Bass Guitar Buyer’s Guide
The bass guitar is undeniably one of the most important instruments in the band, linking the rhythm of the drums to the melody of the other instruments. Below we cover the bass-ics (sorry) of what to consider when investing in one of these instruments, but before you get onto that, it is worth familiarising yourself with the different parts of a bass guitar.
What to Consider When Buying a Bass Guitar
Number of Strings
The majority of bass guitars have four strings – E, A, D, and G – which mirror the bottom four strings on a standard guitar, but an octave lower. However, 5-string basses are becoming increasingly popular as they offer an extra, lower B string, allowing you to hit even lower notes, and generally be more creative. It also removes the need to move between tunings during a set, so is a popular option with function band bassists, who need to play long and varied sets. Less popular are basses with 6 strings and up, which are intended more for complicated soloing (read: showing off). There’s also different materials to choose from. And there’s round wound, flat wound and some stuff in between, but that’s a whole other blog…
There are a huge number of different body styles for bass guitars, but the two most popular are Fenders Jazz Bass and Precision or P-Bass styles. To learn more, have a read of our blog post about the difference between Jazz and Precision basses. Fundamentally, the body style is a matter of personal opinion – what do you think looks and sounds cool?
Type of Wood
An important factor in the sort of sound you’ll get out of your new bass guitar is the type of wood that it’s made of. Note that this doesn’t make all the difference – the skill of the maker, the design, and the quality of wood used are also important.
Below are the most popular wood types:Agathis: This is an inexpensive wood used on many entry-level bass guitars. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound good, but it may not have quite the nuance of more expensive woods. Tonally, it offers a rich tone with emphasis on the lower midrange.Alder: Alder wood offers great sustain (meaning the notes ring out for longer) and is rich in harmonic overtones, meaning you get a fuller sound.Ash: Very similar to alder tonally, though offering almost a “mid scoop” versus the alder bodied basses. Ash looks pretty on natural (unpainted) finishes with its complex wood grain.Basswood: Basswood is a soft material, meaning it absorbs vibrations, and offers less sustain. This makes it better for complicated music with quick changes.Mahogany: A fairly pricey wood, mahogany offers a warm and full-bodied tone, with more emphasis on the lower end.Maple: A very dense wood, maple offers a brighter, crisper tone and lots of sustain. It’s also quite heavy, so isn’t commonly used as a body material.
Longer necks offer a more defined sound on the lower strings. However, they can be harder to play, especially for smaller hands. Short-scale basses (below around 30”) can be great for beginners but are also the choice of many pros (including none other than a certain Sir Paul McCartney).
Which neck type will be comfortable for you depends very much on the size of your hands and personal preference. The best way to find the right sort of neck for you is to try a bunch out.
All the original bass guitars and most modern ones have passive pickups. These are great for most purposes, providing a warm tone and dynamic sound. Active pickups offer more control over your sound and a higher output level. However, they require a battery which needs to be changed regularly. Pickups can also be single coil, split-coil, or humbucking. These all have different qualities, but humbucking pickups will certainly be cleaner with more possibility for tonal variation.
Bolt-on or Neck Through Body
Many people will say there is very little difference between these two types of neck joint, so don’t worry too much about it! However, those that do insist on there being a difference generally feel that bolt-on necks have a harder sound, with neck-through models sounding softer and rounder. What can’t be denied is that bolt-on necks are easier to replace or repair if you need to.
Fretted or Fretless?
A fretted neck is the standard guitar-style neck, with steel wire frets at each step of the chromatic scale. Fretless basses, on the other hand, are more like a violin or double bass, with the player needing to learn the correct fingering positions. Fretted basses are far more common and significantly easier to learn to play on, but fretless basses offer a unique, warm and versatile sound.
As with most musical instruments, the best thing to do is always to try a selection of models out to see which ones suit your body shape and playing style. It’s important to understand the basics, but the main thing is to find an instrument that will inspire you to play.