The idea of a bass instrument is to get low notes. That’s pretty obvious. At first, in the case of stringed instruments like the bass viol (viol family with the sloped shoulders), the idea was to ‘double’ the bass part that the cellos were playing; hence ‘double-bass’. And as with other members of the violin/viol family, the bass-fiddle or upright-bass has four strings.
A Louder Double-Bass
And when upright-basses were taken into the pop music world, they came along, originally with four strings as well, tuned pretty much the same. But there came a point where more volume was needed, especially in noisy, people-packed venues. Someone, according to online resources, a certain Paul Tutmarc, created an electrified bass-guitar, though Leo Fender came up with a better one in the 50s. Again, it had four strings and was tuned like the four bottom strings of a standard guitar.
This type of instrument could be electrified and amplified and was able to keep up with amplified electric guitars and loud drums in dancehalls and theaters. Still, it kept its ties to the traditional 4-string arrangement. Hundreds, thousands of songs, albums, singles had that thumping sound included in their arrangements and there seemed to end to what it could do. Solo pieces were written for it (Portrait of Tracy, The Fish (Schindleria praematurus)) and the most popular hits of all time were pretty much covered by those four low-toned strings.
The More the Merrier?
Guitarists wanted to get in on the low-toned action and at some point, 6-string bass-type instruments like the Dan Electro UB-2 (more of a Baritone Guitar than actual ‘Bass Guitar”) appeared. Then Fender brought out the Bass VI, the Bass V, and things started heading toward more and more strings. Rickenbacker’s 4008, Hagstrom with their 8-string monster (doubled-courses like a twelve-string guitar), and on and on.
Interesting stuff, but here’s where my own, personal opinion comes in…
Keeping in Tune with the Covers
Nowadays, at least since the 80s, there’s another ton of tunes that have the sound of 5- and 6-string basses (with either a string reaching below the traditional low-E string, or a string above the G-string) incorporated into them. Maybe it was professional jealousy, but with the quickly burgeoning use of synths in the 80s and those nice, low, thick electronic tones, electric-bass players wanted in on the action. Whatever it was, that low-B string started showing up in lots of places.
And if you’re covering those songs, you pretty much have to have a five- or six-string. I mean, you could do it with a 4-string, tuned normally, or do like I did for Love Is A Battlefield and have an extra base with the low string tuned down to D, but…easier when the instrument matches the music.
But when you’re trying to come up with an original bass-line for an original piece of music…
Sorry, didn’t mean to shout. But when you’re noodling around on bass, trying to invent a part that’ll fit an original song, humming to yourself in the kitchen while waiting for the grilled cheese sandwich to come out right, remember that having an extended range bass (a six or seven or eight string), will cause you to come up with ideas you wouldn’t have normally come up with. It’s a case of the instrument starting to dictate what the music should be. This is not a bad thing generally, getting a nice modern sound, but maybe it’s because I’m old-school; I grew up absorbing a certain sound from the music and songs that I loved (or even didn’t) and removing the limitations of a standard four-string electric bass seems somehow…counter-intuitive. It’s almost like having the chords telling you what melody will wind its way through them, rather than coming up with a great melody and getting the chords to fit. Small point, maybe, but I don’t believe I’m the only one who can tell when the chords or melody were written first.
If you’re learning and playing cover-songs in which an extended-range bass was originally used – get an instrument that’ll match; no way around it. However, if you’re writing original songs and starting to write original bass-lines, then at least have it in the back of your mind that having those extra strings and notes available will cause you to come up with bass-lines/melodies of a more modern feel. If you’re going for a 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s flavored tune though, pick up a four-string bass and go for it: sometimes restrictions make you come up with stuff you never knew could be there.
Fingers On Strings