Bass guitars are one of the crucial instruments on a band, and if you’re looking for one, here’s a bass guitar buying guide to hook you up.
Bass guitar players are the unsung heroes of popular music. While there are some exceptions like Paul McCartney and Les Claypool, bass players usually hang back outside of the limelight.
But they are by no means less important than any other player in the band; there’s a good chance your favorite rock song would sound hollow, tinny and unsatisfying without the bass track.
Whether you are a fresh bassist or seasoned veteran, this guide will hopefully be of some help in choosing a new bass.
Budget and Skill Level
When you are just starting out, your focus should be more on learning and less on creating the perfect tone. But that doesn’t mean your first bass should be the cheapest one you can find.
Get one that is easy and fun to play. You want it to feel good and look good. Of course, the visual aesthetics won’t affect the sound, but it will affect your attitude.
It’s very easy to get discouraged in the beginning. It will be even harder to practice with a bass that is really difficult for you to manage or it doesn’t exactly fit your style.
With that being said, you shouldn’t invest too much in the beginning. Just get the best bass that you can reasonably afford. It will pay off in being playable and lasting a long time.
As a general rule, you should probably start with a four-string solid body electric bass. This will give you the most value for your dollar and will be the easiest to get the hang of. If you’re young and have smaller hands, you should get a smaller bass.
Intermediate to Advanced Players
Once you’re able to actually play the bass, you may think about investing in a better model. At this level, you will probably be looking for a specific tone to add to your collection.
There are many factors at play here. The wood, the neck construction, the pickups, the preamp controls, and the quality of the bridge all affect the tone. It’s best to play around with different basses at the guitar store.
You should be able to determine for yourself if you need a specialty bass like an acoustic-electric, five-string or six-string. If you aren’t sure if you need one, you probably don’t.
Amplifier and cables. It goes without saying that you need these. You should NOT try to use a guitar amplifier with a bass. However, you can use a guitar with a bass amplifier.
You don’t need to break the bank for your amp. You should just try to get one loud enough to play over the other instruments if you are playing in a band.
Tuner. This is also essential. There are a variety of good clip-on tuners and even some phone apps that function as tuners.
Strap. Unless you plan to play sitting down all the time, you need a strap. There’s no need to spend too much on one of these, but a crappy one might wear out pretty fast. You don’t want the strap to break and drop your bass to the floor.
Pick. This is sort of optional. Some people may encourage you to start with a pick, and some may tell you to start out playing fingerstyle. It depends on what kind of music you want to play. Fingerstyle is more dextrous and has a smoother sound while picking might be more appropriate for rapid playing in a punk or metal band.
Do keep in mind that you want a very thick pick for bass playing. A medium guitar pick will not serve you well at all.
Strings. While the stock strings may last for a little while, they will eventually develop a “dead” sound. In fact, if the bass was hanging up in the guitar store for long enough, they might already be dead.
Strings are made of many different kinds of metal. An extensive look into the characteristics of each type of string would be a whole other article, but a beginner would do well with a fresh set of nickel-wound strings.
Also, don’t rely on the guitar store employees to change your strings. It’s really easy to do yourself and will save you a ton of cash.
Case. Soft cases may protect against the weather, but you want to invest in a hard case eventually if you are taking your bass anywhere.
The neck is the long, thin part of the bass guitar that is home to the fretboard. It connects the body to the headstock. It contains the truss rod which is used to adjust the height of the strings off the fretboard (this is called the “action”). There are three different kinds of necks.
Bolt-on necks are, as the name implies, bolted onto the body. They are the most common type of neck at all quality levels.
While being bolted on hinders the transfer of vibrations from the strings to the body, which can lower the sustain and create “dead spots” on the fretboard, they have the added benefit of being easily replaceable if they are damaged.
A good bolt-on neck will have a lot of overlap between the neck and the body and be connected very snugly. The neck should not be able to shift at all.
Set necks are set into the body by a joint without the assistance of bolts. This gives them superior resonance and sustain to bolt-ons. However, they are difficult to adjust and much more difficult to replace.
Thru-body necks are rare and usually only found on specialty or custom bass guitars. A thru-body neck is continuous throughout the body; they are combined into one solid piece. This gets rid of all of the problems relating to energy transfer from the strings.
A bass guitar with a thru-body neck will probably be very expensive. Also, the neck will be unable to be replaced if it gets critically damaged.
The back of the neck comes in a variety of different shapes, like “hard V,” “soft V,” and “D shape.” You should experiment in the guitar store and find which one works best for you.
The scale length is defined as the distance from the nut to the bridge. Most bass guitars have a scale length of 34 inches.
This can be a lot to handle for young people or people with short arms, but luckily, short-scale basses that are 30 inches long aren’t very hard to find. These shorter basses may have smaller bodies as well.
Some basses have a scale length of 35 inches. These are usually five- or six-string basses. The extra length is required to add tension to the very low strings and keep them from flopping.
Four, Five, and Six-string Basses
Most basses have four strings and work perfectly well for almost all styles of music. What are the advantages of adding more strings?
Five-string basses have an extra low string commonly tuned to B. These can go even deeper than a four-string if you need to do that. These are more common in prog, jazz, fusion, metal and any other genre in which technical prowess is a center of focus.
