How to choose a Bass Guitar
Part rhythm, part melody, there’s simply no denying the importance of the bass guitar in modern music. This Sweetwater Buying Guide covers critical information that can help you choose the right bass guitar for your needs. There’s a lot to consider when purchasing a bass guitar, so please don’t hesitate to call your Sweetwater Sales Engineer at (800) 222-4700 for personal assistance.
- The anatomy of a bass guitar
- Tonewoods compared
- 4, 5, or 6 strings?
- Fretted vs. Fretless
- Acoustic Bass Guitars
- Passive vs active pickups
- Bolt-on vs String Through Body
- Precision or Jazz – which is right for me?
- What to look for in a Bass Guitar
The anatomy of a bass guitar
A number of factors determine the tonal properties of wood. Most luthiers believe that the wood chosen for the top is the single most important factor in determining the quality of tone of the instrument. It is also interesting to note that the wood itself takes on different characteristics depending on which part of the bass guitar it’s used for. But wood species can be responsible only for certain aspects of the tone of any guitar. Equally important are design, skill of the maker, and the quality of the wood used. Tonewood selection, however, can be a determining factor in the creation of a very special guitar, or a guitar designed for a specific purpose.
Ash and Alder
As ash and alder are extremely similar, both provide sustain and evenly balanced tone that is resonant and rich in harmonic overtones. The most common reason that guitar makers choose ash is because of its more attractive grain, which is apparent under a transparent or semi-transparent finish.
Many wonderful entry-level basses made from agathis since it is relatively inexpensive. Tonally, it is a medium between ash/alder and mahogany, resonating with a rich tone that emphasizes the lower midrange over the upper.
Mahogany basses are best generalized as sounding warm and full bodied. The medium density and low resonance of mahogany gives the lower register of the bass guitar a pronounced emphasis and rolls off the snappier string attack that you would get with an ash or alder body.
Basswood is a favorite body wood for bassists who play a wide range of music. An interesting quality of basswood is its extreme softness, which readily absorbs vibrations. It has a shorter sustain, making it ideal for fast or more complex playing techniques.
4, 5, or 6 Strings?
It’s tempting to say that if you need to ask, you’re better off sticking to a traditional 4-string bass. Regular 4-string basses have, by design, much narrower necks than 5- or 6-string basses and are tuned in standard E-A-D-G format; this makes them easier to handle and to learn to play on. However, there are some styles of music that favor 5-string basses. Modern worship music and country seem to have more songs that root in B, therefore its B-E-A-D-G tuning is ideal. Regardless of style, 5- and even 6-string basses give bass players more room to expand creatively. Particularly if you perform a lot of bass solos, a 6-string bass, tuned B-E-A-D-G-C, will let you pull off some fancier tricks.
Fretted vs. Fretless
There are two different fretboard layouts to choose from when you’re looking for a bass guitar: fretted and fretless. A fretted neck is the standard guitar neck, with steel frets dividing each half-step of the chromatic scale. This makes finding the correct notes much easier, especially if you are just starting out on the instrument. A fretless bass, however, features a neck that does not have steel frets; it’s just smooth wood, similar to an upright bass or violin. While many bass players believe that fretless basses offer a smoother, warmer sound, the pitch of the note you’re playing completely relies upon your finger position. Skilled players rely on muscle memory to place their hand in the proper position, but practice always makes perfect.
Acoustic Bass Guitars
If you’re looking for a bass guitar, but you don’t want to be slave to an amp, then an acoustic bass might be for you. With all of the same characteristics of an acoustic 6-string guitar, an acoustic bass produces sound through a resonant hollow body. This allows you to play unplugged with a full-bodied, robust sound, which is sometimes more appropriate for acoustic music. However, many different models of acoustic-electric bass guitars exist, giving you the hollow-body sound of an acoustic bass with the ability to plug in to an amp for additional volume.
Passive vs Active Pickups
There are two kinds of bass guitar pickups to choose from. Passive pickups, which have been around since the beginning of the electric bass, provide you with a dynamic sound and a warm, full tone. The downside to passive pickups is that they give you less overall control over the tone of your instrument. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if you like fat and punchy, passive pickups are for you.
Active pickups are a much newer development than passive pickups. Many modern bassists consider them the coolest thing since sliced bread; others find them to be almost heretical. The tone that active pickups produce on a bass guitar is bright, percussive, and clear. Additionally, active pickups include a built-in battery-powered preamp, producing a much higher output than passive pickups. You must remember to periodically change the battery.
