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Bass Essentials Series Pt. 1: Buying a Bass Guitar

Welcome to Part 1 of the 6 part Bass Essentials Series, seven in-depth posts meant exclusively for beginner bass players and those interested in learning bass guitar.

Introduction to Bass Guitar and Buying a Bass Guitar

Bass guitar is an instrument like none other.

It’s the instrument that gets the room dancing, its the instrument that is meant to be felt usually more than it’s supposed to be heard and it’s really the only instrument of it’s kind.

How many other instruments do you know that are pitched that down low to begin with? Certainly none other than the bass guitar

In this post, we’re going to look at some key things to bear in mind when looking to buy your first bass guitar:

1. Types of Bass Guitars: The Essentials

When it comes to bass guitars and different ‘types’ of basses, there are really only two major divisions to choose from:

  1. Electric bass guitar and
  2. Acoustic bass guitar

A string bass or an upright bass is the big bass you often see in orchestras and jazz groups. It’s known for it’s sheer size and thick woody sound.

Within these two major camps, there are two other subdivisions:

  1. Semi-acoustic bass guitars and
  2. Acoustic electric bass guitars

Electric bass guitars are what you’re probably most used to seeing and hearing. If you’ve ever heard just about any rock, metal, funk, pop, reggae or fusion act, you’ve heard the electric bass.

Electric basses have solid bodies meaning that they are made from a single piece of wood or a composite of wood glued together and carved out. The body has not been hollowed out in any way.

Electric bass guitars also need a bass guitar amp. Without an amp, plainly put, you can’t hear the bass (well).

A bass amplifier, or ‘bass amp’, is essentially a powered speaker. If you get an electric bass, you will also need a bass amp.

There are 3 major terms to remember when looking at bass amps:

  1. Combo: A combo amp is a powered speaker plus a control panel to equalize the bass.bass_combo Both components are built into one another (see right). For most bassists starting out, it’s recommended that you purchase a bass combo.
  2. Speaker Cabinet or Amplifier Cabinet (more commonly referred to as a Cab): a cab is just a set of speakers arranged in a particular way and enclosed in a wooden ‘cabinet’. Cabs are just speakers and need a head in order to function.
  3. Head or Amplifier Heads: are what power a cabinet. They are a separate attachment that would control the sound settings of the bass guitar. Heads typically go on top of a speaker cabinet:

fender head and cabinet

Acoustic bass guitars are not the same as upright basses.

Acoustic basses are actually closer to acoustic guitars. They have a large hold in the center of the instrument where the sound comes out. The hole itself is called the “F-Hole”.

More often than not, you’ll find that these acoustic basses have an option to plug them into an amp. In such a case, they’re called, acoustic-electrics bass guitars.

Another type of bass is the semi-acoustic bass. It is only partially hollow. Hofner’s Beatle bass is a good example. It’s the violin-shaped bass Paul McCartney often plays.

2. What Bass Guitar Should You Buy?

That is the question isn’t it with so many choices and makes of basses out there, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed.

For your first bass, it’s highly recommended you make it an electric bass guitar.

The electric bass guitar is the best choice because it allows you the versatility to play live easily, to play with other electric instruments in a band and the shape and build of it is very complimentary to 99% of players out there.

Learning upright bass and electric bass are not exactly the same thing.

Upright players have a whole other way of playing the instrument and a whole different technique they use. Electric is very friendly because proper playing form is very intuitive and the learning curve is not so steep.

Another note, whenever possible, make a point to try the bass and actually play it before you buy it whenever possible.

Stores like Guitar Center and Sam Ash make this very easy to do, but their selection tends to be very limited to a handful of brands.

As you become more experienced in the world of bass guitar and develop your own tastes and confidence in your purchases, that would be the time to try experimenting with purchases online without trying the instrument.

If you haven’t already discovered some of these sites already, here are a few places to check out for buying bass guitars and buying cheap bass guitars for beginners:

Bass Guitars for Sale: Places to Look for Great Deals

3. 4, 5 and 6 String Basses: What Are They And Do You Need Them?

More often than not, you’re going to come across bass guitars in these 3 string quantities:

  • 4 string
  • 5 string and
  • 6 string

Though it is not uncommon for basses to come in additional string quantities like 8 string and 12 string, 4,5 and 6 strings are the industry norm.

You’re probably wondering: why have more strings at all?

Well, the main reason is having more strings is to add more range to the bass.

Additional range on the bass guitar means being able to play more lower pitched notes and/or higher pitched notes.

Why would you want to play with more strings and with more rang?

