Choosing a bass guitar can be a long and arduous process. Considering the high costs of most bass guitars, you want to be sure you are getting the most bang for your buck. Many beginning bass guitarists will simply try out many different guitars and look for the one that “feels” right. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, there are some things you should certainly consider when buying a bass guitar. Here is a step by step guide to help you find the perfect bass guitar for your style, sound, and budget.
Bass Guitar Types
Many don’t realize that there are multiple types of bass guitars. Here is a quick rundown so you can know which type will work for you.
Electric Bass- Electric bass guitars are by far the most common and popular bass guitar. Electric bass guitars get their sound through what are known as the pickups.
Pickups essentially transform the vibration of your strings into an electric signal that you can send through an amplifier. The amplifier then sends out the audible sound through a vibration of its sound cone.
Electric bass guitars are great because they give you a lot of freedom. You can change your volume, your tone, the mix of your frequencies, and more depending on the amplifier. They also allow for the use of effects pedals that can completely change your sound or add just a little more power and distortion.
The biggest negative of electric basses is that they are more expensive, and you will also need to buy the amplifier separately. Electric bass guitars require an outlet to plug the amplifier into, so they aren’t as easy to play outdoors.
Acoustic Bass- Many people fail to realize that bass guitars can be acoustic. Acoustic basses produce sound by sending vibrations into the paddle (a pickup like object that the strings run into). The paddle then sends the vibration into the soundboard (located inside the hollow body) which amplifies the vibration to create a sound.
Acoustic basses are great because you can pick up and play wherever you go. They don’t require any sort of amplification and can produce quite a large and powerful sound. They are also less expensive than their electric counterparts.
The biggest downside of an acoustic bass is that the hollow body makes them harder to play. It can be more difficult to reach your fingers around the thicker neck, and for those who pluck the strings there are fewer places to place your thumb when playing. Overall though, an acoustic bass is great for beginners looking to just get into bass playing or for those who find themselves outdoors often.
Acoustic-Electric Bass- An acoustic electric bass is a hollow bass that also has pickups (which means it can be plugged into an amp). This type of bass is often used by bassists who want the easiness of a pickup and play acoustic, but also want to perform at gigs and shows (which requires amplified sound to keep up). Obviously, the sound of an acoustic electric differs from a normal electric bass, even when plugged in.
Semi-Acoustic Bass- A semi-acoustic bass is one that is hollow with a mic built in. The most famous instance of semi-acoustic use was by Paul McCartney of the Beatles, who played on a Hofner Beatle Violin bass. This type of bass gives a mostly amplified sound, but the hollow body gives it very unique sonic qualities. This bass can be used to great effect, but it might be more expensive and difficult to use for beginners.
Which bass you choose will be based on what your needs and wants are in terms of playing. Remember that you can always try different basses at the best guitar store to get a better idea of what type is right for you.
The materials that make up the body of the bass guitar can have a significant impact on the sound produced by the guitar. One of the biggest considerations when buying a bass guitar is the tone wood it is made out of.
Tone wood to certain types of wood materials that enhance the sound and tones produced by a bass guitar. Tone woods are often separated into harder and softer woods, with each producing different styles of sound.
Hard Woods- Harder woods are known for having brighter, snappier sounds. Basses with harder woods are known for their percussive tones. Hard woods are great for bassists who want their sound to cut through any room. Bassists performing in jazz, funk, or pop genres might want to consider harder woods.
Soft Woods- Softer woods often provide a warmer, mellower sound. They also are known for being very resonant, making bass guitars with softer woods more powerful and attention grabbing. Softer woods are great for bassists in the rock or heavy metal genres.
The Janka Wood Hardness Test
Now that we’ve examined harder vs. softer woods, there needs to be a discussion on specific woods that are common in the body of bass guitars. The Janka Wood Hardness Test is used to determine the hardness of each of these woods. Below is a list of different tone woods and their place on the Janka Hardness Scale:
Indian Rosewood 1780
Hard Maple 1450
Black Walnut 1010
Now that we’ve given you a chart to look at, you may be wondering what you can possibly do with it. To that end, here is a detailed explanation of each of the woods above to give you a better idea of what to look for. There are also discussions on how each wood affects the tone and sound coming from your bass.
