5-string vs 4-string bass

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5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Steve Sawyer » Wed Aug 08, 2018 1:40 pm

I've been playing guitar fairly seriously for close to 30 years, and have only been making good progress, getting to the point where I'm not embarrassed to play in a room full of people over the course of the last 10 years or so. A couple of years back, Marcy bought me a Squier Bass VI for Christmas, and I've really gotten sucked into learning bass. In fact, the only actual public performance I've done in the last couple of years has been on bass! However, I have not (as I have with guitar) pursued any formal education, but plan on starting a subscription to Scott's Bass Lessons sometime in the next six months. Right now I'm working hard on acquiring some keyboard skills, and I want to get some more sight-reading skills under my belt before I put something else on my plate.

I have plans to begin work on a short-scale bass when the current build is completed. My bass VI (also a short-scale - 30") is a load of fun, but the string spacing makes it really hard to play with anything but a pick, so I want to build a 4- or 5-string instrument with more conventional string spacing to begin developing some right-hand technique. I'm thinking since I'm building the darn thing, why not do a 5-string? One of the things I understand is an issue with 5-string basses is not using them as a 5-string, basically ignoring the "B" string. Since I'm still learning, I shouldn't have that problem, since I'll be comfortable with using (and muting) that "B" string from the start.

I'm wondering if there is anything about doing a 5-string, either from a construction or playing standpoint that should give me pause. The thought occurred to me that tuning that "B" string might be a problem with the short scale length. However, my bass VI plays just fine, and just for giggles I tuned the 6th string down from "E" to "B". While it was a bit "floppy", I got no noticeable fret buzz, and I saw no reason that it wouldn't intonate properly. I believe I'm correct in thinking that a heavier-gauge string would require more tension to be tuned to pitch, so this might not be an issue.

Thanks!
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby David King » Wed Aug 08, 2018 5:29 pm

Steve in my experience the higher the string tension the sooner the notes get from your fingertips to the listener. That lag can be overcome with playing a little ahead of the beat but I've found that 32" scale is the shortest practical with the B string. DR make some very handy heavy gauge strings as part of their Drop Down Tuning line including a .145 B string. These strings are exceptionally flexible and intonate very accurately as a result. Unfortunately they aren't designed with short scale bass in mind so they are all standard 38" wound length. You would have to pass the strings through the body at the bridge and anchor the ball ends a few inches away under the pickups or something like that.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Steve Sawyer » Wed Aug 08, 2018 8:53 pm

Thanks, David. Are those DR strings flat or round-wound? I really prefer flat if I can get 'em.

For me, anything shorter than a full 34" scale length is an improvement, so I can design it for a 32" scale.

I was at an event a month ago comparing notes with another short-scale bass owner. He buys regular bass strings and unwinds them enough to wind them onto his tuners.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Brian Evans » Thu Aug 09, 2018 12:29 pm

For me, if you are a guitar player, playing bass is about mindset, not technique. Compared to a guitar, with multiple lines, harmonies, chord-melody, travis-picking, et-al, bass is physically straightforward. When I was learning bass, in a jazz context, the point of the exercise was time, playing in the pocket, anchoring the rhythm, and then playing the changes - emphasis on the root, the five of the chord, anchoring the harmonies and staying out of the way of the complexities that the other musicians are playing. For that, and for learning essential bass physical technique, I highly recommend a four string Fender clone instrument. There is a reason why that scale length is so popular. Keep it simple, keep it clean, and focus on learning the musical element rather above all. I would build a Fender P or J clone, they are good enough for savants like Jaco Pastorius, after all. And never forget Carol Kaye, probably the most recorded bassist in the world, over 10,000 recordings, played four strings and a Fender for almost all of those. And she uses a pick... :)
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Beate Ritzert » Thu Aug 09, 2018 3:46 pm

First: which music do You plan to play? A B string is necessary in only certain instances:

metal - here a four string bass tuned BEAD is usually the choice.

musical an the like, i.e. composed bass lines. Although usually not explicitly stated, a 5 string with a low B is generally expected.

String length/ thickness: i am aware of one 5string bass with a scale of 30", the Maruszczyk Cazpar. AFAIK, thas bass does not use an ultra thick B string, and that corresponds to my experience with the B string at 32":
these thick strings usually lack overtones and thus produce a signal with a massive fundamental but little more. And that sounds floppy. What You need is overtones, at least the 2nd octave. And that demands for relatively thin B strings, between, say 0.125 and 0.130. Preferrably round wound, even if the rest of the set is flat or semi flat or tapewound.

