What Does That Statement Really Mean?
The idea is that if you want to be the kind of bass player people want to hire, than you shouldn’t stray above the fifth fret. That’s because this is where the lower notes are located and thus this is where the groove is, right? Well kind of, but not really. What they are really trying to say is, that you’ll be more employable if you stick to the bass line and don’t spend your time noodling like a guitarist.
Is It A Myth?
So why is this a myth? Well, just because you are playing high up on the neck towards the body of the bass doesn’t necessarily mean you are playing high pitched notes. This is with the obvious exception of the low notes on the E string, but that’s if you’re only limiting every single bass line you play from E to A in that low register. All those other notes played below the first five frets can be found elsewhere on the bass and above the fifth fret.
Here’s what might be a light bulb moment for you beginners; when you play those notes higher up on the neck of the bass, they actually have more low end and sound more bassy!
In the Key of C Major let’s take a B from the 2nd fret on the A string, but you can also play that exact same note at the same pitch at the 7th fret of the E string. The C can be played on the 3rd fret of the A string, but also at the 8th fret of the E string and so on..
The same is true on the D string; if you play E, F and G below the fifth fret in a higher pitch on the D string, you can also play them on the A string at frets 7, 8 and 10. These same notes and pitches can also be found on the frets 12, 13 and 15 on the E string! If you compare the different positions of where these notes are played, you can hear the glaring variations in tone.
On the G string, we are dealing with quite a thin string which makes the notes played here sound quite weak and trebly. This is great for techniques such as pop, but for a fuller tone it’s best to get out of that ‘money area’ pit and play the same notes and pitches either above the 12th fret on the A string, or in the middle grey area on the D string. You could also find these notes way up the neck around the 20th fret mark on the E string!
The tone and timbre are effected by the gauge (or thickness) of the strings, and where you play these notes on the fretboard. The thicker the strings, the fuller and more rounded the tone. This is also true of playing higher up on the neck; the higher you go towards the body of the bass, the looser the strings which in turns adds a warmer, more ‘bassier’ tone.
As an example of the difference between these strings, I’ve created a simple chord progression on A min, G, F and E. We begin by playing along the backing track below using simple root notes. These are all found below the 5th fret on the E string, then try to add some more interest by playing up the octave but only staying below the 5th fret.
Then play those notes above the 5th fret elsewhere on the bas, listen to how each of these placements sound against the backing track. You can hear how much fatter those notes sound when played on the thicker strings, and the thinner strings have more twang to them. Alternate in octaves as shown in the video example above, you can clearly hear the difference in tones throughout.