Alder- Alder is said to have one of the most balanced sounds of regularly used tone woods. Alder provides a good mix of low, mid, and high frequencies with a highly resonant fuller and richer tone. The most pronounced tones of Alder tend to be in the upper midrange which means it is particularly great for clarity, and is a good middle ground between a dark and bright sound.
Ash- Ash tone wood is actually split up into two different tone woods, that being hard ash or swamp ash. Swamp ash is known for its balanced but bright and sweet sound, while hard ash is known for its brighter, harder, and harsher tone. If you are looking for a more sustained sound then Hard Ash is probably better than Swamp. On the other hand, if you are looking for a sweeter and brighter type of sound you would be better served with Swamp Ash.
Basswood- The lightest tone wood also happens to be the most common and inexpensive tone wood option. Because of this, it is usually written off as inferior sonically, although some do praise its overall balanced tonal qualities.
Bubinga- Bubinga is particularly known for how heavy it is, and is rarely used as a body material. However, certain makers like Warwick love using Bubinga for its incredibly bright midrange and heavy sustain. Be advised however that Bubinga is incredibly heavy and can be burdensome to play with and carry around.
Indian Rosewood- This beautiful exotic wood is known for its very warm sound with a smoother high end. It was popularized by the guitar used by Beatles’ member George Harrison. This wood may be difficult to apply finishes too, but otherwise it is a great investment if you want a very warm tone.
Mahogany- Mahogany is a slightly heavier choice of tone wood, which brings multiple implications with it. Mahogany is found in many Gibson guitar models, so those familiar with those models will know the type of sound Mahogany brings. The sound of mahogany is often described as warm, soft, and full. Mahogany produces bolder low frequencies and pronounces lower mids, but does subdue much of the higher end.
Maple- Maple is another form of tone wood that is split into two categories. In terms of body materials, the most commonly used Maple is “soft” maple, because the other form of maple (hard maple) can be incredibly heavy. Soft Maple is incredibly bright and gives a lot of attack and sustain as well.
Walnut- Walnut is very similar to hard maple, although it is slightly lighter in weight. It is also similar in sound to hard maple, although it is not nearly as bright. Walnut is also very well known for its fantastic grain patterns and textures, which gives them a great aesthetic as well as a great sound.
Wenge- Wenge is a tone wood that provides a very unique chocolate striped finish, and is also known for its well-balanced tone. Wenge is great for boosting the mid-range and giving players sound with a lot of attack.
Zebrawood- Is known primarily for its finish and aesthetics, which features a ton of thin stripes running down the body. In terms of tonal qualities, Zebrawood provides similar sounds to softer maple.
Keep in mind that some companies will mix and match different types of woods in the bodies, which will give you thousands of options in terms of tone and sonic quality.
Just like in the body, the type of wood that is used for the neck will have a great impact on sound and tone quality. While some guitars have necks and bodies that are made of the same wood (more on this later), most will have a specific tone wood for the neck and body. Neck wood will also have some impact on the durability of the guitar, as more fragile neck woods can lead to costly repairs if not taken care of properly. With that said, here are a few different types of neck woods and the qualities that characterize them.
Hard Maple- This is often the most common neck wood used in both electric guitars and electric bass guitars. Hard maple is a very dense, hard, and strong wood. It is one of the safest bets in terms of reliability and durability. In terms of tonal quality, hard maple is known for its incredibly bright sound.
Ebony- The second most preferred wood for the neck, Ebony is incredibly hard and used in many bass and electric guitars. In terms of tone Ebony is incredibly bright, and also delivers great sustain.
Bocote- Also known as Mexican Rosewood, Bocote is a particularly dense and smooth neck wood. The grain on the wood is very tight which means you will get great sustain and lots of attack with this type of wood. It is another very durable wood to use for the neck.
Bubinga- Bubinga is a super stiff wood that is used by many professional musicians. On bass guitars, Bubinga necks tend to lead to a much brighter midrange and thick, well defined bottom tones. Its stiffness also makes it stronger and less prone to structural issues.