BTW: the thickest flat wound string i am aware of is the Thomastic Jazz flat with .136.

My feeling is that a 5 string short scale might also profit from a very stiff neck.

Another impression: on my 30.5" Epiphone EB-3, the E string of the GHS bite flats set - a fat 0.108 string - can be downtuned to C#. That's the point where the string starts sounding floppy. Extrapolating that to a B string would also indicate something close to 0.125.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Steve Sawyer » Thu Aug 09, 2018 4:46 pm

Brian/Beate - thanks so much for your thoughts.

My guitar playing has focused on blues soloing. In the last couple of years I've delved into music theory, and have been fascinated with how much that relates to building bass lines. When I first started goofing around with the bass, it wasn't quite a transcendental experience, but I quickly found myself thinking that I'd been working very hard for too long trying to learn the wrong instrument. Bass seems to plug right into my love of rhythm and musical structure. I also discovered that playing bass in a traditional 12- or 8-bar blues context can be fun, but a bit limited. I find with bass I'm more drawn to funk and jazz.

Also, as a (somewhat typical) guitarist I am only now starting to learn to read music via studying piano, so my understanding of theory is rooted (no pun intended) in the patterns of intervals on the fretboard. Having that extra B string seems to be tempting so I have the option of building easily fingered arpeggios in lower registers based on roots from G to C.

I'm not married to the idea of a 5-string, it's more of looking for answers to the "why not?" question! :D

Also, Beate - can you expand on what you mean by a "very stiff neck"? Are we talking about neck wood choice, cross-section, reinforcement, choice of truss rod?
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Beate Ritzert » Thu Aug 09, 2018 5:25 pm

A truss rod just conteracts the force of the strings by an opposite force allowing for actually pretty weak necks to be used.

The stiffer the neck the less truss rod force you need. And a really stiff neck - aside of possibly not necessarily needing a truss rod at all.

Stiff necks have other properties which may be important: the resonate less (that's where a truss rod has little to no effect). So a stiff neck does not absorb the energy of the strings as much as a neck with lesser stiffness. And it is less prone to dead spots. IMHO all this helps with especially the B string. Better sustain, more harmonics because the higher harmonics always fade out quicker.

But what's You problem with the Bass VI? Especially from Your background? It allows You to combine really bassy bass lines with a bit of guitar comping or solo licks. At least that's what i'm using my Bass VI for (a converted 4 string shortscale with a split coils and La Bella flats...). My preferred pick for such stuff is a Dunlop Jazz 1 with a tip i slightly rounded...
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby David King » Thu Aug 09, 2018 8:31 pm

A 4 string will give you a lot more pickup options, especially pickups that can cancel hum.
The DR DDT strings are round wound but like any round wound you can sand them with 1000 grit to reduce the surface roughness without sacrificing sustain and clarity (overtones that your brain uses to interpret the fundamental.)
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Joshua Levin-Epstein » Fri Aug 10, 2018 5:41 am

This is just so complicated. We all make recommendations based on our experiences (which is better than based on something you read somewhere) and its pretty easy to be monolithic in one's opinion. So this is what I think. I would be pleased to be proved wrong. It happens a lot.

I started playing bass with small hands (no options) and short scale basses. Not intentionally , a $35 Hofner copy then an EB-0 and EB-3. A lot of this has to do with what's popular. I got to Berklee and it was pretty obvious that EB-3 didn't work very well, especially the E string. I knew I needed a Fender bass. In my youthful exuberance I thought about having the Gibson, a Rickenbacker and a Fender. Then I realized I'd probably only play the Fender. Once again it can depend on what's popular. As an aside, I couldn't give that EB-3 away.

So I ended up with a Fender, which I still have more than 40 years later. Assuming I could cut the gig (a big assumption) I'd bring that P-bass anywhere. I could play it through a telephone receiver and it would sound good.

(Opinion warning)
I agree with David and Brian. You'll have a lot more of everything to choose from if you go with something Fenderish. My personal opinion is that anything shorter than 34" is substandard. Yes, lots of (incredible) players used and use short scale instruments. And I still have small hands. I don't care. 34" is just about long enough to get that E string good to my ears. Everyone can disagree but it won't change my mind.

I picked up a decent 5 string to get an idea of what that is about. 35" scale. That B string (.135) still needs help. That DR .145 has piqued my interest.

So, if you want to build a 5 string, do so. I think the 35" scale helps the higher strings, even if it isn't a cure all for the B string. If I were to build a bass for all seasons, it would be a 4 string 34" fenderish thing with a P/J set of pick ups. Because that's what I've played for just about forever. If I wanted to get bold, a 35" version of the same thing might even be better, assuming it talked to me and I actually sat down to play it once in a while.

