How to Choose Bass Guitar Accessories

When it comes to accessorizing your bass guitar, it’s not as simple as making sure you don’t wear brown shoes with a black suit. But after playing bass for 45 years, I‘ve discovered that some accessories are indispensable and can make your performing life a whole lot easier. Where appropriate, I’ll make some recommendations for reliable brands or things to look for. Let’s start with the obvious.

Electronic tuners
Playing in tune is essential, and back before portable electronic tuners became available, tuning meant using your ear to tune with a tuning fork that vibrates at a certain pitch when struck against an object or tuning to a handy piano or organ, even if that instrument wasn’t used in any of your songs. The first electronic tuners were stroboscopic and cost several hundred dollars. But today a tuner can be had for as little as $10. All tuners are not created equal, however, and they are divided into a few categories. Above all, make sure that any tuner you’re considering can handle bass range, including the low B string. Even if you play a 4-string bass, you may someday buy a 5-string or be asked tune down for a song, so you need a tuner that goes below the low E string on a bass. And even if a tuner says “guitar/bass tuner” in its name, try it first. I learned this the hard way after buying a “guitar/bass tuner” that would not recognize my B string.

All electronic tuners designed for bass or guitar should have at least a ¼” input jack for electric instruments as well as a built-in microphone for acoustic basses and guitars. Some stompbox tuners may have also have a ¼” output jack that will allow you to tune “in line” while connected to your amplifier. In this case, the tuner will have a bypass switch that allows you to tune silently onstage. One final note: these days, the tuning standard is most often a=440 cycles. Most tuners allow you to tune higher or lower than 440, either by setting the tuner with a switch or by following LEDs or a needle to a marked position (say, 442) on a scale.

LED tuners
LED (Light Emitting Diode) tuners use colored lights to indicate whether your instrument is in tune, flat or sharp. Designs vary, but a common layout and sequence involves several LEDs placed in an arc with a center, green LED to indicate “in tune.” Red LEDs arch off on either side, to the left for flat to the right for sharp. The further to the left or right the LED appears, the further flat or sharp you are. Some tuners may substitute amber or blue LEDS for red and green, but in all cases, the center LED is “in tune.” Most LED tuners – as well as all other types of tuners – automatically recognize the pitch of the string being plucked. Older models sometimes required you to set a rotary switch to tune different strings. And some LED tuners will include a “Flat” setting for use in bands that play metal or other music that requires you to tune 1/2 step down or more. LED tuners come in pocket size, stompbox or rackmount, and there’s even one model that’s shaped like a guitar pick. Most stompbox tuners, meant to be used on a dark stage, include a bright digital display that shows you the name of the note that’s being tuned.

Needle tuners
As their names indicates, “needle” tuners use a pointer, or needle to indicate flat, sharp or in tune. The needle may be mechanical needle like those found on other electronic equipment or a simulated needle appearing on an LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) screen. The tuning display is the same as LED tuners: center=in tune; left= flat; right=sharp. Most needle tuners also include LEDS above the green to indicate flat or sharp. Some have a single green LED at center flanked by a single red or other-color LED to either side. And, like their LED cousins, needle tuners may include a “Flat” setting or a Guitar/Bass” switch. If you don't need to tune onstage while playing but are interested mainly in getting in tune for practice, I recommend the Korg GA-1, which sells for $20.

Strobe tuners
Strobe tuners take their name from “stroboscope,” which is musical applications usually involves using rapidly flashing light to sense vibration or rotation and display the results via a rotating display in the form of concentric wheels. When two or more wheels align -- when the display wheels stop moving -- the note is in tune. The first strobe tuners, and even those for professional use today, are prohibitively expensive. But technology again has made compact versions affordable for today’s musicians. For example, the Planet Waves Desktop True Strobe Tuner uses a blue rotating light display to indicate tuning, and at a street price of around $80.

Stompbox tuners
If you need to tune onstage, a stompbox tuner is likely the one you want. These effects-pedal size boxes fit easily on a pedalboard, and some, like the Boss TU-3 ($99), supply power to several other 9V-powered effects. The best stompbox tuners have a switch that allows for silent tuning and also have displays bright enough to not be washed out by high-intensity stage lighting. The TU-3 supplies power to other effects and is also chromatic, allowing it to be used for any notes rather than being limited to the notes of open guitar and bass strings.

At this writing, there is only one tuner that doesn’t require you to play one note at a time to tune, the Polytune from TC Electronic ($99). Debuted at Winter NAMM 2010, the Polytune allows guitarists to play a chord rather than a single note: the Polytune picks out which notes are not in tune. This could be invaluable if you’re playing live, know something is out of tune, but don’t know which string it is. Applications for polytuning of bass are probably more limited, but the Polytune is chromatic and works with bass.

