The majority of budding musicians naturally gravitate towards the guitar given its natural allure and reputation solidified by the status of guitarist as icons in the world’s most popular bands.
However, if you’ve veered away from the trend and have decided to opt for a bass guitar, you’ve embarked on a fulfilling journey with an instrument that is a joy to play and an important part of most music genres.
The bass plays a crucial role in emphasizing rhythm as well as the emotional depth of songs and acts as a cement that fuses the rest of the music together into a comprehensive whole. No band is complete without a proficient bassist bridging the drums and guitars together.
The issue lies with what bass to choose given the plethora of options out there. Don’t worry, we are here to help you understand what exactly is a bass guitar and how to choose the best one for you based on budget and quality. Remember though that your own personal taste and subjective opinion is a crucial part of the process particularly when it comes to sound. What sounds good to someone, may not to another.
History of The Bass Guitar
In the first half of the twentieth century, bands began to get louder as amplification appeared and larger venues became the norm. Double bass players were to suffer the most from this shift and they often found that the sound of their instrument was drowned out by the ding of the rest of the band, notably the brass section. Thus, began an effort to search for a way to raise the volume of the instrument, but also to find a more compact alternative given the rigours of touring in cities further and further afield.
Luthiers such as Lloyd Loar and Paul Tutmarc Jr. were the first to experiment with electrified basses, but their creations didn’t catch on due to issues with the lack of amplifiers capable of conveying such low sounds. Throughout the 1930s manufacturers came out with various other models. Of note were the Regal Electrified Double Bass and Rickbacker’s Electric Bass-Viol. These resembled a thinned down version of the double bass, yet retained its height, reaching up to six feet tall. In addition, they were equipped with rudimentary pickups that tended to cause a lot of sound distortion issues.
Gibson then shipped the unsurprisingly named Electric Bass Guitar which resembled the modern shape of the bass guitar as we know it, but it remained an instrument that was played upright and was, as with other models from the era, very tall and cumbersome. It was manufactured as a very limited run and because of this failed to become popular with transitioning double bass players. In the 1940s Tutmarc created the Serenader Bass which was a smaller, guitar like iteration of the electric bass. It didn’t fare any better than previous attempts.
In 1951, the landscape changed with the release of the Precision Bass. Created by the now famous Leo Fender, it acted as a catalyst for the advent of the modern iteration of the bass guitar that was held and played horizontally, much like a guitar. Fender’s intent was to offer a bass that matched the punch and character of the much larger double bass, as well as offering an added emphasis on low-end notes. He also aimed to offer a more portable alternative that was only a little larger than a normal guitar.
Of equal importance, Fender managed to craft an accompanying amplifier, the Bassman, able to handle the demands of lower notes with few issues, thanks in part to the use of the now ubiquitous single coil pickup. To convey how revolutionary the Precision Bass was, we point to the fact that it is still made today and to fundamentally the same design specifications.
From here, manufacturers such as Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker engaged in a bass arms race with new models coming onto the market all the time, using different types of wood, pickups and designs. As the decades progressed, the technology inside the bass improved as did amplification leading to the distinct and clear bass sound we all recognize.
Today, the bass guitar is an integral part of the majority of music genres in some form or another, and it is hard to find a track that doesn’t incorporate it. It also brought us legends such as Paul McCartney, Tony Levin, Flea, Les Claypool and the modern virtuoso Squarepusher.
Anatomy of the Bass
The electric bass incorporates the same basic science as the electric guitar. Though pickups and electrical circuitry differ between the two instruments, mainly due to the added demands of the bass, they employ fundamentally the same ideas to amplify the sound. The natural vibrations of the strings are measured by magnetic pickups that then transform them into an electrical signal that is routed to an amp to be heard at a much louder volume.
Much like a guitar, a bass is the amalgamation of three basic parts; the body, the neck and the headstock.
This is the main part of the bass and its heaviest. Made of specially selected tonewood, it incorporates components that allow the bass to function as a musical instrument. These are as follows and are important factors in determining how good a guitar really is. They also play a crucial role in determining the sonic qualities or tone.
As described above, they allow the strings to be amplified. In essence, they are the most important component of the bass and allow it to function as an electric instrument. The natural magnetic field inside a pickup measures the fluctuations to create an overall balanced interpretation as a signal. Different types of pickups exist and it is common to find pickups that cover two rather than all the strings on a bass in order to highlight higher and lower notes.
