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Why So Many Strings?

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Mark Wilson, Aug 1, 2005.


  1. Mark Wilson

    Mark Wilson Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Jan 12, 2005
    Toronto, Ontario
    Endorsing Artist: Elixir® Strings
    All work below by Stew McKinsey

    Why So Many Strings?

    I'm not a flashy guy. Nor am I what people refer to as a world class player. But I'm a good musician. I love what I do. And because of my instruments I am part of an incredibly asinine debate. It starts simply and innocently enough when the question is voiced:

    "Why does your bass have so many strings?"

    Others follow. Do I play it like a lead guitar? Do I have some weird need to play a million notes in every song? If four strings were enough for Paul McCartney, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, and James Jamerson, why does someone like me need more? When is it enough? There are more, but what amazes me is that bassists not only join in the fracas, they get really worked up over it.

    And why? Isn't art about personal choice and how the artist feels he or she is best able to convey a personal vision? Did Tony Levin have to field this kind of nonsense when he had his 3 string bass constructed? Extending the range of an instrument is nothing new. Wind instruments have been made bigger and smaller, pulled into different shapes and otherwise manipulated for ages. Drum kits vary from a single piece to dozens of percussable objects depending on who's playing and in what context. Is Peter Erskine griefed for playing a 2 piece kit in an evening's performance of avant garde jazz? Does Neil Peart have to defend his decision to bring a 22 piece kit on the road with Rush?

    So why is it such a big deal that bassists would want to expand their tonal palette? After all, the electric bass is one of the youngest instruments extant. It is continuing to redefine its role in contemporary music. Such writers and performers as Les Claypool, Michael Manring, and Mick Karn push the instrument's boundaries in new and exciting directions and players like Victor Wooten, Billy Sheehan, Matt Garrison and Fieldy expand the existing vocabulary in unexpected ways. They're heralded as groundbreaking. Visionaries. Yet those of us who've chosen to follow in the steps of Anthony Jackson, Jimmy "Flim" Johnson, and Jimmy Haslip are labeled as heretics. Upstarts.

    I fail to see the difference.

    Is the music of Laurence Cottle and Gary Willis less valid than that of Steve Swallow and Francis "Rocco " Prestia? When rock legend Jack Bruce switched from a 4 string to a 5 string years ago did he have to put up with these bizarre grievances? Does Nathan East get less session work than Will Lee?

    To most people out who might read this, the names are all equally alien. Few could point to the artists who hired Leland Sklar or Bernard Odum. Fewer could name the significance of Bill Dickens' or Percy Jones' contributions to the recording and live music scenes. The bass most closely associated with the band the Presidents of the United States of America had two strings. The man who played for Government Mule was known to wield an 18 string instrument from time to time.

    Why is any of this worth arguing about? If you like the music, if the musician plays something that appeals to you, then it's good. Certainly there are bassists who approach the instrument with the intent of playing busy lead and melody lines and throwing as many notes at you as possible. But it's perpetrated by four stringers as much as anyone else. You will find these players on most instruments. But there are bass artists, who groove, who inspire, and who make music from 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, and 18 strings.

    I couldn't tell you who the first individual was to detune the instrument or to extend the fingerboard beyond the 21 frets used in Leo Fender's design. Chances are if I did that another debate would arise. I know that there were players in the 70s who liked the lower ranges of keyboard instruments and some of these individuals lowered their E strings to D. A few went beyond that and pioneered instruments which could be played down to a low B through the use of a fifth string. As the 80s dawned there was a tiny contingent in the bass community with these extended range curiosities. By this time Anthony Jackson had been playing his 6 string instrument for a while. In addition to its low string he had commissioned luthier Carl Thompson to install one at the high end of the spectrum. There is no arguing with Mr. Jackson's artistry or his integrity. He is as articulate as he is fiercely intelligent. He is also, by his own admission, opinionated. And he can play a mea n bass. I don't doubt that his decision to play only the fretted six-string bass from that point on in his career brought hardship his way. But his commitment and his undeniable talent forged a career and laid the groundwork for so many who would come after. It seems inevitable that at this point others would pull the sonic tapestry in the other direction and experiment with higher sounds.