Goncalo Alves- This extremely dense wood is very popular with bass producers, specifically when it comes to the neck. Goncalo Alves has a clear, clean, and warm tone that is preferred by many musicians. The tone is also balanced and will be able articulate every tonal range effectively.
Bloodwood- Named for its bright red hue, Bloodwood is a particularly interesting choice for neck use. Bloodwood is very hard and dense, leading to great durability. It is primarily known for its unique high tones, which are fantastic for making your tone stand out.
Pau Ferro- This is a dense, hard wood with incredibly tight pore structure. This wood is very resistant to wear and is extremely durable. In terms of tone it is brighter than Bocote but warmer than Ebony.
We’ve discussed the materials that make up a body of a bass guitar in length, but there are certain body types that can affect the guitar’s tone as well. Most of the time the body shape won’t make too much of a difference and is mainly for aesthetic effect.
However, that doesn’t mean that body shape is not important. The shape of the body can affect your playing and how comfortable you are while performing. Below are a few bass body options and the effects they can have on your playing. But before we get into those, we want to take a second to describe the difference between a hollow body and a solid body.
Hollow Body vs. Solid Body
The first thing to consider when looking at bass guitar bodies is whether you want a solid or hollow body. Solid bodies are those that are made of solid wood, while hollow bodies are hollowed out (just like acoustic guitars). Both of these body types have different effects on aesthetics and sound.
Solid bodies- Solid bodies are the most common in electric guitars and bass guitars. They offer greater sustain than hollow bodies, so you can be sure that your notes will ring out for much longer. Solid bodies have much less issue with amplification and feedback interference as well.
Effect pedals are also much more effective on solid bodies since they rely on amplification entirely. For those looking to play in the rock, metal, or punk genres, solid bodies would likely be the best fit.
Semi-hollow bodies- Semi-hollow bodies are not completely solid, but not completely hollowed out either. They are known for having an incredibly warm tone and an earthy, resonant sound. They are lighter than solid bodies and can be easier to play, and many players also claim that they are the most versatile in terms of effects and tones that they can produce.
Another added benefit is that semi-hollow bodies can produce significant sound without being plugged in, so they are great for those who don’t want to bother their landlords or neighbors. Bassists in the jazz, rockabilly, and early vintage country genres would be served well with a semi-hollow body.
True hollow bodies- True hollow bodies are completely hollowed out, and also the rarest among body types. These types of bodies produce a similar sound to acoustic basses and guitars, with the added benefit of being able to be amplified. They provide a very full and round tone and have some of the best bottom ends of any body type.
Their biggest issue is that they have tons of problems with feedback at mid to high volumes. These basses are great for jazz bassists, but their amplification issues make them very difficult to fit into most genres.
J Bass Style- The J bass style is named after the iconic Fender Jazz Bass, whose body was so widely revered that it became used in many different types of basses. The sleek and balanced design of the J bass has made it very popular among bassists of many different genres. This type of body features an expertly placed contour where players can rest their forearm, making it much more comfortable to play.
This style also features what is called a “tummy cut” (a dip in the body where you would place your knee when sitting down). This cut makes it much more comfortable to rest the bass on your knees when playing in a seated position, which can make it very useful for more low key performances. The J bass style also includes dual pickups and an offset waist (we will discuss different types of pickups shortly).
T Bass Style- The T bass style is based off of the design of Telecaster guitars. These guitars do not have as much of a balanced shape which may make them more awkward to hold. There is also a lack of cuts and contours that provide more comfort, so these types of basses may not be as comfortable to play. The advantage of this style of bodies is that they can be either a solid or semi-hollow body, which gives much more options in terms of sonic qualities.
Z Bass Style- The Z bass is a more extreme shape that is used by a number of brands. It is recognizable mainly due to its sharper edges and many bevels (essentially the same as a contour but much larger). The bevels are placed so that the bass is very comfortable to hold and play in any position.
These are only a few of the many bass body styles that are out there. Like always, trying out the different body types yourself will give you the best chance of finding the one that is right for you.