Similarly to the guitar, bass pickups come in various types, the most common being the single coil and the humbucker. The single coil is the classic option with a brighter tone, whilst the humbucker works to subdue the natural hum that pickups produce to create a cleaner sound that is often richer and fatter.
Unique to the bass is a third option, the split-coil pickup, which is a single designed to sound like a humbucker. You basically get the noise-reduction of a humbucker, but the sound is reminiscent of a single coil.
When covering pickups for bass guitar it is important to bring up a unique feature, which is the availability of passive and active pickups. The essential difference is that active pickups include a battery powered preamp that allows you to shape the tone of the bass more so than on passive pickups through a dedicated EQ, contour control and pickup switcher.
Passive pickups tend to pack a punch, but at a cost to the control of the tone of the bass. Active pickups offer a higher output volume and also a degree of extra precision and clarity to the sound. Overall, it is a question of taste and it is up to you to determine what type of sound you want. Certain styles of music benefit from the added control of active pickups, while others will sound great with passives.
The bridge is solidly fixed to the body. It is designed to lock strings and hold them firmly in place so as to limit their movement at the bottom end of the instrument, thus keeping it in tune in unison with the machine heads as detailed below. You will find a metal plate fixed to the body with a protruding lip through which the ball-end of the strings are fed. Further up the bridge, are adjustable raised mounts, or saddles, for each individual string.
When a string is played, the vibrations are felt and accentuated by the body through the point of contact that is the bridge. The natural resonance of the wood created from the vibrations is then collected and translated by the pickups. In general, a heavier bridge will result in a more precise response in terms of transferring vibrations to the wood.
There exists three main types of bridges. In string through bridges, the strings are pushed through holes underneath in the actual body and held there, then they sit on saddles atop the body. On some models the bridge is coupled with a tail piece which holds in place the strings, the bridge is separate and positioned further up. Finally, the most common type is the through bridge and here the strings are held in place as explained above, by purpose designed holes on the bridge itself.
A crucial part of the bass, it allows you to plug in a jack lead to send a signal to an amplifier. Without it out the electric bass would not exist. A faulty jack input is the bane of players because without it functioning correctly, the bass effectively becomes redundant and a barely discernible, if at all, acoustic instrument. The input jack is also a crucial element in the recording process as it allows the sound of the bass to be recorded via microphone or straight into a mixing desk.
Depending on the model, these controls, as the name suggests, allow you to change the volume and tone of each pickup. Generally, this is limited to one volume control per pickup and one overall knob, though this varies and it is not uncommon to see basses with a variety of control options. Unlike guitars, the bass does not have a pickup selector switch as the sound demands are less diverse, though it is possible to play around with the volume knobs to obtain a desired sound.
These are protruding metal bits to which the ends of a strap are fixed. This allows the player to hang the instrument from their shoulders so that is hovers at a comfortable height between the hips and torso, an ideal position for playing. This may seem a straightforward component to have, yet many musicians suffer from malfunctions whereby a bass or guitar will suddenly drop to the floor during a performance. It is, therefore, important to have quality strap holders to avoid these situations.
The pickguard is a plastic plate that protects the lower half of the body from pick damage. Though not all players opt to employ a pick, it is nevertheless a standard feature on all basses, probably as a residual feature from guitars, which preceded the electric bass.
The neck sticks out from the body of a bass and acts as the base onto which the fretboard is fixed. Fingers are then used to immobilize strings in certain positions along the length of the neck to create specific notes. The neck on a bass is longer than on a guitar due to the lower notes produced. The bigger scale length varies anywhere from 30 to 34 inches depending on the number of strings. Neck length follows the simple rule: the lower the desired note, the longer the scale.
There are three types of necks that differ in terms of the way they are attached to the body.
Bolt-On: This is the most common and the neck is attached to the body via bolts.
Set: The neck is attached to the body through a jointed mechanism rather than bolts. This often takes the shape of a dovetail joint.
Through-Body: The neck sits throughout the length of the body. In essence, one piece of wood runs along the length of the guitar, then an upper and lower body is fixed to it. These tend to be the reserve of pricey models.
