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Q&A: Switching from Four- to Sixstring

Q&A: Switching from Four- to Sixstring

Here is a question I got in from Rob:

“I am presently finishing up your course from Truefire – Pentatonic Playground which has really helped me and I love it. My question is I recently came across a very nice Ibanez BTB sixstring which I hope to be able to eventually play and wonder on the difficulty of moving from a four- to sixstring directly – not taking a intermediate step to fivestring – what would you recommend – Thanks for any help and direction.”

Good question, Rob. My personal path was from the four to the five, then the sixstring and it happened over a long period of time. I would say the transitions happened fairly organically for me, adding the B came naturally. When I added the sixstring to my arsenal I found myself playing very different styles and techniques (tapping, chording etc.).
I was curious how others made the transition, so I passed the question on to one of our guest contributors, bassist, composer and educator Wolf Wein. Find out more about Wolf on the Contributors Page.

Moving from Fourstring to Sixstring

by Wolf Wein

cropped-DETAIL-BASS1.jpgI started out on fourstring. I learned the scales, arpeggios, intervals and where everything is on the fourstring first. Some of the tunes I played required to detune the E string down to D and even C, so finally I gave in and went to the five. Fivestringers are still my main axes today. I love the extra low notes – bass bass is so much fun.  Yet, the fourstring still forms my main internal reference for fretboard knowledge – and I’m not fighting that at all when I switch to five- or sixstring. But what does it take to switch – back and forth? How does one adapt? Great question!

Lets use the major scale as an example: the various shapes of creating a major scale are my starting point here, as I know them very well. When extending them for five and sixstring, I would start with the fourstring pattern and then extend that down and/or up until eventually (after some serious deliberate practice) I’ll have the “extended shapes” in my mind and under my fingers.

However, the four-string bass remains the core of my playing even when on the sixstring: I use the low B string mostly for the five notes below the low E. Occasionally I will use a note of the B string higher up the neck if the fingering works out better. I use the high C string in chords, for soloing and to extend the range in a given position without having to jump up the neck – the five extra high notes at the end of the fretboard are not that crucial to me. I hardly ever use the C string for groove playing – it just sounds too much like a guitar and not fat enough to me.

On the fivestring the added low B threw me kinesthetically at first – my hands were not used to the lowest string no longer being the E. So the biggest challenge for me were not the few extra notes or where notes are on the new strings. Like I wrote, that’s easy to figure out by simply extending already existing fretboard knowledge. The biggest challenge was muscle memory and how a five (or six) string feels differently than a four-string. I am pointing this out because this informed what I needed to work on most in order to adapt – kinesthetics, or getting used to the slightly different layout and the new distances.

When slipping into established habits I would sometimes find myself playing a fourth too low. This WILL earn you stern looks from all band members. The remedy was to constantly remind myself of the “new” string being there, This of course meant letting go of the autopilot (“muscle-memory mode”) that I had trained so hard for.

If you find yourself in that situation – don’t make it a fight; it just takes a little bit of extra awareness and very soon your mind and body will adapt to the new terrain. And I’m happy to say, that I find switching back to the four-string easy, no challenge at all.

How to practice the transition to the sixstring

InstructionFocus on just the outer strings as you combine them with the adjacent strings, meaning: play a scale using only low B and E strings – play scales only on these two strings. Do the same for the G and high C strings. also play horizontal scales using only the low B or high C strings – great for familiarizing ourself with the note names and locations on these new strings. 

Practice familiar bass lines, scales … and say the note names while you play. This will speed up becoming familiar with the new note locations. I also highly recommend practicing reading sheet music and making sure to incorporate the new/different strings.

To train your right hand, play open string exercises like B-E-B-A-B-D-B-G; The idea here is easy: use the B string as a pedal note. Also, use other strings as the pedal note. play B-E-A-D-G-D-A-E-B; or groups of three strings – in short: any and all of typical open string exercises where you focus on the right hand. Pay extra attention to how it feels. Heightened awareness makes for faster learning. Once this feels a little familiar, play arpeggios (preferably triads, but you can start with seventh chords as they are easier on the right hand) incorporating all five (or six) strings.

Many more exercises are possible and useful. I hope the above material gives you some ideas to get started on your extended strings journey.

In Summary

Whichever bass version you start on, do your best to learn the fretboard in and out – in every key and every position. This will become your primary reference. When you switch to a different string number, you don’t have to unlearn what you know, you use it as a starting point and add to (subtract from) it.

Photos: Basses by Marleaux Bass Guitars Germany.

