Beginner’s Guide to… Choosing a Bass Guitar

Posted on 5th March 2018 by

If the drummer provides the backbone to a band, then the bass guitar is the nervous system. This is the link between the rhythm and the melody, and provides support and structure for the rest of the band. If you’re planning on becoming a bassist then it’s a responsible and often overlooked job. You may not revel in the limelight the way the lead guitar and singer do, but you’ll be plucking away underneath providing all the meat and gravy. Stop playing and you’ll be missed; without you the songs will feel limp and hollow.

So don’t feel that because it’s only 4 strings then a bass is any easier than a guitar – it’s a different skill entirely and places different demands on the player. Timing and accuracy is paramount, and you’ll become a member of a hallowed yet understated group of musicians! You will be able to pick up your first bass guitar for under £250, and this will be good enough quality to keep you interested for a long time!


Types of Bass

The Electric Bass Guitar was first designed back in 1951 by Leo Fender. With bass only provided by an upright double bass, gig sizes were massively hindered by the possible volume an acoustic instrument could go to. The advent of the electrified Precision bass meant that you could turn it up as loud as you like! Leo Fender also added frets to the bass, meaning it became easier to accurately hit the right notes. These developments opened bass playing up to a world of new players, and musicians took full advantage with an explosion of new pop music in the 1950s and 60s.

Nowadays there are tonnes of different bass guitar designs, so we can have a look at their general make-up to try and narrow down the decision! We’ll break down the individual components further into this article, but the most common types of bass guitar fall into a few main categories:

Precision (P-Bass)

The original electric bass guitar and featuring a classic body shape. These typically have one single coil pickup in the middle position, but split in half. This pickup was split largely out of necessity, when trying to squeeze it onto the body. However it also offers humbucking properties thanks to its alternately wound wiring. These provide a warm and rounded bass tone, and are heard on everything from Motown to punk rock. Also know as a P-Bass.

Jazz (J-Bass)

Launched in 1960 as a cousin of the Jazzmaster guitar, the Fender Jazz stands on the same hallowed ground as the Precision. Firstly, it features a very slim neck and is therefore easy to play. This bass has a unique tonal character as well, thanks to its two single coil pickups in the middle and bridge positions. The focused sound of this bass has helped to develop a lot of iconic musical styles including funk, disco, reggae and jazz fusion. Also known as a J-Bass.

Semi Hollow

With distinctive looks and key tonal benefits, a semi hollow bass may be for you if you’re playing blues, rock and roll or more old-style music.  This design adds some acoustic warmth to the tone and can be used for a vintage sound.

Modern Varieties

Aside from the classics mentioned, bass guitars are available in a variety of weird and wonderful shapes. Anything from the Gibson Thunderbird through to the angular Ibanez bass guitars, as well as the fabled Musicman Stingray. These are often fitted with 1 or 2 humbucking pickups, which can be active or passive.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes up a bass guitar…


Components

Body Considerations

Solidbody basses are the most common design. More expensive basses are often made from one solid piece of wood. This can be Alder, Maple, Swamp Ash, Mahogany, or another dense wood which transfers vibration well. Lower-priced basses may be made using laminate or softer woods. The main consideration for a beginner here will be the comfort. A bass guitar can get very heavy! If you’re new to playing it’s got to be comfortable, so probably a lighter wood will serve you well.

Scale Length

This is the distance between the nut at the top of the fretboard to the bridge. It is the whole length of the string which vibrates. The most common length is 34”. Short-scale basses exist, such as the Fender Mustang which is made with a 30” length, which may be preferred if you’re younger or of a smaller frame.

Neck

There are three kinds of neck used on bass guitars, and this describes how they attach to the body. These are:

Bolt-On Neck

The most common type, these necks are bolted tightly onto the body. A solid connection is essential to ensure stability and enhanced sustain. This is easier if you ever want to change necks as well, rather than writing off the whole instrument!

Set Neck

Some basses have set necks, meaning the neck is attached to the body with a mortise or dovetail joint rather than being bolted to it. A set neck creates better resonance and sustain, but can be more difficult to adjust.

Thru-Body Neck

Thru-body necks are found on higher-end bass guitars. This type of neck continues as one continuous piece through the body. Wings are attached to each side of it to form the upper and lower parts of the body. With a thru-body neck there is no joint between the neck and body that can inhibit vibration, resulting in better response and sustain.

Comfort is Key!