These metal inlays that sit atop the fretboard are numbered between 20 and 24 depending on the manufacturer and enable the player to be more precise when playing a note, and by doing so avoid playing out of tune. Musically, the frets break up the fretboard into semitones. It is possible get what are called fretless basses. These tend to be used by very experienced players who are well accustomed with the positioning of notes, or by double bass players who also play the electric bass.
A fretboard is essentially a fingerboard that is fixed onto the neck itself. It is crucial to the playability of a bass in the sense that it represents one of two main points of contact between the hands and the instrument. They are also the component onto which frets are fitted. The type of wood used is also important given the fretboard position as point of contact. Different tonewoods are, therefore, used for different sounds.
More a visual aid than an integral part of the bass, they allow the player to know the position of their hand on the fretboard and therefore be aware of what notes they are playing, as well as anticipate where the hand will move next in accordance with the requirements of a piece of music. They appear at regular intervals and are identical on all basses regardless of manufacturer or model.
The headstock is positioned at the very end of the bass and fixed onto the end of the neck. Its primary purpose is to firmly hold the strings in position and allow them to be tuned thanks to the machine heads fixed to it. It is positioned diametrically opposite to the bridge.
Machine heads are the mechanisms that hold the strings in place atop the headstock. By way of a small head around which the strings are fed then wound, the tension can then be adjusted to obtain a certain pitch or tuning. Quality machine heads are crucial to ensuring strings stay in tune and an often found problem with lower budget models is unresponsive or easily knocked machine heads.
Attached to the machine heads, tuning keys enable the string to be wound tighter or looser depending on need. Their shape and size vary depending on the bass, but are generally designed to facilitate gripping with two fingers to ease a clockwise or counterclockwise motion.
As the name suggest, solid body basses are made of one solid piece of wood that is chosen for its ability to vibrate. The majority of the amplification work is done by the pickups, but the wood does have a say on certain features of tone such as sustain. Overall, solid bodies offer the highest volume especially when equipped with active pickups.
Solid bodies are generally made from wood such as mahogany or alder, though some are plastic and composite compressed woods are sometimes seen. The overwhelming majority of electric basses are solid body. As such this body type can be viewed as the most common available.
In keeping with the name, hollow bodies incorporate a cavity in the body of the bass that acts as a natural sound box to accentuate the natural reverberating qualities of the wood used. Similar to an acoustic bass in appearance, they differ in the sense that they are equipped with pickups like with solid bodies. They are lighter than solid bodies due to the cavity.
They are favoured by musicians that require a bass that can both be plugged into an amplifier as well as played acoustically for settings where volume requirements are stringent. Due to the natural reverberation of the cavity and the feedback it causes, they can only reach certain volumes and are, therefore, not well suited to heavy styles of music or for situations where loud volume is a prime consideration. Hollow bodies to tend to favour folk, blues or jazz styles where a more natural sound is desirable.
The hollow body was popularized by Paul McCartney’s famous use of the Höfner 500/1, a violin shaped hollow body that was used on many early Beatles recordings to great effect.
Number of Strings
Initially the electric bass had four strings to match the same number found on the double bass. As the instrument was developed in the second half of the twentieth century, manufacturers began to offer basses with more strings. Nowadays it is possible to get twelve string basses though these are generally only played by highly proficient players. Generally, electric basses adhere to the four string standard though five and even six string alternatives are more and more common.
Depending on your needs, you may require more strings. We do, however, recommend sticking to four strings if you are a beginner. The use of an extra string will only come into play as your skills progress and you possibly require more playing options. Note that the more strings a bass has, the larger the scale and, therefore, the longer and thicker the neck. As such, more strings require a longer reach and different technique, which those accustomed to four strings may not be familiar with or find comfortable.
Look and Feel
Common logic dictates that you shouldn’t pick a bass simply because it looks good because there are other considerations such as tone, quality of components and price to keep in mind. That being said, an instrument that appeals to you visually will encourage you to play. A dull looking instrument will sit in the corner collecting dust, whilst a bass with a vibrant colour and sharp body will be enticing and give you the motivation required to further your skills with everyday practice.
The variety of colours and shapes on offer mean that most tastes are catered for. From almost jarring colour schemes to truly peculiar shapes, there is something out there for everyone. If you are buying your first bass, don’t go crazy and spend a fortune. Instead, hone in on a price range and then shop around for a bass that jumps out at you. Check the specifications and build quality, then play it in a local shop to get a sense of how it feels in your hands. If it resonates with you, then that’s the one to go for.
