How Many Strings “Should” A Bass Have?

Age-old question continues to get bass players aroused, even angry

By Jon Liebman
July 9, 2018

Throughout my entire interview with Donald Waugh, he sat there holding a (count ’em) 7-string bass. Seem’s everyone’s got an opinion about this topic. Here’s mine.One topic that tends to incite a lot of passion among bass players is the question of the “right” number of strings for a bass. You may notice that throughout this week’s interview with Donald Waugh on, Mr. Waugh is holding his prized Cunningham 7-string bass on his lap.

You’ve probably heard the quote a million times: Jaco only needed 4 strings. True, but… the rest of us aren’t Jaco.

I’ll never forget my first 5-string bass. I bought it in the late ‘80s, at the height of the 5-string craze. Not long after, I got another one, this time a fretless. Admittedly, I spent way too much time “down there,” not always serving the song. The novelty of it was just too much for me to resist.

During that period, I played my five-strings for everything. It didn’t matter if I was doing a wedding, a show, a tour, a session … It was what I played. I was a 5-string bassist, exclusively.

That is, until…

I used to do a ton of work in the pit orchestras of Broadway musicals. I’ll never forget getting called to play Dreamgirls. Without even thinking about it, I took my 5. The problem was that the show required so much slapping and R&B bass playing that my 5 couldn’t have been more wrong for that gig! I immediately switched back to my old, trusted, nasty, four-string funk machine!

It was an uncomfortable lesson to learn, but a valuable one. It made me realize what I should have known all along: I was joining the band; the band was not joining me! The job of a musician is to serve the song. As a bass player, we need to give the song whatever it needs, whether that means using an upright, electric, 5-string, fretless, whatever.

My friend Igor Saavedra is a solo artist and plays some truly beautiful music on his 8-string bass. Another friend, Bill Dickens, does some wickedly scary stuff on a 7-string bass. Then there’s Yves Carbonne and Tom Petersson, with their distinctly styled 12-strings. At every NAMM show, I invariably see basses with as many as 18, 24 or even more strings! Toward the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve also seen 3-string upright basses, proudly displayed by noted luthiers at a few bass conventions (I didn’t really “get” it, but okay). Recently, I even saw a photo of a bass with just one string!

These days, there’s no “right” number of strings for a bass. Whatever you like, whatever you’re into is fine, as long as you give the music what it needs and not try to see things the other way around. Donald does a lot of solo, unaccompanied performing, so for him it makes sense.

You can watch my interview with Donald on by clicking here.

I gotta tell you, all this talk has got me hankering to break out my fives. Appropriately applied, of course!

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