Type of Neck
Another aspect of bass construction is the type of neck that is used. The neck is the part of the bass that connects the body of the bass with the headstock (where the tuners are located). There are three common necks found on most bass guitars. This includes the bolt-on neck, the thru-body neck, and the set neck.
Each type of neck affects the sound and design of the bass and may also change the upkeep and longevity of your bass as well. Before we get into the different types of necks, you should also know that each neck can come in different widths and sizes. This is another great reason to try guitars at the local guitar store to see which neck size works best for your hand size.
Bolt-On Neck- Like the name implies, this type of neck is usually screwed into the body of the bass with three or four large bolts. The bolts are usually secured by some sort of neckplate. This is probably the most common form of neck as it is the cheapest way of connecting the stock to the body. While it can be more prone to breaking, it is also incredibly easy to fix. You just have to replace the bolts.
Set Neck- A set neck is very similar in feel to a bolt-on neck. The main difference is that a set neck is held in place by wood glue (really strong wood glue, don’t try this at home). The set neck is much more difficult to repair when things go wrong, but the glue should hold for quite a long time. A lot of more expensive guitars use this type of neck, but most acoustics will employ this method as well.
Thru-Body Neck- A thru-body neck is fairly straightforward. This is when the neck is part of the body. This means that the neck, stock, and body are all one piece of wood. It’s great because it rarely needs repairs and feels great to play. However, it is the most expensive neck option, and only comes with the most pricey guitars.
The scale length measures the strings from the nut (the white part that the strings go over on the stock) to the strings. The scale length determines the distance between frets and the tension of the strings.
A bass’ scale length can change the instrument’s tone and playability. Distance between frets is self-explanatory, and mainly affects playability. The shorter the scale, the shorter the distance between the frets. This is great for children and beginners, as it makes jumps and skips easier for the fingers to perform.
Tension merely refers to how tight the string is and how hard it is to move it. Tension mainly affects the “feel” of a bass and how it plays. Strings that are tense are harder to move and will make vibrato and bends more difficult. The longer the scale, the more tense the strings will be. Tenser strings produce a tighter sound that is known as “twang”, and are also better equipped to handle heavier gauged strings. For those wanting a tighter, brighter sound, a longer scale would be preferable. For those wanting a smoother sound with lots of bends and vibrations, a shorter scale would be best. It all comes down to preference, so getting out and playing on different types of scales is a must.
The next factor you should consider when buying a bass guitar is the bridge type and placement. Bass guitars are stringed instruments, and in any string instrument there must be a bridge. A bridge is where the strings are attached and fixed to the instrument. Bridges come in different shapes and sizes, and will have a significant impact on your overall tone and sound. With that in mind, here are a few different examples of bridge types:
Wraparounds- Wraparounds make use of a metal bar that is attached to the body, where the strings wrap around the top of the bar and go up into the nut. This bridge type is somewhat limited in that only the height of all strings can be changed on it. It is by and the large the easiest type of bridge to make and produce.
“Ash Tray” Bridge- In this type of bridge, the string goes through the back of the body and comes out at the top. The strings then pass over the saddles (little brass, barrel like structures) on their way to the nut. This bridge is useful because it offers more flexibility. Both individual string height and overall (broad) intonation, or tuning, can be adjusted with this bridge type.
Matic/Stop Tail Combination- This bridge is known for having two pieces. The string is anchored in either a stop tail (metal bar) or the body itself, and then passes over another metal bar up to the nut. The advantage of this type of bridge is that each string can be tuned individually, although string height can only be adjusted for all strings at once.
2Tek Bridge- This is a unique and particularly rare form of a bridge. Essentially, one main structure is made with 4 to 6 pathways for the strings. The strings go through the body up through the pathways and up to the nut. With this bridge individual string height and intonation can be adjusted. This bridge adds great sustain and ease of tuning and playing, but is harder to find and often more expensive.
One of the biggest contributors to an electric bass’ sound is the guitar pickup. Like the name implies, the pickup is what picks up the vibrations of your strings and sends the signal to your amp. This is how the amp produces the notes and sounds. It is no wonder then that having the right pickup is key to finding the right tone. It is therefore important to understand the different types of pickups so you can find the one that works best for you.
