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Electric Bass Buying Guide
By Doug Ducey
12/7/2010 11:48:00 AM

Since the bass is used in virtually every style of music, a good bass player can always find a band to work with.

The bass is somewhat easy to learn, but it does help to know a few bass basics when shopping for an instrument for the first time. Hopefully, this buying guide will answer a lot of questions a first time buyer might have, but if you need additional assistance, contact any West Music store and one of our Combo Associates will be happy to help you.



When choosing an electric bass, make sure that the instrument is not too heavy. Be sure it balances well on your shoulder and is not "neck heavy," as you’ll constantly be re-adjusting how you hold it. Be sure it has the look and sound you want. The important thing about the look of a bass is that you like it and are proud of it. You will be more likely to play it if it fits you and your musical style.


Many companies have begun manufacturing affordable "starter" basses. These are good playable basses, are less expensive, aren't as heavy -- nor are they as elaborately finished as the more expensive basses. The quality of hardware and pickups are not as good as their high-end counterparts, but these are good, playable instruments that will take you through the first steps of learning to play the bass. If the player is uncertain of their talent or sustained interest, these lower cost instruments let them try to learn the bass without a big investment. If you are sure that your interest and enthusiasm will be more of a long term commitment, it might be better to go to a little higher end, "intermediate" bass, which can make the learning process a little easier.


For players just getting started, try a 4-string bass so as not to overcomplicate the learning process. You can play pretty much anything on a 4-string bass. The 5-string basses add a lower B string. Pop and funk music, and even the current country bass players often use these lower notes for a heavy bottom. The 6-string bass extends the instrument's scale on both ends.


By far, the most common type of electric bass would be the solidbody. In better quality basses, the bodies are often made of a solid piece of wood-alder, maple, swamp ash, mahogany, or some other wood that will transfer the vibration well. The lower-priced solidbodies are usually made of ply, softer woods, or pressed woods. Used mainly in jazz and folk music, hollowbody basses are just that -- a hollow body, like an acoustic guitar, but they still use the same magnetic pickups as the solidbody basses. These basses are used in music that is quieter and needs a more acoustic like tone. The big advantage to a hollowbody bass is that they are usually lighter in weight, but they are more limited in the volume they can produce because they feedback easier than a solidbody bass.

Hollowbody Bass

Another type of hollowbody bass is the acoustic-electric, which is really an acoustic instrument that uses a piezo pickup to amplify it. Most often, the piezo pickup will be located under the bridge and has an on-board preamplifier that allows adjustments when played plugged-in.


Bass necks are usually made of mahogany or hard maple because they are strong woods that will handle the tension put on the necks by the tightening of strings. Necks are most commonly made from a single piece of wood, but sometimes necks are manufactured from multiple pieces of different types of wood that are laminated together for added strength. Rosewood, ebony, or maple are usually the woods that make the fret board of a bass. The best fret boards are smooth, hard, and dense so that they wear slowly. String tension can cause a bass neck to bend a little, making the fret board bow, so most bass necks are fitted with a truss rod, sometimes two that allow the neck to be straightened or curvature added as needed.


Most basses have necks that bolt onto the body. The bolts keep the neck stable and don't allow it to shift up or down. Since you want a solid, tight connection between the neck and body, it is better to have more bolts than less to achieve greater stability and better vibration transfer.


A bass neck that is permanently attached to the body with a mortise or dovetail joint is called a "set neck." Basses of this type have a greater sustain and resonance. They are harder to adjust than the bolt-on necks.


This neck type is usually found in high-end basses. This type of neck continues as one piece through the body. With a thru-body neck there is no joint between the neck and the body, which results in better response and sustain.


If you are a beginner, buy a fretted bass. It's best for a beginner to let the frets do the work of keeping the notes played accurate rather than relying on precise fingering and good ears to produce the desired intonation. After you have been playing a while, you may want to try a fretless bass as a second bass. They sound a lot like an upright bass, which can be wonderful for certain types of music.


A heavier more massive bridge will anchor bass strings better and transfer more vibration from string to wood. The best bridges are made of brass and are often plated with chrome or nickel silver. The bridge saddles should be adjustable both up and down, forward and back. Adjusting the saddles up or down makes the strings lower or higher over the fretboard to change the bass action. By moving the saddles forward or back, you are making adjustments to the string's length. This is done to improve the instrument's intonation.


Single Coil Bass Pickup

The two basic types of pickups are single-coils and humbucking pickups -- and there are many, many variations on these two. The single-coils are the oldest type of pickup with a thinner, clearer tone that cuts through a mix more easily. They are more noisy than the humbucker types.

Bass Double Coil or Humbucker Pickups

Humbuckers were created in an effort to cancel the hum or noise found in single coil pickups. In addition to being free of noise, they produce a much fatter sound and can get muddy when played at higher volumes.

Fender P-Bass with Split Coil Pickup

A split-coil pickup is a single-coil wired to function like a humbucker. The two halves of the pickup are separated and one side's polarity is reversed from the other. This allows for the single-coil sound, but without the noise.


The terms "active" and "passive" refer to the preamp circuitry of the bass. Active basses need power, usually provided by an onboard battery. This system has a stronger output and more tone control. Active basses can have separate EQ controls divided into frequency bands, such as low-, mid-, and high-frequency boost/cut controls. Passive systems operate without any power source and have fewer controls: usually a volume knob, a tone knob, and a blend control if there are two pickups. These basses do not depend on a battery that can die during a performance. More simple to operate, they have a more traditional low-fi sound that is preferred by some players over the active hi-fi sound.


With so many basses to choose from, you may feel a little overwhelmed with your search for a bass guitar for the first time. Keep in mind that you should buy the best instrument that you can afford. The better quality instrument you have will simplify the learning process as it will most likely be easier to play and sound better. Make sure the color and shape appeal to you and the weight of the instrument is something you can comfortably handle. Since you are a beginner, select a 4-string fretted bass. As you progress, you can move on to the 5- or 6-string basses, and you may even want to try a fretless bass for added versatility. As you begin the study of the bass guitar, consider taking lessons to get you going. Lessons will help you learn faster and keep you from picking up any bad habits that first-time players often do.

Most importantly, HAVE FUN!!! Playing music is supposed to be fun… that’s why we call it playing.

Tags: bass guitar, electric bass, bass buying guide, beginning bass, beginner bass
Categories: Guitars & Folk
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