When Is A Bass Not A Bass?

 How many strings can a bass have (and still be a bass)?


Rich Menga, Guest contributor
April 16, 2013

When is a bass not a bass? Over the past few years, there has been a rising popularity in multi-range guitars. It started with the baritone guitar and then, later, the 8-string “extended range” guitar, which, when tuned a specific way, absolutely does get that low E, just like a bass guitar:

Now if we go in the other direction and look at an 8-string bass guitar, where all the strings are separate (meaning no doubled-up notes), you can immediately tell that, yes, there’s no mistaking it’s a bass:


But what makes a bass a bass?

Two things more than any other: String type and scale length.

A bass traditionally uses nothing but wound strings, meaning every string has a wrap around it, whether it’s roundwound, flatwound or half-round.

When you get into unwrapped string territory, then it’s a guitar.

And no, this does not mean a guitar magically turns into a bass guitar if you take away all the unwrapped strings and replace them with wound. In that case, you would have to thicken up the strings above it, resulting in string sizing a guitar nut cannot fit.

Concerning scale length, a bass guitar is traditionally much longer than a guitar. A Fender Stratocaster has a 25.5-inch scale and a Fender Precision Bass has a 34-inch scale. And while, true, there are short-scale basses like the Fender Mustang Bass (which is 30-inch) that would technically fall into baritone guitar territory, a fret has to be taken away in order to make that happen (Fender P is 20-fret, Fender Mustang Bass is 19-fret, baritone guitar is usually at least 21-fret).

Scale length matters because it greatly changes the feel between a bass guitar and a regular guitar. On the bass, the frets and strings are spaced much further apart, and that totally matters.

Believe me, you do not have to be concerned about guitar players buying extended range guitars and thinking they will replace bass players. Extended range guitars are, for the most part, a novelty more than anything else because, to be blunt, very few guitarists know how to wield an 8-string correctly, never mind a standard 6-string.

In the end, string type (or more specifically, string thickness) and scale length are what make a bass a bass, at least as far as electric bass guitars are concerned.

Comments on When Is A Bass Not A Bass?

  1. Andrew Atwill says:

    It ceases to be a bass no matter the amount of strings, when it is not played like a bass.

  2. Edward Sutherland says:

    When the quitarist is jealous you know you got something great going on!

  3. Mick says:

    Just curious as to what constitutes “played like a Bass”?
    As no 2 of “the greats” play the same way.
    I always sound like me, doesn’t matter what style of music I’m playing…
    If playing was a standardized thing I might buy that argument, as it is I tend to be on the side of tuning/scale… a good Bass player always stays out of treble…

  4. I would have to say that the definition of good bass playing is specific to the type of music being played. Most standard format country and rock music calls for a traditional role and sound, and fits of virtuoso creativity are mostly appropriate only when the band members are being introduced. Jazz ensembles can incorporate a far wider variety of forms. Some play set pieces, others improvise and explore, sometimes nothing but. In that context, whatever works, plus the artist’s degree of skill and knowledge of the instrument, together yield the appropriate criteria. Additionally, some people are able to gain tremendous satisfaction making what they feel is beautiful solo music on a bass. In some cases, physical issues may prevent them from playing a six-string guitar. Some like five strings and some like 27 frets. If it works for them, there is merit in that. If they have an admiring listening public, there is merit in that.
    Some people think there is only one way to cut one’s hair, one way to dress, one religion to subscribe to, etc…we all need to he able to adhere to certain criteria when the situation calls for it, but we were not given an imagination when we came to this world to park it at the door!

  5. Tuning the eight string Bass guitar e.g. the common one with each string
    has second set being higher , I tune similar to a Mandolin, But there has to
    be system for tuning the thinner gauge an octave higher???????

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