I could go on, but I have to get back to the laundry. Let us know what you decide.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Beate Ritzert » Fri Aug 10, 2018 7:00 am

First of all: the Fender religion... and 34" ideology... shorter scale basses sound indeed a bit different from longer scale basses, but they do not need to be inferior. You might search for sound samples of the Cazpar basses for example. Or the Fender Mustang.

Well, and my short scales all have good E strings. Not only i consider them not inferior to 34" basses.
The main disadvantage of most of those old short scale basses is due to their extreme pickup positions which limit their musical possibilities a lot!
That's why i prefer to have a good pickup in the position introduced with the Sting Ray. BTW: that's actually an approach Gibson took on their SG basses (i own an EB-11 and know...). And they fit into the territory where "more or less fenderish" sound is expected and still sound unique (and good!). Their main disadvantage is their pseudo mudbucker: one of the worst sounding pickups for that position, and its mere presence prevents You from slapping.

And i do have problems with my hands, even more important, the shorter scale allows me to play things i could not manage on a longer scale.

A different aspect: multiscale (that's why that had been invented centuries ago). You good use 30-32" on a 5 string. And You could construct a bass in a way to use long scale strings - which i did on my 32" 5 string because it is actually the only viable option to find suitable strings at all.

On a 30" 5 string it would be pretty demanding to "hide" the overlength. On 32" it is just mounting the strings through the body. But on something like the Höfner Violin or Club basses the additional length is used to cover the gap between bridge and tailpiece - so separating bridge and tailpiece could be a way to be able to use long scale strings on short scale basses - which actually IS something desirable.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Beate Ritzert » Fri Aug 10, 2018 8:54 am

Addon, i happened to come a across a report on a German made headless shortscale. 30", active, one Delano humbucker in Stingray position. The recordings sound really promising (and the strings appear to have normal thickness). Even the B string, and the sound fits every expectation to a modern sounding bass. So it definitely is possible to build that.

That alone should encourage You to try it, too.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Brian Evans » Fri Aug 10, 2018 12:08 pm

Beate, I completely agree with you about building - stretch the boundaries, try something new, solve problems that others might have found. But I read the original question as more about learning how to play electric bass. I think that as with many things you start with basics, with the simplistic center of the bass universe, and learn to play the music that's inside the instrument. My personal favorite bass of all time was a Supro pocket bass, so this might be a question of do what I say, not what I do, because I am really liking the idea of making one of those. But when I wanted to learn how to actually play bass, I bought a used Peavey P-bass clone, and learned how to walk the changes. Was crap at it, but I tried... :)
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Steve Sawyer » Fri Aug 10, 2018 4:00 pm

Wow - great discussion.

Beate - I have nothing against my bass VI. The build I'm thinking about would be in addition-to, not instead-of. As I mentioned above, it's really hard to play with the fingers instead of a pick (I've been using a felt pick for a while now), and trying to slap is an exercise in frustration, so it's primarily a desire to build a guitar with a wider string spacing so I can learn some of those techniques. I like a short-scale because it's a lot more comfortable with my small hands, and switching from ~25" scales on my guitars to a 34" scale on a bass seems quite awkward, but the 30" scale on the bass VI is pretty easy to adapt to. That said, I"m listening to the advice to go with a Fender-ish design with 4 @ 34". As I play more, I will probably find it much easier to switch between the two.

Also, is that report on that short-scale headless viewable online? I'd be interested in seeing that.

Maybe I should follow that advice on this build, and leave the 30" 5-string to something more experimental down the road.

Brian - It's as much building as playing. As Beate has pointed out, the length, gauge and tension on that B-string might pose problems that I'd have to explore, understand and try to compensate.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Gordon Bellerose » Fri Aug 10, 2018 5:25 pm

For what it's worth, here is my opinion.

One of the reasons multi-scale basses came into being is the longer scales work better for the thicker strings.
I recently built a 5 string and I went with a 35 inch scale. I own a 34 inch 5 string, and I find the B string floppy and not clean enough.

Noise cancelling pickups are becoming easier to find, especially for the 5 string. I used a set of Nordstrand Big Split pickups. Very nice.