While it’s more common to find these kinds of basses in jazz music, the extended range allows for greater musical expression of ideas.

4 strings are great and certainly get the job done 95% of the time, but when the desire strikes to be a solo musician or you have greater, more complex musical ideas, additional lows and highs help to make those ideas a reality.

From a practical perspective, with more strings you don’t have to shift around the neck of the bass as much.

Rather than having to go left and right on the neck to reach your notes, with 5 and 6+ string basses, to reach the same notes likely means going down and up on the neck.

Do I Really Need 5 Strings – or Even 6?

The 4 string bass is the standard bass guitar and has been trusted by musicians looking to get into bass playing and senior bass players alike.

However, there will always be times when additional strings can help.

 

It is possible to tune a 4-string bass lower than its standard tuning and it is very common to do so.

You can tune it lower by 2 or 3 notes if you need those lower pitches from time to time. Since it is not designed to be tuned that low, you might not get the best sound or playability by tuning a 4-string bass lower, but it is an option.

Just about any genre or style of music you can think of can be played on a 4 string bass, although there are some genres out there that have been making more use of additional strings.

Metal (whether it’s heavy, doom, screamo, etc.) have benefitted tremendously with the the inclusion of a low B string.

Players like Alex Webster from Cannibal Corpse is just one example, Bryan Beller from Dethklok and Robert Trujillo from Metallica is another.

Conversely, there are many players who are still able to play heavy music with a 4 string bass. Frank Bello from Anthrax, Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, Cliff Burton from Metallica are just some examples of players who have kept standard tuning (EADG) or used drop D tuning (DADG) to play metal.

Even non metal bands like Phish, String Cheese Incident, moe., and the Grateful Dead have bass players that play 5 string basses.

While 5 string basses have carved out niches for themselves in different musical settings, finding a place for a 6 string bass has been considerably more difficult. 5 strings have the benefit of having the extra low note attached which serves a purpose in many musical settings, but the 6th string – the high C – on a 6 string bass has fewer practical purposes. Basses are meant to be felt, but the high C is deliberately created to be heard and used to be soloed on.

Typically, you’ll find 5+ string basses in jazz and primarily among solo bass guitar players. These are the musicians who need additional strings and range. For their kind of music, a cutting highs and deep lows are needed to sufficiently create the sound of a lead melodic instrument and a bass instrument at the same time.

In sum: don’t buy a 6 string unless you absolutely need one.

4. Fretless Bass 101

When you go to Guitar Center or your local music store and check out the basses, you’re likely to find about 99% of the instruments have metal markers going down the neck.

These markers are called Frets.

Frets are the are the metal wires up and down the neck of the bass beneath the bass strings and their purpose is to accurately divide up the notes on each string when you press the string down into distinct pitches and tones.

On a fretless bass, there are none of these frets placed into the neck. This means that bass players

The tone of a fretless bass is considerably different than a fretted bass. Some have described it as more ‘wooden’ sounding, more like an upright sound, or even like the sound of a singing voice. Regardless of how you interpret the tone of a fretless bass, understand that the challenge in the fretless bass lies in being able to manage where you are on the fretboard and how to control your playing.

fender fretless bass tony franklin model
Pictured: a fretless bass. Notice the lack of metal markers across the neck.
fender jazz bass fretted
Pictured: a fretted bass. Notice the metal frets lining the neck.

Why Should I Want One?

As I began to touch on above, playing a fretless bass guitar can be considerably more difficult than playing a fretted bass guitar.

Fretless bass is the kind of bass that you would ‘graduate into’ rather than start off for the very first time on.

Fretless is challenging simply because the notes are not clearly outlined on the neck. Unlike on a fretted bass where you see where all the notes are and should have no trouble staying in tune from one note to another, fretless basses don’t have this luxury. Playing fretless requires that you use your ears to determine what is and is not playing in tune and making the adjustments accordingly. This is the reason why bass players far and wide will strongly advise entry level bass players to start on a fretted instrument so they can develop their ear sufficiently first.

In addition to the radically different tones, there are techniques that can’t be done so easily on the fretless bass. For example:

  • Fretless basses tend to get very poor slap tones because the classic slap tone that bassists know comes from the metal string striking against the metal frets. No frets – no slap tone.
  • Tapping – using both the right and left hands to tap individual frets and create melodies and harmonies simultaneously – can post challenging and
  • Playing chords can sound muddied and inarticulate

If you’ve been playing bass for a while and are considering if a fretless will be easy to learn, a good way to judge is how easily you are able to tune your bass. If tuning accurately by ear is a struggle, you can guess tuning every note you play will also be some work.

6. Additional Resources