 5 string bass guitar, the process can be surprisingly hard.
There are tons of personal tips and tricks out there. What works for one person may not be as effective for another.
However, the five tips below have helped more people switch from 4 string to 5 string faster than most other methods.
- Understand the differences.
- Play it like a 4 string bass guitar.
- Play the C major scale.
- Practice past materials.
- Learn “floating thumb” technique.
In addition to the self-help tips I give below, taking lessons can provide a more in-depth explanation of the differences, techniques and more.
Understand The Differences
A bass guitar is a bass guitar, isn’t it?
Before you invest in a fancy new 5 string, you should really take into account the major differences between it and the 4 string. Assuming it plays the same, but with an extra string, is an easy way to set yourself up for failure.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that a 5 string has one additional string. This affects everything from weight to finger placement and tuning, and much more.
The average 5 string bass guitar is heavier than the typical 4 string. Believe it or not, this difference can subtly affect how you play. (Of course, there are always exceptions. In a few cases, the heaviest 4 strings slightly outweigh the lightest 5 string bass guitars.) From the weight on your shoulder to resting it on your knee, most 5 strings will outweigh the majority of 4 strings.
Because of the additional string, the strings are much closer. This means you need to pay closer attention to your finger placement. It is easier to accidentally hit a different string than you intended to since they sit closer together.
Unlike the 4 string, the 5 string guitar has two distinct tunings.
The first, known commonly as Low B (Low B – E – A – D – G), is the most popular by far. Low B is considered best for playing with a band. However, the second, called High C (E – A – D – G – High C), is also used by several artists today. Steve Swallow, Matt Garrison, and Janek Gwizdala are all famous high C bass players. High C tuning is most commonly used in jazz-heavy music or during solos. (There are hundreds of bass guitar tuners available today. From clip-on-tuners, like the KLIQ UberTuner, to stomp-boxes, like the TC Electronic PolyTune 3, there are options available for all types of bass guitar players.)
The 4 string gives you E – A – D – G. If you have been playing for a while, you probably know where every note is automatically without having to look or even think. Adding that fifth string means your autopilot will have you playing all the wrong notes. With the two distinct tuning choices, the 5 string means you need to relearn where your notes are located.
Play It Like A 4 String Bass Guitar
Adjusting to a new 5 string bass guitar can be frustrating. One technique for learning a 5 string is to play it like a 4 string. I know that sounds crazy, but there is a method to the madness.
If you opt for Low B tuning, rest your thumb on the top string and simply start by relearning where your notes are on the four remaining strings. Once you have this down, you can begin to introduce the Low B sparingly until it becomes second nature. (For High C, you can simply ignore the bottom string while relearning your E – A – D – G finger placements, casually working the new string into your playing as you adjust.)
How does this help? It re-baselines your finger placement. By focusing on where your fingers should go to replicate your 4 string sound, you can accelerate your basic understanding of your 5 string bass guitar.
Play The C Major Scale
Learning your scales is not synonymous with playing the bass guitar. In fact, many players do not know their scales at all. However, understanding your scales can only enhance your ability to play.
That being said, learning to play the C major scale on your 5 string bass guitar can help you quickly identify where your fingers need to be. Add in your flats and sharps as you master the natural scale and you can confidently play the 5 string in no time.
Why focus on practicing your natural scale? It will help you acquaint yourself with what the Low B and High C can do. By taking this approach, you focus on integrating your new range immediately. Some players will find this to be challenging, but exciting as it gives you a new range to play with sooner.
Practice Past Materials
Practicing lessons or songs you previously played on a 4 string can also help.
You have the skill and ear to detect a misplaced finger. Think back to everything you did to learn how to play your 4 string. Starting from the lowest note to the highest, apply these exercises to your 5 string.
Practicing your old lessons helps because you already know what the songs should sound like. Because you have already mastered these pieces, it makes it easier to recognize proper finger placement associated with the correct sound.
Learn “Floating Thumb” Technique
Muting your unused strings is much easier on a 4 string. In fact, learning how to mute on a 5 string bass guitar can be one of the biggest annoyances for many new players.
For many, the anchored thumb technique seems like common knowledge. This technique refers to settling your thumb on the top string while playing the notes you need. However, it forces you to contort your hand in order to reach the bottom strings, making it much harder on the wrist.
This can make learning the 5 string bass guitar uncomfortable, on top of being frustrating. That is until you master the floating thumb technique! (Check out the videos by the world famous bassist Todd Johnson to learn even more about floating thumb technique!)
Floating thumb technique gives you several advantages that can make playing the 5 string easier.
First, your thumb is naturally set one string lower than the note you want to play, making it easy to mute the previous strings. Second, hovering your thumb directly over the strings you want to mute means it takes less effort to actually mute them. Third, floating thumb is more ergonomically suited to playing both the 5 and 6 string bass guitar.
Finally, read. Do your homework. Learning your fretboard, educating yourself, and practicing the bass guitar through alternative means can enhance your playing.
With your strings being closer, your fingers need to be more nimble and, at the same time, more aware of placement. Things like music theory, finger exercises, and even playing the piano can get your digits ready to take on the more complex nature of a 5 string bass guitar.