Bolt-on vs Neck Through Body
Some controversy exists about which construction style is best for bass guitars. The bolt-on neck design is the more common and traditional construction method in which the neck is a separate piece of wood that’s bolted onto the body. There are some important advantages of this design, including the ability to replace the neck if it’s damaged.
In a neck-though-body design, the bass guitar’s neck wood actually spans the entire length of the instrument. Neck-through bodies tend to provide greater sustain and more direct energy transfer. These basses are made of several pieces of wood that have been glued together. One upside of this design is that the wood is usually of extremely high quality, which in itself increases the quality of the instrument.
Precision vs. Jazz Basses
Fender’s Precision and Jazz Basses dominate the world of bass guitars; and that’s no accident! Leo Fender and his small crew invented the first electric bass guitar more than 50 years ago. And though there have been many changes to both models over the past 50 years, the new P Bass or J Bass you buy today still carries the tradition of the classic originals.
So how do they differ? What makes a player choose one over the other? The primary differences can be summed up in three areas: the body, the neck and the pickups.
The Precision Bass was a radical design in 1951. Its deep double cutaways and forward-raked design was like nothing the guitar world had seen. In 1954 the Precision Bass, which had been a “slab” until then, adopted the contoured body of the new Stratocaster. These sculpted recessions at the bottom and top made it more comfortable to hold. The original Precision body was ash; now you can choose from models with ash or alder bodies.
The Fender Jazz Bass, released in 1960, offered players an offset-waist body, which was drawn from the Jazzmaster guitar introduced a couple of years earlier. This moved the mass of the body forward and out of the way of the player’s right arm. As with the P Bass, ash and alder body models of the J Bass are available.
Most Precision and Jazz Bass production models have what Fender calls a “modern C shape” neck. Each model’s neck is maple, with maple, rosewood, or pao ferro fingerboards available. Despite these similarities, the Precision neck maintains a fairly consistent thickness and tapers in slightly as it approaches the nut. However, the Jazz starts with its strings in a noticeably narrower spacing at the nut, which gives it a distinct “tapered” feel for what some players feel is easier fingering.
Upon its first release the Precision Bass had a single-coil pickup with a chrome-plated cover. Within a few years Fender moved to a split-coil pickup that offered a more defined and solid bass sound. The Jazz Bass was released with dual 8-pole humbucking pickups that gave players a wider variety of tonal possibilities. The end result was a bass some players consider to have a cleaner sound, with more tonal variation possible through use of a pan knob that adjusts the balance between the two pickups.
Bass your decision on the facts!
It’s difficult to describe guitar concepts like “feel” and “playability” in print. But hopefully this guide has given you the basic concepts surrounding your choice of an electric bass. One thing is certain – your Sweetwater Sales Engineer can help steer you to the bass that’s right for you. Call today!
What to look for in a Bass Guitar
Electric bass guitars are most commonly solidbody electrics, although a few semihollowbodies are available for a rounder and more acoustic sound.
Choosing what type of neck your bass should have is dependent on the size of your hand. Necks come in a number of shapes: round, oval, flat back, “vee” and asymmetrical (thinner either on bass or treble side).
Longer necks provide a more defined sound on the low strings, while a shorter scale is acceptable for 4-string basses and is good for smaller hands.
Enclosed machine heads resist rust and airborne corrosives, and therefore don’t require as much maintenance or replacement as open tuning machines.
Intonation determines whether the notes play in tune as you move up the neck. If the distance between the frets (usually above the 12th fret) is off, the bass will be incapable of playing in tune and therefore is useless as a recording or performance instrument.
Neck-through basses are stronger, with better sustain and note resolution. Bolt-on necks have a punchier sound but are more likely to have dead spots.
A coated fingerboard helps produce a whining, trebly “fretless sound” and longer sustain, which wears much longer with round-wound strings. Uncoated fingerboards have a warmer, more natural sound.
Number of Frets
Most basses have 21, 22, or 24 frets. Since most bass playing takes place in the lower positions, this is a matter of personal taste.
Pickups have more effect on your bass’s final sound than chooice of wood. A pickup can give quite different results on different basses, and is also affected by the age of your strings.
The important question regarding the wood is whether you like the sound of the bass. Choice of woods naturally affects the tone and weight of a guitar, so consider how you will use the bass (ie. playing long gigs or sitting in a studio).