by Matt Day

If you’re looking at bass guitars, one of the things you may notice is that bass guitars are available in 4, 5 and 6 string formats.  A lot of people wonder what the difference between these are, and which one would be the best to purchase, especially for someone starting out on the bass.

What is the difference between a 4 string and 5 string bass guitar?  A 4 string bass guitar has four standard bass strings, which are one octave lower than the four lowest strings on a standard guitar.  A 5 string bass guitar adds one string, either at the lower or higher end of the four standard bass guitar strings to increase the tonal range of the instrument.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the 4 string and 5 string bass guitar, and which might be best for you.

4 String Vs. 5 String Bass Guitar:  What is the Difference?

The 4 string bass guitar has what can be referred to as the four standard strings of a bass guitar, which in standard tuning are E-A-D-G.  These strings are tuned exactly one octave lower than the four lowest tone strings on a guitar when the guitar is in standard tuning.

A 5 string bass guitar adds one additional string to the four string bass guitar layout, but this additional string can be added to the lower or higher ends of the existing four strings, based on your preferences about which tones you would like added to the instrument.  Understandably, the placement of the fifth string of a bass guitar provides different benefits due to the additional notes that the string adds to the range of the instrument, and how those notes impact scales and chords on the bass guitar.

Either way the 5 string bass is laid out, standard tuning practices would dictate that the fifth string added to the instrument would be a fourth higher or lower than the existing four strings based on it’s placement, so that the tuning for your 5 string bass guitar ends up B-E-A-D-G with a lower fifth string, or E-A-D-G-C with the fifth string placed at the higher end of the range.

What Are the Benefits of a 5 String Bass Guitar?

The 5 string bass guitar adds several playing benefits over the 4 string layout that bass players find useful. For 5 string basses with the lower B string layout, which is probably the most common setup for 5 string basses, there are several benefits, such as:

5 String Bass Benefit #1:  You have access to the low D without having to retune to drop D tuning.  One thing that is time-consuming, mildly annoying, and certainly hard on strings is changing tuning frequently.  On a 4 string bass guitar tuned with standard tuning, the low E string cannot reach the lower D note unless it is tuned down one whole step.  Drop D tuning is pretty common in music, especially in certain genres like rock and metal. Having a fifth bass string on the lower end tuned to a low B provides the low D note on the fifth string, without the need to return the bass guitar to drop D tuning.  The D note, as well as the C and B a step and a step and a half down, respectively, are readily available on the 5 string bass guitar, without the need to re-tune.

5 String Bass Benefit #2:  You now have the option of playing your low E in a non-open position.  Both the guitar and bass guitar benefit from having the common keys of E and A available in the open position, however sometimes you’ll want to play the low E in a more convenient position up the neck.  With a 5 string bass, you now have the low E not only on the open E string, but also at the 5th fret of the low B string, which gives you the option to walk a bass line or play notes from the key of E without being limited to the open position.

5 String Bass Benefit #3:  You have access to more notes horizontally across the strings.  With the addition of the fifth string on the bass guitar, you now have a 25% expansion of every scale horizontally across the strings.  This enables you to stay in any given “box position” of a scale without having to go as far up or down the neck when playing a bassline or chords.  When you think about the additional notes that become in reach with the fifth string, you can see that the availability of the notes is increased in a way that provides a lot more flexibility in how you finger the note progressions.

Should You Choose 4 Strings or 5 When Just Starting Out?

Most bass guitar instructors seem to suggest that starting out with a 4 string bass is probably best for most beginners, and especially for those with experience with the regular guitar.  This is the case for beginners because 4 string bass guitars are generally cheaper, and instructors understand that beginners should keep their initial investment in their first instrument low until the decide that they want to continue playing the instrument and invest in a more permanent and higher quality instrument.  

For students that are familiar with the standard guitar, the investment in a four string bass guitar makes sense because the notes, and therefore the keys and scales will match up to what they are familiar with from their guitar playing experience.  Adding a fifth string on the high end, which would not have the half-step offset as a guitar does, may provide some confusion for players who are familiar with the guitar.

Regardless of the player’s background, once a student commits to continuing with the bass guitar and has developed the skill to necessitate the purchase of a higher quality instrument, then the person is in a better position to choose between a 4-string and 5 string bass for their more permanent investment.

Are 5 String Bass Guitars More Difficult to Play?

Having an additional string on any instrument, including the bass guitar, provides more tonal possibilities, but is also more to manage and more to mentally process and consider.  For a 5 string bass, having the additional fifth string does give the play a few great advantages as described above, but it also creates more challenges, such as having to manage an additional string that you’ll have to mute out when it’s not being played.  

With that said, the additional challenges that a fifth string present are pretty easily overcome by any bass player, once they develop a proficiency with the instrument.

What is the Difference Between 5 String and 6 String Bass Guitar?

With the 5 string bass guitar explained, you may be wondering about the 6 string bass guitar options, and what the difference is between the two.

The difference between a 5 string and a 6 string bass guitar is that while the 5 string bass guitar adds one string to the higher end or the lower end of the standard four strings of the bass, the 6 string variety of bass guitar adds both.  This setup gives the player the best of both worlds and the maximum amount of tonal range, but is certainly more to manage since you’ll have to make more of a reach with the fretting hand to get to all six strings, and more strings to manage with the picking hand as well.

When Would You Choose to Play a 6 String Bass Guitar?

It seems that most seasoned bass guitar players and bass guitar instructors settle on a 5 string setup (and usually the option with the low B), but certainly wouldn’t be shy about playing a 6 string bass.  It seems the 6 string option is often just more than is need by most players, and usually by the time that a seasoned bass player considers a 6 string bass, they have already made a sizable investment in a good, quality 5 string bass that they enjoy and are comfortable with.

For most players, they would not choose to play a 6 string bass until after they have developed a good bit of comfort with playing the bass guitar and they want the tonal range that only a 6 string bass guitar can provide the bass guitarist.

4 vs. 5 vs. 6 String Bass Guitars: Which are More Common?

When it comes to bass guitars, 4 string basses are far more common than any other variety.  Most online and brick and mortar music stores will have two to three times as many 4 string bass models available as 5 string models.

The same is true when comparing the 5 string and 6 string varieties.  Any music store will have a selection of 5 string bass choices, but will be very limited in selection when it comes to 6 string bass guitars.

4 vs. 5 vs. 6 String Bass Guitars: Cost Comparison

The general rule with bass guitars is more strings = more cost.  6 string models, and both the low end and high end, tend to cost more than 5 string models, which tend to cost more than comparable 4 string models.  This may be due to the materials and the reinforcement of the neck, but may also be a factor of simple supply and demand.

Related Questions

Should I buy my son a 4 string bass guitar or a 5 string bass guitar?  When buying an instrument for a beginner, it is usually a good idea to do some online research and talk to a trusted music store staff person or a bass guitar instructor.  Most will advise that for a beginner, they start with a 4 string bass guitar unless they have substantial musical background.

Do strings for a 5 string bass cost more than a 4 string bass guitar?  A set of comparable strings for any bass will cost more when you’re purchasing more strings.  Keep in mind that with any set of bass guitar strings, you are including all of the strings of the lower model, plus one more string, which equates to more cost.

About the author 

Matt Day

Matt Day has been playing the guitar for over twenty-five years, and also plays the bass guitar and mandolin.