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10 Replies to “Q&A: Switching from Four- to Sixstring”

  1. Hoopla to you Wolf. I felt this was a very logical approach to tackling multi strings. I have been a four string player forever. I have often thought about taking the plunge. Have’nt yet. Iam not quite sure it will make me a better player. Also not sure if I have the musical vision to utilize it properly. However I enjoyed your concepts. Would like to see more input in the future. Thanks.

    1. Hi Vinny,
      thanks for your comments. I think a new or different instrument doesn’t make one a better player per se. However, if the new instrument is a better quality instrument, it certainly can make the work of becoming a better player easier.
      The better player is within, the bass is a tool to express her/him.
      As for switching from 4 to 5 or 6 strings: I got a 5 string because of musical necessity. I knew going in why I needed and wanted the added low B string. The musical vision was provided to me by the music we were playing. So that was an easy choice and easy to justify.
      Adding a 6 string to my small bass collection was different. No need, just desire to explore the possibilities for playing chords, melodies on the C string (more guitar like tone), tapping. In band settings I currently use the 5 string way more than the 6. Getting the 6 string didn’t make me a better player. It’s another tool I much enjoy and inspiration goes both ways, so I am happy that I got it even though I don’t NEED it.
      One thought that pops to mind: don’t ever think you are a lesser player because you use fewer strings than the next guy. More strings does not necessarily equate to more musical ability.

      1. Thanks Wolf, You helped smooth over my inferior complex a bit. I guess I realize there will always be gifted players out there like Ariane and probably yourself. It’s my job to be inspired by hard work and dedication from such great players.

  2. Great topic and great instruction Wolf! I’ve only been playing bass for 3 years. The music that I play in bands doesn’t require more than 4 strings but I recently purchased a bass strung E-C. I love the possibility of playing chords and soloing on it but I don’t know how yet. Do you think given my short time playing and musical requirements that I would be better served to learn my 4 string bass backwards and forwards (fingerboard) before taking the deep dive into extended range? Thanks to you and thanks to Ari for this amazing blog/resource!

    1. Hi Eric,
      I think there is little difference whether you learn 4 string first or go to 5 string right away. More important is that, as you are learning materials like in Ariane’s bass theory book, stick with one instrument until you feel very comfortable and confident with the material. This is because the bass becomes part of how you represent the knowledge internally (and obviously it’s the instrument you express it with). My experience is this: When I think of scales, triads, bass lines… I often have an internal image, sound or feeling (kinesthetics) of how these materials are placed on the bass fretboard – very similar to how Ariane lays it out in the book showing the fretboard diagrams. This is much easier to do if you work with one instrument at first. Like I mentioned before, once this internal knowing is firm, switching to other basses (even other instruments) becomes much easier.

  3. Good reading an advice here. I am looking for some input. I moved across country 3 years ago and had to sell all my basses to make the trip. I had played 4 string for well over 20 years and had recently delved into the 5 string. Now, after a couple years of not having a bass I will be buying one here in the next couple weeks….finally! I have always wanted to jump to the 6 string and was wondering what advice you would give to someone seriously considering just starting fresh with a 6 string?

  4. Good reading an advice here. I am looking for some input. I moved across country 3 years ago and had to sell all my basses to make the trip. I had played 4 string for well over 20 years and had recently delved into the 5 string. Now, after a couple years of not having a bass I will be buying one here in the next couple weeks….finally! I have always wanted to jump to the 6 string and was wondering what advice you would give to someone seriously considering just starting fresh with a 6 string?

    1. Hey Thomas, thank you for your note and welcome on the blog! Also great that you are going back to bass! My question for you would be what interests or draws you to the sixstring? WHen I play six there is a reason for it (that I need the layout for chords and tapping, not a typical band situation, I do this in my duo, oonband.com). For grooving I really prefer the 5 or 4. The 5 obviously gives me five extra low notes (comes in very handy for grooving!) the six gives you five extra high notes, which you really won’t be needing in a band situation, matter of fact guitarists get nervous if I show up with my six fearing I will be in their range. My suggestion in helping you decide would be to think about your goals. Is it playing in a band, mostly grooving, I suggest five. Is it playing in a band context that allows for chording and tapping etc, go for six. Also, for some pieces of music, such as Bach etudes and other reading material that jumps into the higher register quite a bit, six is also a great choice because it keeps your hand more in the lower realms. Hope this helps. What will you decide? Keep us posted how it goes!

  5. I’ve played classical many years ago and never had a problem with 6 strings and yet coming to the bass guitar (and the 6 string bass) I struggle to know where notes are. The idea of runnung scales on each of the two strings makes a lot of sense. Thanks

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