How to buy your first electric bass

(Dave Molter | Posted 2010-02-28)

How to buy your first electric bass

So … you’ve decided to play bass guitar. Maybe you’ve chosen bass because you have a friend or relative who already plays bass and will loan you an instrument that you can use. If so, that’s great. But most beginners will have to either rent or purchase a bass — and a small amplifier — to get started. Here are some basic facts to help you make that big first choice.

What size bass do I need?
Unlike brass and woodwind instruments, basses (and guitars as well as orchestral strings) can be had in sizes made to fit growing kids or smaller adults. Electric bass sizing is called “scale.” Don’t worry if you don’t know what “scale” means – a friend who plays or any reputable dealer or teacher will help you decide which scale is best for you. The most common scales are:

• Long scale (34 inches) — When Leo Fender invented the first electric bass in the early 1950’s, he chose 34-inch scale, which remains the standard today for full-size electric basses, although 35-inch scale and longer basses are becoming more common.
• Short scale (30 inches) — Fender, Gibson, Ibanez and other manufacturers offer short-scale basses, which are designed for beginners, smaller adults or players who switch between bass and guitar. Famous players who prefer short scale include Paul McCartney (Hofner 550/1 Violin Bass), Jack Bruce of Cream (Gibson EB-O) and Sheryl Crow (Epiphone Allen Woody Bass).

Do I need four or five strings?
Although there’s no reason why a beginner should not play a five-string bass, four strings are enough, and most beginner basses are available only with four strings. Learn to play four strings well: Making the transition to five strings, should you decide to do so later, is not that difficult.

Do I need an amplifier?
Yes! Any electric bass must be plugged in to be heard. Many small (10- to 15-watt) amplifiers are available for less than $100. If you’re a kid whose parents freak out at the word “amplify,” tell them that most amps include a headphone jack that allows you to practice without interrupting their watching of “American Idol.”

Should I rent or buy?
Not all music stores offer basses for rent. If your local store does, that’s fine. Renting carries the advantage that if the instrument just stops working, you likely won’t have to pay for repair. Also consider renting if:

• You’re not really sure you want to play. After the initial excitement of doing something new wears off, some players don’t continue. Renting allows you to walk away without being “stuck” with a bass and amp that you just bought.
• The store will let you rent with an option to apply the rental money toward the instrument you’re renting or a new instrument after you’ve decide you’ll stick with playing.

If you’re reasonably sure that you will continue to play, buying offers the best choice of instruments. If your parents are financing your first purchase (see “How much should I expect to spend?”, below), assure them that should you quit playing, they can often recoup their investment by taking a tax write-off for donating the bass and amp to a local school district or a program that provides instruments to underprivileged kids.

Should I buy locally or online?
Since this is your first purchase, I strongly advise you to buy locally. Online prices are tempting, but you’ll have no chance to play the instrument before buying and, more important, if you need service or help you can get it locally rather than having to deal over the phone or through e-mail. And local dealers will often match online deals or split the difference between their price and the Internet price. Even if you buy online, having a contact at a local music store is always a good thing for any serious musician.

Name brand or other?
A great advantage of beginning to play bass in the 21st century is the number of choices available to you. When I started playing in 1965 choices were limited to expensive “name-brand" instruments, such as Fender, Gibson and Gretsch, and cheaper, “off-brand” instruments that were usually hard to play. Today, most major manufacturers have well-made beginner packages at reasonable prices. Local dealers and even national chains such as Guitar Center also may offer low-cost, playable off-brand basses. (See “How much should I expect to spend?”, below.) Given the choice between name-brand and off-brand at nearly identical prices, choose the name brand: quality control and warranties are likely to be better.

I don’t play — how can I know if a bass is any good?
Great question! My mom bought my first bass for me from the Sears catalog – a wonderful thing to do, but a practice I discourage. If someone wants to surprise you with a bass and amp, encourage them to buy a gift card for the store where they plan to purchase and let you make the final choice. If you don’t play, take a friend or relative who can play to the store with you so they can try instruments and advise you. If you don’t know someone like this, explain the situation at the music store and ask a sales clerk to play the bass for you. If the clerk won’t do it, find another store.

How much should I expect to spend?
Expect to pay between $150 and $300 for beginner bass packages (including bass, amp, strap, gigbag, a tuner and instrument cable). Although most beginner packages are limited to long-scale basses, some manufacturers make short-scale packages (the Ibanez IJMB15 Mikro Electric Bass Pack is one). If you’ve determined that you need short-scale, buying the bass and amp separately may be your only option. If so, you may be able to work with your local dealer for a discount for buying bass and amp together or to include accessories,such as a gigbag and tuner, in the package price. For my recommendations for beginner packages or individual purchases, see my MGR article.

Good luck! But most of all, have fun.

About Dave

Dave Molter

Dave Molter (“Laklander”) has played bass professionally for 45 years. He is a freelance writer and moderator of the Music Gear Review bass guitar forums. Dave’s bass influences include Paul McCartney, James Jamerson, Chris Squire and Tony Levin. His primary bass is a Lakland 55-94 five-string. Dave uses Genz-Benz amplifiers and Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats or Lakland Nickel Rounds strings. He would still like to be a Beatle. Send questions or comments to Dave

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