The obvious answer here is, that they don’t. Not always. Bass guitars are found with four, five, and even six strings pretty regularly. A six-string bass guitar is more rare, but they are still quite popular with some musicians in the worlds of jazz and fusion. But, the standard is four. So, if there is a standard, why do bass guitars have 4 strings?
The real answer is that electric basses aren’t “actually” guitars. They’re basses. They’re definitely smaller than a standard double bass. And, an electric bass is often shaped just like an electric guitar. But, an electric bass has four strings because their orchestral, acoustic predecessors did.
So, we still call them bass guitars mostly by convention, even though they’re technically electric basses. They’re much more related to a double bass that you’ll find in an orchestra. In fact, early in the history of rock and roll and other popular music, stand-up basses were used simply because the electric bass didn’t yet exist.
The range that humans can hear
There’s also the simple fact that much lower on the frequency spectrum is difficult for many humans to hear easily. Even a five-string bass can get a bit low for some folks to hear. Although those notes on a low B string are something special in the right hands.
The human hearing range starts at about 20Hz. However, there are a lot of humans in the world, especially those above 40 or 50 years of age, who have a much narrower range of hearing.
So, in general, a fifth string on the lower end hasn’t been nearly as usable and important in the history of bass music.
Some styles of music, like neo-soul and gospel, do rely on that lower B string a lot more than other genres do. But, in general, the low B string on an electric bass is a bit of a niche thing.
The influence of jazz music
Many, if not most, of the bassists playing popular music when Fender developed the electric bass were heavily influenced by jazz. And, jazz also looked toward the symphony orchestra when it came to the bass. They played the instrument a bit differently, but the instrument was identical.
In jazz combos and groups, the stand-up bass was, and still is, a very important part of the sound. Think how many times you’ve heard of bass players trying so hard to achieve that upright bass sound on their favorite electric bass. We’ve even resorted to rubber strings on an ukulele bass to replicate that fat thump of an acoustic stand-up bass.
With that much of a priority placed on the sound we sometimes look for as bassists, it’s no surprise that we still mostly favor the same number of strings that are found on a traditional acoustic upright bass.
The Fender electric bass
We’ve pretty well covered this already, but just to reiterate, when Leo Fender invented the electric bass, he was aiming to provide a smaller, more portable instrument for traditional bass players. As they went from gig to gig and studio to studio, lugging a huge upright bass was quite a chore.
The goal was to provide an instrument that could move around easily from place to place with the musician in whatever situation they needed. The main goal was not to create some new type of guitar with lower notes. Because of this, the sonic range of the electric bass was meant to match the traditional double bass as much as possible.
But you might ask, “was there ever a time when this was a goal?”
The Fender Bass VI
The Fender Bass VI was one of those strange bass guitars that actually did attempt to create something very different and new.
Released in 1961, the Fender VI as it was known then was related to the Danelectro six-string bass that came out a few years earlier. It intentionally had six strings that were tuned EADGBE an octave lower than a standard guitar…E1 to E3.
They didn’t get very popular and were taken out of production for a while. Fender began re-releasing them under different models in the 2000s. Robert Smith is a well-known player of the Fender VI.
I bring this model up to point out that, yes, there are bass guitars out there that are very different from the traditional upright bass. And, they can be pretty awesome. However, the original electric bass is not this thing. It’s a smaller, electrified bass.
Is it easier to play a 4 string bass?
Yep. It is absolutely easier to play a four-string bass than a five-string bass.
Can you just ignore the 5th string though? Yeah, you can. But, why bother? And, that string will always be there, wanting to get in your way or just take up mental space. Because if it’s there, you will REALLY want to play it.
Five-string basses are awesome in the hands of the right musician. Learning how to play bass can be challenging enough with four strings. I do think the bass is a bit easier to learn than the guitar, especially if you stick to the standard four strings.
In general, you will have an easier time playing a four-string bass, especially if you are a beginner.
Can a bass guitar have 6 strings?
Yes, a bass can have six strings. We presented one above, the Fender Bass VI. But, there are also plenty of other 6-string bass models on the market as well.
In general, I’d recommend staying away from a 6 string bass until you KNOW you need one. If you have the chops and the discipline to play one well, grab one and have a blast. If you’re asking yourself, “I wonder if I should go get a six-string bass?” the answer is probably no.
But then again, if you’re just looking to go make some interesting noises, and you can afford it, you do you.
Why do bass guitars have 4 strings: Final thoughts
So, it’s actually pretty simple. Bass guitars aren’t really guitars in the traditional sense. And, they have four strings because they’re modeled on acoustic instruments that also have four strings.
All kidding aside, it’s actually really exciting and interesting to see how this instrument has developed over the years. And, as the bass changes and evolves, the way they’re played does too. We’ve seen some pretty incredible things from people like Thundercat who really know how to play a five or six-string bass.
The original Fender bass was meant to be played as a bass, but the way things are heading, who knows what it will look like, or sound like, in another 70 years.