Range; it’s the difference between long and short. Range is the distance of reach, the distance able to be covered, but when it comes to bass guitars, what does range really mean?
That’s simple; it’s the difference between four strings and five strings. But that’s a bit vague, so let’s really talk about what that difference means.
The notes of a four string bass in standard tuning are E, A, D, and G. The notes of a five string bass in standard tuning are B, E, A, D, and G.
Already that is a pretty big difference; the five string bass goes three full notes lower than the four string bass. But what does that actually mean, what can it do for our playing?
The fifth string of a bass allows for further chords, arpeggios, and expansion of scales. It also means a larger neck. The five string bass and the four string bass have complete different neck sizes. The four string bass has a thin neck, while the five string bass has a lot more girth.
The main use for a five string bass is to both highlight lower tuned guitars (guitars primarily tuned to B, such as seven string guitar) and to add depth to pieces. Take for instance a triad. If a guitarist plays a G Major triad in second inversion, the bass can account for the low B as well as the G and D. This adds a complete new element to the playing and is great for styles such as jazz and fusion.
Then again, the guitarist himself is fully capable of providing a B to complete his triad, in which cases a four string bass would more than suffice.
The main difference between four string and five strings basses comes down to a well-known word in the world of music; taste. While you gain an extra octave for three notes, the biggest difference between a four string and a five string bass all comes down to a matter of taste.
Down tuning a four string bass causes the loss of higher notes, but then again if you are a bass player who seldom uses the higher notes, there would be no difference.
Both basses can be used for the same jobs. A four string bass can be down tuned so that it plays in drop B, the equivalent of standard B save for the higher notes, which are a step off. In this case, a four string bass is easier is it offers quicker movements and added mobility.
However, some bass players don’t care about ease and prefer to play in a more technically sound matter, in which case a five string would serve the same purpose, only the barring method is lost due to the lower tuned high strings.
All in all, a five string bass and a four string bass are extremely similar. The difference, in the end, comes down to you as a bass player and you willingness to change your form and style slightly to accommodate a larger neck.