Here we go again…
By Jon Liebman
Week of December 9, 2019
This week’s interview, with Joe Santerre, has already gotten a lot of people talking. The longtime Berklee professor, perhaps best known as a master of the 6-string bass, was all but certain to evoke copious amounts of passion and controversy over the age-old question: “How many strings ‘should’ a bass have?”
I’ve commented on the subject before, but my compelling interview with Joe brings to light the different schools of thought on 4-string basses versus “more-than-4-string” basses. Though fives and sixes are typically the most common basses in the extended range milieu, these days it seems the number of strings on a bass is limited only by the imagination and ambition of the luthier building it.
So how many strings do we really need on a bass in order to get the job done?
While the advantages to 5- and 6-string basses are obvious – expanded range, ability to play in position, fewer shift requirements, etc. – they may not be appropriate for certain songs, or even certain styles of music. Interestingly, I’ve occasionally been surprised when 5-stringers have told me they actually opt for the high C over the low B as their choice for a fifth string.
With all that in mind, let’s take the expanded areas one at a time.
Considering the lower register, the ability to extend below the E string seems less “dangerous” in the scope of the bass player’s role. After all, the notes down there are, undeniably, in the bass range. One caveat, though, is to be sure only to venture down to ultra-low territory when it truly serves the song. In other words, don’t do it just because you can!
The upper register is more likely to elicit the angst and ire from bass purists. “It’s no longer a bass,” and “That’s what guitar players are for,” are among the most frequent comments. While there may be some validity to those views, can one totally disclaim the upper range brilliance of John Patitucci, Adam Nitti, and John Myung?
The best answer I can offer is to consider all factors, never losing sight of what the music really needs (pretty much how I feel about any kind of bass playing!). Extended-range instruments should only serve to provide enhancements to the song, where appropriate, and not be pulled out just because they exist. Even without those enhancements, beneficial as they may be, life would still go on in the bass world if they didn’t exist. As the purists are happy to remind the bass community, “Jaco only need 4.”
Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below. I’d love to know what you think. In the meantime, check out my interview with Joe here.