The one thing I have trouble with in playing a 5 string is that being a guitar player first, I'm always reaching for the top (B) string for the E note. And the third fret for the G, and so on.
I always have to have in mind that I'm playing a 5 string. So unless I'm actually using it in the song, the B string becomes a thumb rest. Of course, that is not the way to play a 5 string.
It takes a lot of practice to get used to it.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Beate Ritzert » Fri Aug 10, 2018 6:27 pm

Steve Sawyer wrote:Also, is that report on that short-scale headless viewable online? I'd be interested in seeing that.


Yes, it is. I did not post just because of the forum rules which explicitly forbid such links.

You might also consider a 4 string shortscale build. Meanwhile there are many modern shortscales on the market, and there are many really good ones among them. Maybe You should visit a store and try out. Among the interesting of the cheaper basses are the small Stagg (with two J pickups), the Gretsch Junior Jet, the Epiphone Rumblecat, the Squier Jaguar bass from a few years ago, the Fender Mustang.

BTW: me playing my DIY shortscale SG bass almost solistic in a Duo:
https://youtu.be/F7Tt6wx_FdQ
https://youtu.be/8XUH2eD13O4

(the bass: bass alder, neck multilayered beech, string spacing 16.5 mm gibson alike, Hipshot super tone bridge, Schaller tuners and You hear a GFS double lipstick guitar pickup in "Sting Ray position" through a simple active buffer. Strings GHS pressure wounds. The fundamentals are so strong that i needed to apply a high pass filter, 1st order, 70 Hz, in order to have a normal bass response.

and leave the 30" 5-string to something more experimental down the road.

If You have built your first bass You'll find the need of making another one anyway...
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Peter Wilcox » Fri Aug 10, 2018 6:59 pm

I switched from 4 string to 5 string a few years ago because I built a 5 string. I built it to take abuse and not care when it suffers damage, so that's the one I gig with. I practice at home with a 4 string (because it's safely set up there). Getting used to the 5 string was hard for me - everything is shifted down a fifth. Once I started "We gotta get out of this place" in G instead of C at a Viet Nam vets gig - that's embarrassing when you have to stop and shout "overs!"

I'm not an accomplished player - blues, country and old rock. I use the B string a fair amount on the 5th fret and above, just out of laziness. The fretted E doesn't have the same clarity as the open E, but if it's just a passing note I don't care. Once in awhile it's nice to have the low D and C when playing in those keys, and the C# , D and D# if playing blues in A.

If you're building this to learn bass on, I agree that a 34" 4 string is the way to go. If you're building from a creative urge, there's no limit, but you may be disappointed in the end.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Steve Sawyer » Sat Aug 11, 2018 4:52 pm

Peter Wilcox wrote:If you're building this to learn bass on, I agree that a 34" 4 string is the way to go. If you're building from a creative urge, there's no limit, but you may be disappointed in the end.


So, are you discouraging me from doing a short-scale too, Peter?
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Steve Sawyer » Sat Aug 11, 2018 5:05 pm

Beate - aside from the sound of your bass (which is really nice), nice job on the vocals!! My BIL and I have been talking about getting together with a drummer friend of his. My BIL does vocals, keyboard, some guitar, and bass in a pinch. He doesn't want to carry the vocals alone, so I might have to (horror of horrors) try to learn to at least sing backup!!
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Beate Ritzert » Sun Aug 12, 2018 12:28 pm

It would be even more interesting if i was able to sinf backup or 2nd voice. But unfortunately my voice is not useful for that; even training would not help.
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Re: 5-string vs 4-string bass

Postby Peter Wilcox » Sun Aug 12, 2018 8:11 pm

Steve Sawyer wrote:
Peter Wilcox wrote:If you're building this to learn bass on, I agree that a 34" 4 string is the way to go. If you're building from a creative urge, there's no limit, but you may be disappointed in the end.


So, are you discouraging me from doing a short-scale too, Peter?


No - go for it.

My first bass was a short scale. I'd never played bass, just bass lines on a guitar. I bought it in 1970 when I got back from Viet Nam, since I wanted to be a rock and roll star. It was $75, the cheapest one I could find, and I got a used rent-to-own Fender Bassman head and cabinet for $200. Before I could become a rock star, I filled in on bass for a country/rock band at a local bar, and probably made about $10,000 over the next 4 years with that rig playing weekends. The band didn't have a name that I remember, but I called us "Live Music Fri and Sat Nights" since that was on most of the marquees where we played.

I still have the bass - now "vintage" and going for $1000, and the Bassman of course is probably worth over $2000 (but needs a re-cap).

Then I went to a 41" scale URB for a number of years playing bluegrass and roots music, and then to 34" electrics about 10 years ago. They're all fun to play, and if you've built it yourself, even more satisfying.
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