Rickenbacker Five String
This is a five-string version of Rickenbacker's classic 4000 series bass, modelled closely on the 4003 model. All that's different is of course the five strings, meaning a slightly wider neck, and a larger headstock to take care of the additional machine head - three along the top and two along the bottom edge.
But first things first - what, you ask, do you need five strings for on a bass? Many of us have enough trouble with four, much to the amusement of our multi-stringed guitarist colleagues.
As usual with bass-shaped things, it was Fender who originally led the way. Their now rare five-string bass first appeared in 1965 and offered bassists an extra high C string above the usual E A D G four-string set-up. Since then many makers have toyed with the idea and, although it hasn't caught on in a big way, five-strings continue to appear. Recently there's been another glut (Aria and Yamaha each have one, for example), and now it's Rickenbacker's turn.
They offer two extra-string options — either the old Fender mode of a high C string above the G, or (the one that has been more popular lately) an extra low B string below the existing E. Rickenbacker offer these options in the shape of alternative nuts, cut either with an extra thick low slot or an extra thin high slot. We were offered the low B variety for review.
Your next question is obvious. Why would you want a low B? Some bassists have found that their work with synth-based groups can be made much more useful with extra notes in the very lower register - doubling really low synth bass lines becomes so much more rewarding, and the ability to copy synth bass lines off the record for live shows becomes a reality down in those deep resonant frequencies. Basically, it gives you more room to work with.
You could easily say that a five-string falls in a sort of no-mans-land between a bass and a guitar. Certainly when you pick up the Rick and play it you're aware of constriction - that is assuming you come to it from bass, surely the most likely route. After being used to the relative luxury of the string spacing offered on most basses, the five-string feels closed-in and tight. Playing with fingers of the right hand on the Rick, I initially found myself falling over my fingers and fluffing lines that flow easily on a normal bass. This improved gradually as I got used to it, and no doubt the process would continue. But picking up a plectrum made things a lot easier - only thing is, I never normally use a plectrum on four-string bass. So for me to get the best from the instrument involved at least an initial compromise. Less of a problem if you're used to plectrum bass.
The sound of the bass is very wholesome and tends, as you might imagine, to Rickenbacker's usual gorgeous toppiness with the accent on punch rather than sustain. In both-pickups-on mode the bass took on a beautiful hollow throb over much of its range, especially with the two tones pushed right up, and I must admit that I soon switched back to persevere with my finger style playing. I got on much better when inspired by the instrument's own sound. The bass end was present but is naturally nothing like the sort of thing we've come to expect from modern active designs.
The low B string wasn't aided by this toppiness. My own view is that the B string flaps around and adds little strength or solidity to the instrument's lower reaches - the central 'treble' pickup (Rickenbacker's own term) is the louder of the two, as well. The B tuning of the low string means that the logic of fingerboard playing patterns works the same way right across the fingerboard - so that octave jumps, for example, remain two strings away and two frets up from the root. Octaving away in this manner on the low B and the A string suffered from a rather empty tone to the very lowest notes, with little definition evident. This has been the problem with all the five-string basses I've tried.
Rickenbacker warned me that the bass hadn't been attended to since its showing at the BMF, so I wasn't to worry about 'any buzzes'. I didn't find any - the fingerboard played very well, the added gloss finish helping the smoothness if lacking the 'feel' of open wood. I did notice that the intonation was marginally out here and there, particularly on the A string, but nothing to worry my generally forgiving ears.
This is a very well made bass, with some excellent touches of quality about it. It's good to have the extra notes to hand that the low B string affords, but I could have done with much more precise definition from them. Otherwise the bass sounds very good indeed. The five-string is an uncompromising instrument, and you'd have to be sure of your uses for it and be prepared to work at incorporating it into your style. The last time I reviewed a Rickenbacker I found it wildly expensive, and the tag of £800+ on this one does nothing to change my mind on that score. Shame - it's an intriguing instrument.
Review by Tony Bacon
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