    The aforementioned Stanley Clarke had used a piccolo bass some, an instrument tuned an octave higher than a traditional bass. Certain musicians saw the 5 strings and the new 6s and wondered why no one had pushed the envelope toward a more solo voiced bass. With Jaco Pastorius' incendiary piece "Word of Mouth" and the rise of a young hotshot named Billy Sheehan in Buffalo who was putting the fear of bass into metal guitarists, the time seemed right. And so lead bass began to appear. As is the case in any community, there are artists, poseurs, and those who are more flash than substance. At points all along the spectrum you could find valid music and garbage. But the 80s were a time of scrutiny. Recordings grew more precise with the advent of digital technology and it was possible to sequence bass parts through computer controlled keyboards. And bass synthesizers, which had come to prominence in the 70s, were now seen as a viable option to hiring another musician for recording dates: If you had a keyboardist already, why not just have him or her play the bass line on a special 'board? Bassists realized that they would have to fight to stay viable in the recording and performing venues.

    And so we went back into the woodshed.

    Both the players and their instruments continued to evolve throughout the 80s and into the 90s. Anthony Jackson was joined by John Patitucci, Gerald Veasley, Andy West, Steve Bailey, and a host of others. The legion of 5 stringers grew exponentially. Custom luthiers appeared and disappeared left and right. Aside from Carl Thompson, Ken Smith, Fodera, Alembic, Pedulla, and Warwick established themselves. Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Peavey and Hohner were among the larger companies to branch into manufacturing and distribute what would come to be known as multistring or extended range basses.

    I remember my own thoughts on these instruments: Jaco played a 4, so what more would I ever need? Then I heard some of those low notes that Anthony Jackson, Jimmy Haslip, and Flim Johnson played, and I thought that more BASS couldn't be a bad thing. I got my first 5 not long after that. I took it with me to music school where I started to write real music and play some sessions. It would be nice to voice some of those chords I was using more fully and clearly. It would also be nice to play through an entire chart in one position while reading so I wouldn't have to worry about misfretting a note during an awkward position change, something not uncommon when one plays a four string. Then I saw one of the students playing a 6 on stage with such command and fluency that I was amazed. I talked to one of my teachers about it and he said that he had a new 6 he hadn't even set up that he was parting with (it was fretted and he was moving to fretless primarily). I bought it from him. Then, within a few months, I sold it and picked up the bass which would become my main bass for more than a decade.

    There I was, a 21 year old living in Hollywood and playing the most beautiful instrument I'd ever seen. It was mine!! For the first twenty or forty minutes it was intoxicating if a bit disorienting. I put on some James Brown to play along with and help me find my footing. Once I was more comfortable I started to push and experiment. I was jamming long after the funk album had finished. Looking down at the monstrous neck I was playing, I mused -- what would it be like if I had one MORE low string and ANOTHER high string? I laughed, but the idea stayed with me. I kept my 6. I even got a few more of them. But from time to time I would talk to luthiers about the realities of building the 8 string I had daydreamed. I was told that it would need a 42" scale (about 8" longer than a standard scale), that the neck would have to be some sort of synthetic polymer to endure the tension of all those strings, that there was no way to create strings that big, that even if it w as possible it would cost more than $12, 000. And I was assured that there was no way to reproduce the notes I was describing. In fact, in a range between 23 and 31Hertz, an audience would have a hard time hearing those notes.

    Then, more than a dozen years after the idea had come to me, I submitted an inquiry to Bill Conklin, someone that I knew built 7 strings. It had been so long since I'd gotten my hopes up, I was absolutely floored when it came back in the affirmative. And in an almost nonchalant tone! I sat and read it again and again. I got back to him immediately. He sent me some literature showing what he had already done and all of a sudden I was 21 years old again. That fervor has not dwindled since our correspondence began. Even though I ran into problems propagative before I finally got to call the instrument mine, I am like a new musician: focused, dangerously inspired, exuberant, and open to the new.

    Rest assured, I have not become a crazed soloist. I am not playing all over the instrument any more than I was before. When I am playing, the song is the important thing. If I wanted to draw attention to myself I would not have become a bass player. Most of what I do stays in the lower registers. When I am asked to do something else, if the situation dictates I venture into different realms, or if I'm playing my own music, then you may have to endure some craziness. But this new range gives me options. As a composer. As a performer. As a technician. And I am challenged. I am constantly reminded that I am a student. I have perspective because I am as new to this thing as it is to me.

    Why are there so many strings on my bass?