When you’re getting to grips with playing the bass, the neck is going is to be the dealbreaker. Unfortunately, we can’t give you many tips on this; it is simply what feels comfortable to you. Through time different shapes have been fashionable, from the chunky Precision neck of the 50s to sleeker designs in later years. Whether you like the slim profile of a Jazz bass which may help you to reach your notes, or the control granted by a wider spacing, it is total up to the individual. The best advice we can give is to try out as many as you can and see what works for you!

Fretboard

Bass guitars are mainly made with fretted necks, although they are also available as fretless. If you’re new to playing bass then we’d definitely recommend a fretted bass guitar. Fretless comes with a lot of different challenges and is generally considered for more advanced players.

Materials

In terms of fretboard material, various woods can be used with rosewood and maple remaining the most common. Maple fretboards tend to have a crisp and bright sound, whereas rosewood offers a warmer and balanced tone. Manufacturers are actually moving away from using rosewood due to worldwide restrictions on its use, although alternatives offer similar benefits. Much like the neck, this is down to personal preference – none is better than any other. Personally I’ve always played a composite fretboard and that has served me just fine!

Bridge

This is where the strings anchor onto the body of the bass. These are usually solidly bolted onto the body and transmit the vibrations to create the resonance and tone that the pickups capture and amplify. A heavier bridge with more weight will usually transmit the vibrations into the body better. There are three common designs for bridges. On a through-bridge, the strings are threaded through the back of the bridge, and over the saddles. On a string-through body bridge the strings are fed through the body of the bass and over the saddles. A bridge and tailpiece combination feeds the strings through a separate tailpiece that’s unconnected to the saddles.

Strings

4, 5, or 6 Strings?

The majority of bass guitars have four strings. We would recommend a new player to start out on a four-string bass guitar. Whilst still being adequate for most styles of music, they have smaller necks than their 5 and 6 string counterparts. This means they’re easier to learn with and to handle. 5 and 6 string basses provide an increased range, and are popular with players of metal, fusion and jazz. Some players love the increased range, some have never even tried one! Start with 4 strings and once you’ve exhausted this then there are always basses with more strings available.

Gauges

The most common set up on a 4 string bass is .045 – .105 roundwound strings. Thicker strings will give you a deep sound as well as be tighter on the neck. Thinner strings will be lighter to play and sound brighter across the fretboard.

Pickups

There are essentially two types of pickup used on bass guitars, with some slight variations.

Single Coil

These are the oldest and simplest design of pickups. They produce a bright and focused sound, but can be noisy due to picking up interference. On a Jazz bass where two are used, they are wired to negate this extra noise. On a Precision bass, the coil is split and wired up to prevent the hum from interference.

Humbucker

This design was developed to try and buck the hum and cancel out the interference. They also have a beefy fatter sound in addition to being more noise-free. The humbucker sound can get muddy at higher volumes though.

Combinations

Bass guitar pickups can be set up in a number of ways. A Jazz bass will have two single-coil pickups, a Precision will have a split single coil in the middle. Gibson basses tend to use two humbucking active pickups. Musicman bass guitars often use either one or two humbuckers. Many other basses (mine included) will use a P/J configuration, which is a split coil in the middle and a single coil at the bridge. As with many of the other elements here, it is down to personal preference. Listen to your favourite bass players and then check out their gear in order to see what you want to work with. And try out as many as you can in the shop!

Electronics – Passive or Active?

This relates to the pre-amp, or how the bass manages to boost the signal and provide EQ and tone-shaping.

Passive preamps operate without any power source and have fewer controls. Usually with only a volume and a tone control, and perhaps a blend if there are two pickups. These are advantageous as they don’t require a battery, and are very simple to repair in case something goes wrong. They also have a more traditional sound that you may prefer.

Active preamps require power, usually provided by a battery. This gives you enhanced control over the tone, as you have the power to house an onboard EQ. Some basses have contour switches which can instantly change the sound profile, or controls to let you change the wiring on the fly. They also tend to produce very crisp and clear signal.

To Sum Up…

So there you have it plenty of info on what makes up a bass guitar and hopefully can inform your decision to join the bassist club! With all the good advice we can give, there is no substitute for getting your hands on a number of different basses and trying them out to see what works for you. If you’re a beginner here’s a few suggestions to have a look at…

Rich Tone Recommends: Epiphone EB0 SG | Ibanez GSR180Ibanez GSRM20 | Ibanez TMB100 | Squier Affinity Series Jazz Bass | Vintage VJ74 Reissued

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