In terms of bass guitars pickups are usually magnetic pickups. Magnetic pickups use magnetic fields to pick up the vibrations from strings. The following are a few examples of magnetic pickups, how they work, and how they will add to your sound:
Single Coil Pickups- Single coil pickups feature a singular coil wrapped around the magnetic portion of the pickup. The coil greatly increases the amount of vibrations that can be picked up and are very bright and clear sounding.
One of the biggest problems of single coil pickups is that they often pickup too much vibration. Single coil pickups often pick up the vibrations from fluorescent lights or computers, which leads to a lot of white noise and screechiness when using them.
The most common single coil pickup is the J (jazz bass) pickup. These typically come in pairs, with one at the bridge and one at the neck. One benefit of this setup is that you can dial in whether you want more volume from the bridge pickup or from the neck pickup. The bridge pickup is tight and punchy, while the neck pickup gives a thicker and airier sound.
Split Coil Pickups- Split coil pickups are two halves of one single coil, with each half placed under two strings. This is the type of pickup predominantly used on Fender P (precision) basses. Split coil pickups tend to produce a clear, fat sound that is useful for punk rock and other heavier genres.
Dual Coil Pickups- Dual coil pickups, also referred to as humbuckle pickups, are made by wiring two coils over a single pickup. This causes each coil to cancel out the other’s white noise (noise caused from outside sources). This solves the issue of single coil pickups sounding too shrill and screechy. Dual coil pickups have a fatter, richer sound and are used by many classic rock bassists. They are great for anyone wanting a vintage, classic sound.
Soap Bar Pickups- Soap bar pickups get their name from their look, as they often look like two black bars of soap. These are usually used on basses with more than 4 strings, as they are much wider than most other pickups. They produce a sound similar to a J bass pickup, but they can also be made with pins sticking out of them to allow bassists to wire various switching mechanisms to them to allow a wide range of sounds that can be produced by the pickup.
Active vs. Passive Pickups
Another consideration when looking at pickups is whether they are active or passive. Active pickups are those that are battery powered, while passive pickups are not. It is important to note the difference between active and passive pickups, and how they can affect your sound.
Active Pickups- Active pickups use a pre-amplifier (also known as a pre-amp) that is powered by a 9-volt battery. The pre-amp allows bassists to boost and cut certain frequencies. This means you can better control your tone and make changes at a whim. Active pickups are loud and aggressive as there is less signal loss on the way to the amp when they are used.
Active pickups are known for bright, clear, and snappy sounds. Active pickups also tend to pick up less extraneous noise, but pre-amps can create a loud hissing sound if turned up too high. One thing you should consider however is that active pickups will stop working when their batteries die, so you may need to bring spares with you to shows and gigs just to be safe.
Passive Pickups- Passive pickups do not use batteries and were the original pickups used in guitars. They were very prominent in classic rock and Motown records. They are mainly notable for their fat, punchy tone. They are also warm, rounded, and dynamic in their sound.
You don’t have many options to shape your tone with passive pickups, as you can only turn down the treble or bass (instead of boosting lows, mid-range, and highs). Passive pickups also have large magnets that can pick up outside interference more easily. Still, you at least won’t have to worry about bringing batteries to your gigs.
Technically the strings on any bass you buy can be changed, so you don’t have to worry about finding a bass with the perfect strings. However, your strings are one of if not the most important aspect of defining your tone and sound, so we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t discuss the different strings you can get in detail. The first thing to consider is the different types of strings, which drastically change your sound.
Roundwound- Likely the most common type of string, roundwound strings involve a metal wrapping around a core that is not ground down or smoothed out. You can tell if strings are roundwounds if they have ridges and feel rough to the touch. In terms of tone they are able to produce a wide variety of frequencies.
They especially bring out higher frequencies which leads to them having a bright, clear, and metallic sound. They also have the longest sustain out of any string types, so they are very good for bassists that want their playing to stand out. The biggest downside to this type of string is that it can be very hard on the frets, fingerboard, and your fingers. Roundwound strings are likely to cause more wear than most other string types, so you should keep an eye out for any repairs that may need to be done.