    Because it sounds good to me. Because I think music should be fun. Because I don't see things as written in stone. A bass isn't by necessity a four-or-fewer stringed instrument. And if people occasionally look at it from time to time and are wowed by it or disgusted by it, or absolutely perplexed, let them hear me play it and decide for themselves. Maybe they're right in their opinions.

    Maybe they aren't.
     
  2. Fretless5verfan

    Fretless5verfan Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2002
    Philadelphia
    Right on brotha :cool:
     
  3. I was fortunate enough to see Stew and Gregory Bruce Campbell playing at Guitar X in Denver one time when I was there. He had his two 8s and it was awesome. I'm not that much into that style of music generally, but I really liked what I heard... good grooves, great melody... and things that definitely couldn't be done on a 4 string. For him, it works, and well. That's all that matters.
     
  4. Bassmanbob

    Bassmanbob Supporting Member

    And you reproduce this for us here why?
     
  5. Mark Wilson

    Mark Wilson Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Jan 12, 2005
    Toronto, Ontario
    Endorsing Artist: Elixir® Strings
    Why not?
     
  6. Bassmanbob

    Bassmanbob Supporting Member

    Does the quote, "...beating a dead horse" mean anything to you?

    Don't get me wrong. I play four, five and six string basses.

    If you want to play a bass with enough strings to play like a harp and do it well, go ahead. But this has been discussed multiple times over the last three years I've been coming here.
     
  7. Fretless5verfan

    Fretless5verfan Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2002
    Philadelphia
    Then obviously to someone it isn't a dead horse! Or they just want to make sure it's GOOD and dead :p
     
  8. Ben Vail

    Ben Vail

    Jul 29, 2005
    Los Angeles
    I enjoyed reading it. There's your reason. If pizza gets old to you, it doesn't mean it can't been eaten. Other people may still like it.
     
  9. answer this,
    is that a typo?

    ...but instead of asking why play so many strings, why not play with less strings, why not a 2 string, or 3 string?
     
  10. WalterBush

    WalterBush

    Feb 27, 2005
    Yuma, Az
    Makes sense to me. I've approached a local luthier about the feasability of putting a 5 string bass neck and an 8 string baritone guitar neck on the same body, because I'd love to have the range, but I don't tap well and I don't like a foot-wide fretboard. No $$ quote yet, just an email asking if I had any back problems :) . If it does get built, rest assured it will be seen here.
     
  11. chris h

    chris h Guest

    Jun 16, 2002
    Oxford, England
    So why did you click on the thread? was moving your mouse away too much effort? How long did it take for you to type that reply?! The only reason threads like this get so repetetive is because people just say it has been done before and the same old arguments arise. I dont think everyone who comes here will have read this before and it is an interesting and well written piece, so why not? Or maybe I am a groundbreaking. Visionary.
     
  12. seansbrew

    seansbrew Supporting Member

    Oct 23, 2000
    Mesa AZ.
    We all have the right to use our memberships don't we. I am sure there are plenty of people here who could stand to read some of this insight. And besides, there are new members joining everyday who maybe haven't discussed this topic yet. As with all threads, you have the option not to read this one if it bothers you that much. :smug:
     
  13. Pruitt

    Pruitt

    Jun 30, 2005
    Danbury, CT
    Thank you for posting that. It was a well written, informative read and I appreciate it! :)

    Have Fun! :bassist:
     
  14. Bassmanbob

    Bassmanbob Supporting Member

    Very well. Have at it.
     
  15. Dincrest

    Dincrest

    Sep 27, 2004
    New Jersey
    I think it was a great read. For all we know, this may have been posted in one of those "why 6+ strings threads?" that many people ignored for just that reason. So here is the article again to reach a wider audience. And though it may seem a dead horse issue to those of us who have been members for a while and/or are used to ERBs (I used to be a six-stringer myself, till my hand started falling asleep while playing the wide neck. I'm a 4-stringer these days), it's a fresh and new issue for those who haven't been around the block.

    Is the issue as a whole ridiculous? Absolutely! I mean, no one gives guitarists grief about playing a 7-string; or gives drummers grief about adding new drums and cymbals to their kits. But it certainly isn't old hat to those people "new" to the block.
     
  16. NJL

    NJL

    Apr 12, 2002
    San Antonio
    what it boils down to is that bassists tend to be more progressive than others. we should all be proud of this!

    :)