Six-string basses have an extra high string commonly tuned to C. As a bass player, you will rarely need to go that high unless you are using the bass as a solo instrument or playing a song with a very sophisticated arrangement.
The vast majority of bass players — even professionals — play four-string basses. If you’re a beginner, you should definitely stick to playing a four-string. This is because adding extra strings necessitates a wider neck, and this makes the bass much harder to handle.
Bass is already much longer than a guitar, so the added width of a six-string bass will make it much more difficult to learn than a six-string guitar.
Most fretboards are thin boards of wood glued onto the neck, though some are simply part of the bass. The frets are the thin strips of metal on the board that ensure you can only play notes on the bass in half-step increments. But some bass guitars are fretless.
Fretless basses rely totally on the player to hold the strings down at the right points, like a violin or cello. They have a smoother sound and you can create cool glissando and microtonal effects with them, but they’re really hard for beginners to play. You should probably stick to a fretted bass until you become more skilled.
Higher-quality bass guitars may have harder fretboards that resist wear and tear. Some are completely flat and some have a curve defined by a “radius.” A shorter radius means the curve is more dramatic. You should just get whatever is more comfortable for you to play.
Most bass guitars — and practically all beginner basses — are solid-body electrics. However, there is some variety in the types of bodies you can get.
Solid bodies are usually made of a solid piece of wood and transmit vibration from the strings to the amplifier via magnetic pickups. Less expensive models may be made with pressed wood or woodpiles.
Hollow bodies are hollow like an acoustic guitar but have the same kinds of magnetic pickups as solid-body electrics. As you would expect, their tone is closer to that of an acoustic. It is capable of being much quieter and softer than a solid body. A hollow body might also be a little bigger and clunkier but usually weighs less.
Semi-hollow bodies are mostly hollow but have a solid center. This reduces feedback, which is a common problem with hollow bodies if they are played at higher volumes.
Acoustic-electric basses are less common than their six-string guitar counterparts but offer the same set of benefits and drawbacks; you won’t have to rely on an amp to play one, but it might be difficult to play at a high volume without the help of pickups. Luckily, most acoustic basses come equipped with piezo pickups and tone controls.
The wood that your bass is made out of will have a noticeable effect on its tone. If you’re a beginner, you shouldn’t worry too much about the tonewood. However, if you’re an intermediate or advanced player, you should experiment with different tonewoods at some point and find the one you like the most.
Alder is a very common and well-rounded tonewood. It provides a clear, rich, balanced tone and good sustain.
Agathis is common in entry-level guitars. The lower-middle range is emphasized which gives it a warmer, richer sound.
Ash is very similar to alder. The main difference is that it is more visually attractive. This is only apparent if the finish on the bass is transparent.
Basswood is a soft wood that absorbs vibrations well, which results in very little sustain. It is appropriate for many musical styles, but it is especially well-suited for fast playing.
Mahogany emphasizes the lower range and creates a warm sound with a lot of sustain.
Maple is great for studio recordings. It has a very bright tone with a lot of clarity, which helps the bass stand out in the mix.
These are located on the back of the headstock. Enclosed tuning machines are housed within tiny metal boxes and are more resistant to rust and corrosion. If you can’t see the gears on the back of the headstock, they are enclosed.
The bridge is the metal piece on a solid body or hollow body bass that attaches the strings to the body. Acoustic basses have wooden bridges.
For electric basses, brass bridges are some of the best. You want the bridge to be heavy so that it doesn’t hamper vibrations from the strings to the body.
There are three different kinds of bridges that differ mainly in the method you use to anchor strings to them.
With a through-bridge, you simply thread the strings through the back of the bridge itself.
A string-through-body bridge requires you to feed the strings through the back of the bass and onto the bridge saddles.
Some basses will have a bridge and tailpiece that requires you to feed the strings through the separate tailpiece and then onto the bridge.
The pickups are the part of the bass that will have the greatest effect on your tone. They use magnets to pick up the vibrations from the strings and body and turn it into an electrical signal.
There are two main kinds of pickups: single coil and humbucker.
Single coil pickups have, as the name implies, one coil and one magnet per pickup. This creates a very bright and in-your-face sound, but single coils are susceptible to noise.
Humbuckers, also known as double coils, were created to reduce the noise present in single coils. They have a darker and heavier tone, but they can be muddier than single coils.
Pretty much every other pickup is a derivative of the single coil or humbucker in some way.
Passive and Active Electronics
Bass guitars have a preamp system that can either be unpowered or battery-operated. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both.
Passive electronics are unpowered and usually simpler than active preamp systems. Instead of using a battery to amplify the signal from the pickups, they use another magnet. They have a more “old-school” sound and fewer controls, giving the player less creative freedom in shaping the tone.
However, some may value them for their unique tone and simplicity. You also don’t have to worry about the battery dying in the middle of a show.
Active electronics usually have a clearer sound, longer sustain, and way more bells and whistles. Though you will have to replace the battery occasionally, you will usually have EQ controls and may even be able to select pickups like on a six-string guitar.
Final Words of Advice
With my bass guitar buying guide, you should be able to make some intelligent decisions when purchasing your next bass guitar.
Buying a guitar can be challenging but if you’ve done your homework, you should be able to choose your first instrument or your next instrument and get the sound you want.
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