Rackmount tuners
Rackmount tuners are designed for permanent mounting in standard rackmount cases , either for use in studios, by professional who tune pianos or other instruments, or for players who use rackmounted amps and other effects units. Most are pricey -- $500+ -- and offer a variety of specialized tuning presets – for banjo or 12-string guitar, for example.

What next?
Okay – you’re in tune. You’re ready to play. What other accessories should be in the well-prepared bassist's gig bag? Here are a few suggestions, again based on my own experience and those times when I’ve said, “Man, why didn’t I bring ____?”

  • A steady, heavy stand -- When I started playing in 1965, no one used a guitar stand. We simply leaned our guitars and basses against the amplifiers. We were incredibly stupid. Whether you spend $200 or $2,000 on your bass, protect your investment with a solid stand, one that can't be tipped over easily and won't damage the bass finish or neck. I prefer the tubular cradle-type GS7465 Pro Flip-It A-Frame stand made by Onstage which has a mechanical locking system to prevent the neck from falling out of the C-shaped cradle at the top and and have padding where the body sits on the tripod. Although stands are available that allow you to hang the instrument by the headstock, I don't like to stress the neck in any way.

  • 9-volt batteries -- Effects need power. Unless you have a pedalboard that supplies power, you’ll need batteries someday. If you have an active bass with a preamp that doesn’t have a passive option, you need batteries.

  • Screwdriver set-- Or a screwdriver that has interchangeable flat and Phillips heads in size that fit the battery compartments on your bass or pedals and the bridge length-adjustment screws.

  • Hex wrenches -- Or a “Swiss Army Knife” type multiwrench set of hex keys that fit your bridge-saddle screws or truss rod.

  • Pliers and wirecutters -- You usually don’t know you need these till you, um, need them. Like to stop your guitarist's long solo.

  • Small flashlight -- Ever tried to find something on a dark stage? A pick? A screw? The drummer?

  • String winder/cutter -- Makes changing a bass string much less work. Planet Waves makes the Bass Pro String Winder/Cutter ($7.99).

  • Extra guitar cords -- At least one of decent length (20 feet) as your main instrument cable and, if you use an effects chain , shorter ones of 1 to 3 feet in length. I recommend Monster Cables. They are expensive (about $40 for 20 feet), but they carry a lifetime replacement warranty, and buying three cheap cables that stop working within a year works out to paying more than for that for one, well-made cable. offers a "no-frills" version of Monster Cables at a reduced price. Same cable, less packaging.

  • Multioutlet power cord or box and three-prong to two-prong grounding adapters -- You’d be surprised how many places you may play won’t have adequate power distribution and only two-prong wall sockets.

  • An extra guitar strap -- Even if you’ve used the same strap for years, you may someday leave home without it or leave it at the last gig. Carry a spare. For bass, I recommend at least a 2 1/2” width for comfort. My personal choice is a 3 ½”-wide Levy’s all-leather padded strap.

  • An extra set of strings-- I am somewhat unusual in that I have broken only one string in 45 years of playing. But that doesn’t mean I go to a gig without a backup set, even if it’s one that I’ve just taken of my bass. If you break a string, you can always play around it, but why put yourself in that situation?

  • Extra picks -- If you play with a pick, carry more than one. Why annoy your guitar player by bumming picks and having to make do with a thin when you use a heavy? Picks are cheap. Buy a dozen or more.

  • Alcohol wipes or moistened towelettes -- Cheap, and can be used for a variety of cleanup tasks. Small alcohol pads available in a drugstore can be used to clean crud from your bass strings without leaving a residue. Towelettes allow you to clean up after strangling a drummer.

  • A clean, soft cloth-- Use it to wipe down your strings and the back of your bass neck when your finish playing. Wipe down the bass body, too, if your hands or arms sweat where they contact the bass.

  • Earplugs -- Most bands play too loud, period. A good set of earplugs will set you back less than $10 and can make playing at high volume not only more pleasant, buy safer for your ears. Hearos earplugs are very affordable.

    I’ll make one final plea for something that no bassist should ever be caught WITH – and that’s a belt with a huge buckle. Nothing annoys me more than a beautiful bass that has “buckle rash’ on the back because some fool can’t be bothered to remove a belt, cover the buckle or turn the buckle to the side before putting on the bass. Buckle rash is not a “badge of honor.” Do you drive your car into a wall every day because you think it gives the car “character?” If you’re so skinny that your pants fall down without a belt, eat more.

    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