The rationale behind choosing a low B or a high C
By Jon Liebman
Week of April 15, 2019
This week, we published an interview is with Mexican groover Pepe Hernández, whose boundless energy always inspires me. At the risk of arousing the ire of any 4-string purists, let me get this out right away: My takeaway from this interview has to do with the part where we talked about his NS Design 5-string bass. It wasn’t so much his choice of going from a 4 to a 5 that surprised me. Rather, it was his choice of a C string, instead of the generally expected low B, as the additional string.
Five- and six-string basses invariably evoke controversy, and often some pretty heated exchanges among bass players (see my blog about how many strings a bass “should” have here). And yes, we’ve all heard, repeatedly, that “Jaco only needed 4 strings.”
So what happens when a bass player opts for a high C string when making the transition from a 4 to a 5? Could that choice get a player into dangerous territory?
In most cases, the rationale behind adding a fifth string is to add more bottom to the bass, generally allowing a bassist to go down to a low B. In Pepe’s case, however, he chose the high C, which he says helps facilitate playing in position, avoiding unnecessary shifts up and down the fingerboard.
Since five-strings made their way into the mainstream of bass guitar collections, they’ve been widely used across many musical genres. Among those drawn to five-strings, at least some of the time, are rockers Stu Cook and Ricky Phillips, rock and R&B players Nathan East and Adam Nitti, Latin funksters Oskar Cartaya and John Peña, and many others. I can’t recall seeing any of those players opting for the high C over a low B, though.
Whichever string a player picks when expanding from 4 to 5 is okay with me, as long as the role of laying down the groove isn’t compromised and doesn’t give way to “too-high-for-a-bass” licks, fills, or what have you.
Pepe’s choice reminded me of a gig I had during my Florida years, where I used to play upright bass in a duo with a piano player in a swanky Coconut Grove hotel (can’t you just picture me in my tux, with my long, black hair?!). Unless I was soloing, whenever I went above, say, a D or an E on the G string, she would admonish me with, “Hey, cut it out! You’re a bass player. Get down where you belong!” Most of the time, I suppose she was right.
Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below, and let me know what you think. In the meantime, check out my interview with Pepe here.