Don’t discount your own instincts when it comes to comfort simply because you are starting out. Ultimately, you are the one devoting hours to learning how to play so make sure you get a bass that feels special to you. Do yourself this favour because motivation is a huge factor in becoming a competent player.
A word of caution to those buying for someone else; it is always better to involve them in the process of buying an instrument to avoid disappointment. Otherwise, you risk assigning your purchase, bought with hard-earned money, to the back of a cupboard or selling it back to someone else on an eBay at a much reduced price.
When buying a beginner’s guitar, the whole shopping experience is greatly simplified for the simple reason that a novice doesn’t require a state of the art instrument with all the bells and whistles. A well-built, solid bass with a decent sound will more than suffice and last for a considerable amount of time as the player improves their bass playing. A good price point is around $200.00. Anything less and you are playing with fire. Expect shoddy workmanship, poor sound and a cheap feel if you pay less.
We’ve settled on the Squier Affinity P/J as the all round best option for beginners. One of the main things it has going for it is the fact that Squier is a subsidiary of Fender and is licensed to build basses that resemble Fender models in terms of the shape and design elements. You can’t really go wrong with a Squier and the company fully deserve its reputation for the best starter basses.
Focusing on the bass at hand, the P/J is pretty much a replica of Fender Precision Bass at a fraction of the cost. The body adheres to this by adopting a shape identical to that of the Precision, though Squier have used alder wood. The neck is maple and the fretboard rosewood. This mix of tonewoods makes for a balanced sound with respectable sustain.
Components wise, the P/J comes equipped with a passive Precision/Jazz split-coil pickup and a passive single coil configuration. These link up with a volume control for each as well as an overall tone knob. This combination gives you a reasonable amount of control of tone and can prove quite responsive when tinkered with to obtain a specific sound. A standard through-bridge and machine heads round it off. Though not remarkable by any means, they do the job and will keep the instrument’s tuning in check for long periods.
The sound is versatile in the sense that you can get defined highs if required as well as respectably growling low end. It’s a matter of dialing in the knobs to what is needed. Compared to similarly priced competitors, the P/J sounds rounded and reasonable. It is hard to find fault with its output given the price. Many sellers also throw in a free metronome; a real bargain.
In a similar vein to the P/J, is the Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar Special which adopts the shape and design of a classic Fender Jaguar bass. It basically uses the same pickups and components as the P/J, matches the wood on the neck and fretboard, but uses the uncommon agathis tonewood for the body.
Where the Jaguar shines is in the scale length, which at 30 inches is ideal for beginners who have yet to train their hands to the rigours of navigating a full 34 inch bass neck. Small hands and fingers will also benefit so this is perfect for younger budding musicians. The sound is clear and packs a decent punch. As with the P/J it’s a matter of adjusting the control knobs to the desired tone.
Overall, the Jaguar is a solid build with a fair amount of playability. In addition, the quality of the basic body/neck/headstock mix means upgrading further along the line is a real possibility, more than likely in the shape of better pickups. It also looks stunning and really hits the mark with the vintage look it offers.
To round off our picks for beginner basses, we want to mention the Squier Affinity Jazz Bass, which is similar to the two options above in terms of build and quality, but with a body that mimics the shape of the classic Fender Jazz Bass shape. Another option for those whose aesthetic inclination veers towards that particular style.
Budget basses are often synonymous with beginner instruments so we point you to the section above with one exception, the Ibanez SR370. Ibanez, a Japanese firm, is known for producing budget models and is a name many weathered bassists will mention when fondly remembering their first instrument. With a reputation as one of the go to manufacturers for beginners, Ibanez has stayed true to form with the SR370.
It had a maple body in the classic SR shape with a distinctive long cutaway on its upper half. The neck is made of a mixture of five maple and rosewood intervals, a rather uncommon feature for the price. The fretboard is also made of rosewood. The equipped Accu-Cast through-bridge is also a good addition given that these bridges are known for keeping strings nicely in tune and are able to handle even the largest string gauges.
Now, the pickups are where the SR370 really stands out. It offers two powerful CAP EXF-N2 active humbuckers. These beauties offer a wide array of tones and really belt out the sound of the bass meaning no hiccups when it comes to volume levels, just make sure you have a good amp to match their power.
