Are you trying to get your head around how many strings are on a bass guitar? Did you think it was meant to be four, and then saw that some bass players have more than four? Did you see that some even have as many strings as a standard acoustic guitar or electric guitar? What gives? Who gave them all the strings?
Well look no further, for today we will be exploring the three most popular types of bass guitar in relation to the number of strings that they play host to, offering you a brief history through the development of the bass guitar and the variants with more strings.
Just as it can be useful to know how many notes are on a guitar, many would rather just keep it classic and stick with four-string bass guitars. This is still kind of the standard, developed this way as a result of the ubiquity of the double bass before the electric bass guitar.
It should not be hard to see how the double bass, originally an orchestral instrument that came to be used in all sorts of other popular music contexts from jazz to skiffle, metamorphosed into the electric guitar with bass strings.
In relation to the electric guitar, the so-called standard bass guitar that we know today is relatively young, seeing the most commercial success in the late 50s with the rise of rock and roll and other loud music that simply required more volume for the vital bass frequencies to be heard above the din.
Before the electric bass guitar, there was never a bass guitar instrument that could be played horizontally like the guitar.
Granted, the tuning is the same, going from the low E string to the G, and even the pitches are the same, and, in this way, we can like double basses to the kind of fretless bass guitars that Jaco Pastorius championed in his own way through the 70s and 80s.
Even still, the four-string bass guitar is a relatively newcomer that, despite its pubescence, is now ubiquitous in popular music contexts, far more so than the upright bass that preceded it.
The strings are tuned the same, and the bass guitar notes and the pitch range are more or less the same. It also should not be hard to see why players of the four-string basses often feel the need to try their hand at the double bass from time to time, especially in jazz contexts.
Arguably one of the first commercially available variants of the modern bass guitar was one that was a five-string bass instead of a four-string bass. As certain genres were really expanding their boundaries around the middle of the 20th century onwards, manufacturers of guitars and bass guitars also sought to expand their own horizons by offering extended-range basses.
Related Read: Acoustic vs Bass Guitar: Which is better for Beginners?
This was in part due to requests from musicians wanting to hit deeper notes without feeling like they were constantly affecting the action and tension of the strings.
A haunting example of this comes in the Miles Davis tune ‘He Loved Him Madly’, where, after an extended organ intro, a set of sparse drums reverberates outward, accompanied every so often by a low C rumble that is more like the spectral impression of music than anything else.
This was not only useful for performers but also for session musicians who might be performing and recording bass on a number of different artists’ tracks each day or within one session. The addition of the extra string on such electric basses would have meant that, even in standard tuning, the number of strings would have meant fewer instances of needing to change their tuning.
The normal tuning for a five-string bass is the same as standard tuning, with the additional string featuring below the low E in pitch, typically tuned to B0, a perfect 4th below the low E. Over time these extended-range bass guitars became more commercially available to the masses and commercial begets commercial.
Though not nearly as popular as their 5 string counterparts, 6 string bass guitars were actually developed around the same time, though these were much more similar to guitars than basses, coming in the form of the Danelectro and Fender Bass VI.
A six-string guitar would actually be one that has the B0 lower string below the low E and then a string higher than the G tuned to C3.
The Bass VI, however, is more or less just a guitar that, gifted with a longer scale length, can accommodate thicker strings and thus be tuned a whole octave below the normal pitch of a guitar in standard tuning.
An actual six-string bass was eventually constructed in the 70s or so, featuring, as previously mentioned, the low B0 string and the high C3, extending the original range of the bass guitar by a considerable amount.
And this is more or less the design that is still used today with very little variation. Granted, the aesthetic and visual aspects of the guitar have changed a considerable amount since then, especially seeing as these kinds of instruments have since been picked up and utilized extensively by harder genres like metal and grunge.
Thus, you will often see these kinds of extended string basses far more often coming in the form of a mutilated tree trunk than any of the classic shapes from towards the middle of the 20th century. Not for me personally, but I suppose I can see the appeal.
So, there you have it!
Hopefully, your curiosity regarding how many strings are on a bass guitar has been at least somewhat satiated, and you are feeling far more informed on the subject, having been shown through the relative history of the bass guitar and the development of variants that feature more strings.
Find a number of strings that is right for you, and do not let anyone else tell you otherwise what to do or what to think.
FAQs How Many Strings are on a Bass Guitar?
Neither is inherently better than the other, though one might be better suited to your needs than the other. Some genres and styles of music will tend to require a four-string bass more than a five-string bass, just as other genres and styles of music will ask more from a five-string bass than a four-string bass. Basses with more strings tend to ask more of the user, especially with regard to the dampening of strings while playing, though they are said to offer a really rewarding experience for the work that is put in.
The original reason bass guitars only have 4 strings has to do with the instrument that it is evolved from. As a relative latecomer to the game, the bass guitar was the first time a bass instrument of its kind had been rendered in such a way as to allow the user to play it horizontally. The instrument it is evolved from, a double bass (often referred to as an upright bass), was, you guessed it, a vertical instrument that would be played held aloft and plucked with the sides of the fingers in a very similar way to the electric guitar.
Indeed it can, and there have been various models that have featured this many strings for decades now. This was arguably one of the first commercially available variants of the modern bass guitar, designed as certain genres were really expanding their boundaries around the middle of the 20th century onwards. Manufacturers of guitars and bass guitars also sought to expand their own horizons by offering extended range basses. This was in part due to requests from musicians wanting to hit deeper notes without feeling like they were constantly affecting the action and tension of the strings.