So, I decided to trade in my old Japanese P-bass knock-off for an entry-level 5-string bass recently, and here are some pointers I can share to fellow guitarists/songwriters who are on a similar quest.
What I was looking for:
- Sounds good on low-end, E and B strings, particularly between 0-5 frets. Some cheap and not-so-cheap bass actually have a hard time being well-defined on its lowest notes. In my experience you rarely need higher frets on higher strings (particularly G string) so I just needed to make sure the bass was strong in its low range.
- Beefy and deep tone without losing definition/articulation. You don’t want it to sound muddy but thin/bright sounds are, again, not very useful in most folk/rock songs. Genres like funk have different priorities, but that’s not my thing.
- Easy to play, even for a guitarist. 😉
What I found:
There are lots of bang-for-buck 5-string basses in $300-400 range, new. I’ve read people raving about products from Squier, Peavey, and Ibanez who thought some of the entries in this range could stand up to those much higher-priced.
Online bass demos tend to spend way too much time slapping and on higher frets. Again, that’s not terribly useful for an every-day songwriter usage. A lot of 5-string bass demos didn’t even touch the low B string at all!
There is a wide range of string spacing. Some bassists seem to appreciate wider necks and 5-strings that have similar string-spacing to 4-strings, for ease of switching back-and-forth. On the other hand, for a guitarist who wants to play a bass mainly with fingers and picks (no slapping) narrow string-spacing seems easier and more comfortable. One question I have yet to answer myself, though, is whether it is of value to have the bass encourage busier playing — if the strings are spaced wider and scale-length is longer, it encourages sparser, more economical playing, which may end up serving songs better?
Active electronics/tone shaping matter. Basses have much bigger frequency range than gutiars and on-board active preamp with EQ, voiced specifically for the instrument, is much easier to deal with than EQing somewhere else while recording.
All 5-string basses are neck-heavy. I strapped a number of them on, and while most felt well-balanced and it would hold fine, the necks are still so heavy that if you jumped up and down without holding the neck, the instrument would start tipping to the neck side. This felt odd to me, though it’s of little concern as I’d mostly play sitting down in my home studio.
How I Searched:
So, the two foundations of electric bass styles are Precision and Jazz. At first I was going to take a change on eBay based on reviews and online demos. I thought I wanted a Jazz-style sound, since the one I had was a Precision-style (though its pickup is a straight single-coil, like the oldest type of P-style basses) and I read that Jazzes have a smoother sound which is a bit easier to tweak and make it sound similar to Precision if need be, though the reverse is much harder.
But upon reading reviews and watching demos, I got rather overwhelmed — after all, bass is an entirely different instrument and being a guitarist really doesn’t prepare you for it, though there are similarities. So I felt that a trip to Guitar Center was in order, to try out some of the entry-level items, to figure out what I liked/disliked about each of them. Based on my research I picked out 3 models to try out, which are listed below:
My In-Store Impressions of Models I tried:
Squier Vintage Modified Jazz V: This was my first choice to try, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It was very playable and smooth-sounding, just like the classic bass sound you hear in a lot of recordings. But after trying the other models that had active circuitry, I started feeling that this instrument, while it sounded good, had narrower range — basically it sounds like a Jazz bass and nothing else. I even tried a more expensive Jazz bass with an active circuit, but even then, the range of sounds didn’t seem that wide compared to others I got to play.
DeArmond Pilot V: This is a used model made in 90s and I read some people really liking it. But what I didn’t know is that there is a Pilot and Pilot Pro, and on this one it had active circuitry but had a pair of thin Jazz-style pickups, which, unfortunately, did not reproduce low B very well. The volume difference between the E and B were pretty significant. Its action was great but it had a longer 35-inch scale (which some bassists seem to consider an advantage for supporting lower notes) which made it harder to move between frets. On the other hand, the 3-band EQ on the active circuitry had a huge range and in particular, its mid range was very powerful. It had the Jazz sound yet you could really dial in the amount of growl/emphasis that totally changed the sound of this bass. This was very fascinating to me — I wouldn’t buy this particular bass but this was what really made me realize the usefulness of bass-specific EQ.
Sterling (MusicMan) SUB 5: This is a newer, off-shore version of the mighty StingRay, which is known for its big, powerful sound. This bass wasn’t on top of my list going in but it totally surprised me. First of all, its humbucking pickup is very loud, and indeed very bold and ballsy sounding. It has an active circuitry with treble/bass EQs, which didn’t provide as big a range as DeArmond’s 3-band EQ but still it made it more tweakable. The string-spacing was narrow on this one which made it the most playable among the basses I tried. The design overall had a very compact and well-balanced feel — other Jazz-style basses seemed huge and sprawling, while this instrument was tight and refined. It doesn’t sound like a Jazz, though — it’s very much an instrument for rock.
What I Decided:
After the trip, I scoured the Guitar Center’s used listing and placed an order on a DeArmond Pilot Pro V (I called and made sure that it was a Pro, and that there was no volume drop on low B) and a Sterling SUB 5. Unlike other vendors Guitar Center allows 30-day returns on their used items, which made it great for me to try playing and recording with these and see which one I like better. My prediction is that the playability of SUB5 will win out even though Pilot Pro has a more versatile active circuitry — but we will see. I will report back in a couple of weeks.