Bass Guitar Buying Guide
Our goal in designing this guide for those considering a new bass guitar was to provide enough information to be of value to both the beginning and intermediate player, as well as the person who may be shopping for a friend or loved one. Clearly, expert bass players will have their own itinerary and will command a more complete and thorough understanding of the particulars of bass guitars. We ask, however, that if you are an expert or advanced player, that you consider submitting tips or other information that we can include here that will help others make an informed purchasing decision.
Having said that, let’s talk about just what a bass guitar is. Those of you familiar with guitars understand that there are specific notes or tones that a given instrument is capable of playing. Bass guitars owe their name to the lower register of these tones, that are typically more bass oriented in frequency. At their most basic level, bass guitars are tuned about one octave lower than a normal six string acoustic or electric guitar. Additionally, to reproduce the deeper bass notes, the strings on a bass guitar are significantly thicker. One way to familiarize this would be to think of the funky music that is played at the beginning of old Seinfeld episodes on the television. Remember that ba-dinka-pop tune that always popped up at the beginning and end of each segment? Total bass line.
So now that you have a basic idea of what a bass guitar is and the type of tones it produces, let’s talk a bit about how it fits in to the scheme of recorded music. Essentially, bass players are responsible in any musical group for keeping the beat of the song. These deep, punchy tones are ideal for keeping a groove going and tying the other instruments in the band into a cohesive flow. Bass players often work hand-in-hand with the drummer to help build the musical framework, or underpinnings, to the melody or beat that the rest of instruments and the vocalist help detail.
Bass players are present in just about every type of recorded music as well. Everything from rock and pop to country, jazz, blues, and even classical music may have some type of bass line going along with the melody. There are different types of bass guitars that are prevalent in each type of music, however, and we will begin to talk about those next.
Types of Bass Guitars
There are a number of different types of basses, but the two most common groups are the stand-up basses (or string bass) and bass guitars(both acoustic and electric). You may have seen a stand-up bass, this is the enormous instrument that the player stands on it’s end and plays standing up. This instrument is widely used in classical applications and sometimes in blues or jazz bands. Increasingly, the stand-up bass is being used in acoustic groups that tend to play more popular music as well. Most common, however, is the bass guitar. Bass guitars come in two primary variants – the electric bass and the acoustic bass. There are even acoustic-electric bass guitars.
Electric Bass Guitars
Electric bass guitars function on the same principle as electric guitars where the body is normally solid, and electronic pickups are used to capture the string vibrations and transmit them to an amplifier which then increases the volume of the signal. Electric bass guitars are most common in the 4 string variant, but are increasingly being found in 5 and 6 string models. These instruments are still tuned an octave lower, however the additional strings provide the accomplished player with more options for expanding their playing. As noted, electric basses require bass guitar amplifiers to amplify their signal. Bass Guitar amplifiers have some of their own unique features and more information can be found on our bass guitar amplifiers category page.
Acoustic Bass Guitars
Similar to the acoustic guitar, the acoustic bass guitar has a large sound cavity that is normally constructed of wood and a sound-hole that projects the sound made by plucking or strumming the strings. Acoustic bass guitars are sometimes thought of as impractical to a band that is playing out as their projection is somewhat limited, however the quality and resonance of the tone is what keeps many bass players interested. Many groups that like to put on an acoustic show will include an acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, and bongos or congas for percussion. You can also mic an acoustic bass if you’re going for an interesting sound.
Acoustic-Electric Bass Guitars
Add a piezo or other pickup to an acoustic bass and guess what you’ve got? That’s right, acoustic basses also come in an acoustic-electric variant which really gives you the flexibility to run through a pa system or amplifier, as well as gain the benefits of the acoustic tone. We’ve seen several jazz bands taking this approach, and again, normally amplified bands that appeared on MTV’s series Unplugged. Ideally, this is the model that you would want if you are looking for the benefits of both.
What Type of Bass Guitar Do I Want?
While this can certainly be a very personal choice, you’re probably going to want to start with an electric bass guitar if this is your first. This variant is the most widely used, it’s the easiest to play, and most common. Also, if you’re a beginner, we’d recommend you stick with a 4 string model to learn and improve on. Sometimes it’s better to keep things simplified, and the 4 string electric bass is the way to go.
If you’re lured by the idea of an acoustic bass, we’d highly recommend you at least go with an acoustic-electric, and preferably, one with as large a surface area as possible on the body. This will help project when you’re not amplified and at least the instrument will have the electronics built in if you ever decide you need to plug it in.
What About 5 String and 6 String Bass Guitars?
Unless you’re an accomplished bass player, we’d recommend you stay away from anything higher than 4 strings. It’s better to keep it simple, and with more strings, comes more complication. Additionally, 5 and 6 string basses can be harder to play and have a much wider fretboard, which can be a challenge for small or inexperienced hands. Unless you’re comfortable and have been playing a while, we wouldn’t recommend it. On the other hand, if you are an experienced bassist, you may want to consider a 5 or 6 string bass. The instrument will give you more range and flexibility to showcase your talents, and also provide more ranges and octaves for you to work with in your playing. Bass soloing has really caught on in the last few decades and to really impress, it’s better to have the additional strings and range.
I’m Hearing About Scale, What’s That About
Scale is used to indentify the length of the bass from the nut to the bridge. Obviously the longer the distance the more vibration you can expect and therefore longer length strings can allow you to play much deeper tones. While most bass guitars are about thirty four inches long, there are incrementally shorter and longer varieties that are much a matter of personal choice. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that as your scale length grows, so does the amount of flexibility needed to accurately play those notes. That’s right, with scale increases, come increases in distance between the frets – so be careful, although it might seem cool and challenging to play a longer scale bass, you could end up looking sloppy in your style if take this route.
What Are Some Of The Most Popular Bass Brands
If you’ve spent any amount of time looking at bass guitars, you’ve probably noticed a preponderance of the Fender P and J models. Available in both American and internally made models, these electric basses have almost become the standard others have been measured by. Don’t limit your choices though! Other manufacturers make great basses as well, including Gibson, Epiphone, Dean, and Warwick on the high end. Just check out all the review categories above and read as much as you can to understand who some of the most popular brands are. Also, we’d recommend you check out some good sites on the web also, so be sure to check our links page for some of the sites we recommend.
Tips for Buying Bass Guitars
If you’re a reader and you have some tips on what to look for when shopping for a bass guitar, please consider sending it in to us for posting here. MusicGearReview.com is a site by musicians and for musicians so it’s only appropriate that we provide tips from our readers as well as for them. Please use the email form on the contacts page to send your tips in.
Other Bass Guitar Articles
Your First Electric Bass
Dave takes us through some of the major and minor points to consider when selecting and shopping for your first bass guitar. Read all about it in the definitive guide here: Buying Your First Electric Bass