If you are an absolute beginner when it comes to electric bass guitar, you may be struggling just to distinguish a bass from a standard guitar. I don’t blame you! Electric guitars and basses look very similar. The main difference? Basses typically have only 4 strings, while guitars have 6.
But that’s not the only difference between the two instruments. For example, bass and guitar serve entirely different musical functions, are tuned to different octaves, and basses have longer necks with thicker strings.
How many strings does a bass guitar have?
Most standard bass guitars have 4 strings, but some bass players use extended-range basses with 5-string or even 6-string basses to allow them to play lower or higher notes.
4-string bass is by far the most common. Around 95% of the basses produced each year have 4 strings, so most likely, if you plan to purchase a new bass, this is the type you will be getting. This type of bass guitar typically is tuned exactly one octave down from the 4 lowest strings of a guitar, E-A-D-G.
4-string bass is also the easiest type of bass to learn on because there are fewer strings and the neck is smaller. So if you are a beginner, the 4-string bass is definitely for you. While 4-string bass may have less range than 5-string or 6-string basses, the instrument has been tried and true through the ages by many of history’s best bass guitarists.
5-string basses may only have one additional string, but this extended range adds a whole new level of creativity. 5-string basses almost always have an extra low-end string, so they are tuned B-E-A-D-G.
The low B is a chest-thumping low note that will rattle your brain. While 5 string basses are not necessary for every bassist, they are undoubtedly fun to experiment with and will add a lot of depth to your playing if you plan to dive into super low-register notes. In fact, if you drop the tuning of B string on a 5-string bass guitar a whole step, your lowest will match that of an 88-key piano!
However, 5-string basses are not practical for beginner bassists because the neck is thicker, and the extra string will only distract a beginner from learning the basics of the instrument.
6-string basses are the rarest type of electric bass guitar, but you will still see them from time to time. 6-string basses are tuned B-E-A-D-G-C. The added low and high string makes 6-string basses super versatile as you can play with much more mid-range as well as deep low range. Advanced bass players who use the bass as a lead instrument may experiment with 6-string bass to get the most out of the instrument. Some famous bass guitarists who use 6-string basses are Victor Wooten, Steve Bailey, and John Myung.
The main downside of using a 6-string bass is the incredibly thick neck, making it much harder to play notes and use all of the strings. Beginner bassists shouldn’t even consider using a 6-string bass, as it is definitely an advanced instrument.
How to tune a bass guitar
One thing beginner bassists may struggle with is tuning the instrument. Tuning a bass by ear can be difficult, especially for beginners, as you have to listen to the out-of-tune strings in reference to an in-tune note and match the pitch. Here are the standard tunings for your 4-string, 5-string, or 6-string bass guitar.
- 4-string bass: E-A-D-G
- 5-string bass: B-E–A-D-G
- 6-string bass: B-E-A-D-G-C
Use a tuning pedal
Tuner pedals are the most accurate and foolproof way to tune a bass guitar. You simply plug your bass into the pedal, which will guide you on tuning it to the correct pitch. These pedals can be expensive, ranging from $60 to $120, but tuners are worth the money.
Clip-on tuners are another effective tuning method that you simply clip onto the headstock of your instrument. When you play an open string, the tuner will distinguish the note played and let you know if you need to raise or lower the pitch. One downside of clip-on tuners is that they are a bit more finicky than tuner pedals and may be affected by other sounds in your vicinity, so for live shows, I prefer to use tuner pedals for the sake of accuracy.
What type of bass strings should you use?
There are several types of bass strings available. So, depending on your playing style and how long you have been playing, the type of strings that works best for you may differ. The 4 main types of bass strings are tapewound, half round, flatwound, and roundwound.
Flatwound is a classic bass string type synonymous with jazz and early rock and roll. This type of string has a mellow sound and is not nearly as punchy as other strings. Flatwound strings are also easy on your frets and fretboard.
Tapewound is the most mellow-sounding bass string as they have nylon winding around a steel core. They sound the most similar to double bass strings and are used for jazz and fretless basses as they cause very little wear and tear to the fretboard, being wrapped in nylon instead of metal.
Roundwound are very versatile strings. They have a bright, punchy sound and are commonly used for rock, funk, metal, pop, and other modern genres. Roundwound strings are made of a stainless steel or nickel winding wound around a steel core and are by far the most popular strings used today. The biggest con of roundwound strings is that they wear down the frets and fretboard due to the abrasive metal surface.
Half round bass strings are essentially a hybrid of flatwound and roundwound strings. They have a semi-bright tone but do not wear down the fretboard nearly as much as roundwounds. These are good strings for beginners as they are easier on your fingers than roundwounds.
Why do basses have fewer strings
Guitars and keyboards have a much higher range than bass. For example, guitars typically have 6 strings and a 4 octave range, keyboards have a more than 7 octave range, while basses almost always have 4 strings with only a 3 octave range. The main reason for this is simply that bassists don’t usually play chords or complex melodic parts that require lots of range or multiple notes. A vast majority of bass lines can easily be played on 4 strings, so most bass manufacturers produce standard 4 string basses. The primary function of a bass guitar is to hold down the rhythm and produce clear, punchy bass notes for the chords played by lead instrumentalists.
Can you have more than 6 strings on a bass?
Theoretically, you can find (or, more likely custom build) basses with as many strings as you wish to have. The world is your oyster! It is relatively common to find custom 7-string basses, but anything more than that is pretty difficult to find. I’ve seen 8-string basses that are essentially the same concept as 12-string guitars, with the standard 4 strings doubled with either a unison string or an octave. Check out this video of a 12-string bass with each string tripled being played!
There is even a YouTuber who has built a ridiculous 36-string bass, which he claims is the world record for the most strings on a bass guitar.
Check out this absolutely preposterous instrument below.