The combination of the above features mean the SR370 offers a fulsome tone that manages to cover a wide range, yet does so in a controlled manner. The possibilities available when shaping the tone also means its versatile and can be adapted to an array of musical styles and techniques.
Here, we slot in the Hofner Icon Series Beatle Bass not only as a budget bass, but also as a kind of novelty for those that want that classic violin bass look and a hollow body. It’s an all round decent bass that works well and is built to last, but it won’t match models like the Ibanez above for sheer quality at this price.
View it more as a fun little purchase than a quality option that matches the other basses listed in our guide. It is definitely not a model we recommend for beginners and we would only advise versed bassist to get it as a practice bass.
If you are able or are willing to spend more, we enter the realm of the bass heavy hitters. These workhorses can last a lifetime if looked after and for many are the only bass they will ever need. They are, however, recommended for proven bassist who are sure to make use of them given the non-negligible price tag.
First up is the Fender Deluxe Active Precision Bass Special. Somewhat of an oddity in the Precision bass family, the Deluxe nevertheless shines as it incorporates the basics of its namesake with some novel features.
The body is made of alder, a fairly common Precision bass tonewood, matched to a maple neck and fretboard. Standard through-bridge and signature Fender tuners make up the most significant hardware components. The pickups are what set the Deluxe apart. Instead of the passive split-coil found on most Precision basses, the Deluxe has a beefy active split-coil as well as an active single coil. To the layman this means a huge number of possibilities when it comes to tone. We can’t underline how versatile these pickups are. You can quite easily find a treble rich, snappy tone as well as a rich, smooth deep tone.
In terms of the sound, the Deluxe can sound like a Precision if needed, but can also match the unique sound of a Jazz bass, while also mimicking the shape of punchier contemporary tones. If you are a bassist that needs a variety of sounds, the Deluxe truly hits the mark. This flexibility does not suffer from having too many options, instead it successfully provides great tone throughout the spectrum.
Overall, the Deluxe is a novel attempt at something different that hits the mark and surpasses it. It is hard to find any issues with this bass and it comes highly recommended.
In a different style, we came across the Sterling RAY34 and it stuck with us for the quality of the build and the weight of reputation that comes with an endorsement from the famous Music Man manufacturer. The RAY34 is a replica model of the identically named Music Man version, but offered as a more affordable version under their subsidiary, Sterling, similar to arrangements with Gibson’s Epiphone and Fender’s Squier.
A first on our list, the RAY34 has a swamp ash body that perfectly respects the classic Music Man design and incorporates the iconic circular pickguard. The neck and fretboard are maple, a common choice in this price range. The six piece bolt-on neck is also a great feature as it guarantees stability.
The components are fairly normal and of good quality with a standard through-bridge. For the pickups, the RAY34 is equipped with a huge active humbucker. Yes, you read correctly, only one. Rest assured this is done with purpose and is not not an oversight. Its linked up to a three knob tone EQ that is very responsive and versatile, hence the choice of only one pickup.
This bass is loud and crunchy, though has flourishes of subtlety when the EQ is adjusted correctly. This range is what defines the RAY34 and makes it stand out. You can easily find a smooth jazz tone, then switch to a beefy low end rumble seamlessly.
Though no match for its namesake, the RAY34 is a beast of a bass with all the thrills and options you would ever need in terms of tone. A great option in the affordable price range and an attractive choice for those who are not taken with the classic Fender option.
Top of the Line
If finances allow and you really have no upper limit on how much you can spend, we would put our (your) money on the US built Music Man Classic Collection Stingray. It’s a classic that bassists can spot a mile off for its graceful allure, and the truly unique and recognizable tone it belts out with every note.
The through-body maple neck guarantees the best sustain available, especially when matched with its high quality ash body wings. The pickups are top-of-the-range active Alnico Music Man humbuckers with a 3 band preamp and volume control. The components are also best in class with Schaller BM machine heads and an exquisite chrome plated through-bridge.
This bass truly hums to its own unique tone that is precise, deep and rich all at the same time. The tone can also be modified thanks to the active pickups and controls. It can reach resplendent highs as well as growling lows. It looks stunning with an unparalleled attention to detail. Overall, it is one of the best basses money can buy and is the envy of the most accomplished bass players out there.