Flatwound- Flatwound strings also involve a wrapping but are smoothed out in the process. This makes them very comfortable to play, and you won’t get many blisters moving your fingers up and down these strings. They are defined by their darker, muted, “dead” sound.
While this may not sound ideal, this type of sound gives a much softer sound with a lot of low end thump. It can be great for those playing jazz or vintage funk, rock, or Motown. The biggest limitation of flatwound strings is that their dynamic range is much smaller than other types of strings, and they don’t have great sustain.
Halfwound- These strings are essentially a compromise between roundwounds and flatwounds. Halfwounds are roundwounds that are taken and tapered down so they are somewhat smoother than normal roundwounds. They provide a nice middle ground of brightness and warmth, and also are easier on your fingers than roundwounds.
Tapewound- These types of strings are fairly rare as they are mainly made from nylon. They are essentially extreme versions of flatwounds. They are much darker and warmer in sound than flatwound strings, and sound very similar to strings on an upright bass. These are typically found on acoustic basses, as they do not typically sound great when amplified through a pickup.
These are great for bassists that plan on performing in small acoustic ensembles.
Taperwound- Not to be confused with tapewound strings, taperwound strings are strings that get progressively or suddenly smaller once they get to the bridge. This type of winding creates a sound that is bright with great sustain.
Not only do string types affect your sound, but the materials they are made out of will define your tone as well.
Nickel-Plated Steel- This is the most commonly used material in making bass strings, and is mainly used in roundwound strings. It is primarily known as the most balanced string material, hitting the perfect sweet spot between brightness and warmth. This material is great for numerous different genres, from hard rock to country.
Pure Nickel- This material gives strings a much warmer tone than most. It also makes the strings seem used and broken in, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This material often gives a much softer sound which makes it perfect for sounds similar to jazz, vintage rock, or blues.
Stainless Steel- Another very common string material, stainless steel offers the brightest sound of the bunch. Stainless steel will make notes really pop, which makes them great for funk, rock, and metal bassists. Stainless steel also gives great sustain.
While these three materials are the most commonly used, some rarer materials cangreatly enhance your sound.
Copper-Plated Steel- This material retains the bright popping sound of stainless steel, while the thin copper coating produces some rich and subtle acoustic overtones. These work especially well for jazz bassists, but can also add some great tones for any genre.
Nylon- As stated in the section above, nylon strings are mainly used in tapewound strings to mimic an acoustic and upright bass feel. They are incredibly dark and warm, and mainly bring out the very lowest frequencies.
Polymer coated strings- Some string manufacturers coat the strings in order to extend their life and sound. Although this is mainly an investment in longer lasting strings, there can be subtle changes in tone based on the polymer used. There is simply too many of them used to list here, but most manufacturers will give some indication on how the polymer they used will affect your tone.
Colored Strings- Some manufacturers use coating agents that color the strings. There are some pretty crazy strings out there that are neon, luminescent, or brightly colored. Other than their unique looks, they also extend the life of the strings and make them smoother and easy to play.
We’ve talked about the types of windings and materials used in string construction, but there is one last factor that has to be discussed when talking about strings: the gauges. A string’s gauge is another way of describing how thick or thin it is. A string’s gauge can affect how the string sounds and the tension in the strings.
The tension of the strings will of course affect how easy it is to fret the notes and play your bass. Most string gauges are listed in terms of diameter and are sold in sets of 4 or 5 (depending on how many strings your bass has). Higher gauge strings are often heavier and give a darker and warmer sound, while smaller gauge strings often give a bright sound with great sustain.
If you are just beginning you want to avoid higher gauges because it will be painful to try and fret your notes. Over time your fingers should develop callouses that make it easier to fret on strings with higher tension. Also keep in mind that your strings should match the scale of your bass. You don’t want your strings hanging off the head (and poking you in the eye).
As you can see, buying a bass often involves a lot of choices and considerations. We hope that this article has helped you hone in on what kind of bass you are looking for. Remember to really think about what your ideal sound and tone are, as that will greatly affect the type of bass and strings you are looking for. If nothing else, you can always go to your local guitar shop and ask to try different basses to find the right one for you.