It takes a unique type of person to play bass, doesn’t it?
To most of the world, it’s not nearly as glamorous as singing, or guitar…or even drums for that matter.
But to you…the bass player, there’s a quiet dignity in knowing that while all the other guys are busy showing off…
You’re doing the real work of holding it all together…
So that everyone else can sound good.
And if you’re just getting started with the bass guitar (or perhaps you’ve been playing for years)…
And this is the role you have chosen for yourself…
On behalf of all tone-deaf drummers and beat-deaf singers out there…
I thank you.
And to show my thanks, what I have for you today is an in-depth guide on all the nitty-gritty details of the instrument, to help you make an intelligent and informed decision when choosing your first (or next) bass guitar.
So here’s a list of topics on the agenda…
For beginners we have the following:
- How Many Strings?
- Scale Lengths
- Fretted vs Fretless
- Precision Bass vs Jazz Bass
- Squier vs Fender
- Other Brands
And for advanced players considering custom upgrades we have:
1. How Many Strings?
While it may be true that electric bass guitars are available in either 4, 5, or 6 strings…
Unless you’ve been playing for years and have a specific reason to want to switch from 4 strings to something else…
There’s really no question as to which you should be playing.
4 strings is standard for the instrument, and what 95% of bass players use over the course of their entire careers.
But since we’re on the topic…
And you’re probably curious as to WHY someone might transition to a 5 or 6 string bass…here are some answers:
Compared to 4 string bass guitars:
- 5 string basses – have an extra B string on the low end, which allows for a deeper bass range with heavier styles of music.
- 6 string basses – have the same B string as well, in addition to an extra high C string, which allows for more range with soloing and progressive styles of play.
The reason that most players choose NOT to use these extra string(s) is that they’re unnecessary for almost all playing styles and only serve to add extra width to the neck…
Making the instrument more difficult to handle overall.
2. Scale Lengths
With bass guitars, the 3 common scale length categories are:
- 34″ – aka long scale
- 30″ or less – aka short scale
- 35″ or more – aka extra long scale
These days, long scale is considered standard, and is the best default option unless you have a specific reason to choose otherwise.
Short scale basses are ideal for young or small players, as their size and weight is easier to handle.
The main side effect of these basses is…since the strings are shorter, they are also floppier and have a somewhat darker sound.
Extra long scale basses are mainly used on 5 or 6 string basses, as the added length is necessary for the lower B string.
3. Fretted vs Fretless
Just like with 5 and 6 string basses…
Another advanced option that some bass players may transition to (after many years of experience)…
Is fretless basses.
With standard bass guitars, metal “frets” are used to mark off the exact spots where the strings must be “fretted”…
In order to play a certain note that will be in-tune with the rest of the song.
However…with fretless basses, it is up to the player to both find and “hear” those exact notes on his own…much like you would do with a traditional upright bass, cello, or violin.
As you might imagine, starting out on a fretless bass is not advisable…
- because it is much harder to get the hang of…
- because vast majority of popular music is played on a fretted bass
So if you’re a beginner…stick with the frets.
4. Fender Precision Bass vs Jazz Bass
Now that we’ve established that beginners should limit their options to 4 string, long scale, fretted basses…
The only thing left to do is choose a model.
And while there are literally hundreds of models to choose from…
There are really only TWO in particular to definitely consider…
As they’ve been industry standards ever since the electric bass guitar was first invented…
And have gone mostly unchanged for the last half century.
- Fender Precision Bass (P-Bass)
- Fender Jazz Bass
But as you can see in the picture above, the differences between them aren’t entirely obvious, huh? So let’s discuss them now…
The 3 notable differences between the P-Bass and Jazz Bass are:
- Body Shape
- Neck Contour
- Pickup Design
For the body design, the original P-Bass was modeled after the shape of the 1954 Fender Stratocaster, while the Jazz Bass was modeled after the 1960 Fender Jazzmaster.
While the visual differences between the two may be subtle, the Jazz Bass actually has a center of gravity closer to the neck, which some may argue…offers better balance for the player.
For the neck contour, the Precision Bass has a more consistent width and less taper towards the headstock.
The Jazz Bass on the other hand, has a noticeably steeper taper, which brings the strings closer together towards the nut, and potentially offers a more comfortable grip.
For the pickup design, which is arguably the most significant difference between the two in terms of sound…
The P Bass features split 4-pole single-coil pickups, while the Jazz Bass features dual 8-pole humbuckers.
And while the topic of pickups is quite complex and outside the scope of this article, it’s worth noting that neither of these two pickup designs is better than the other…just different.
For more detail on exactly HOW they are different, check out this article:
Note that while the article is specific to guitar pickups, the same basic principles apply with bass pickups as well.
5. Squier vs Fender
Assuming you narrow down your options to one industry standards we just covered…
The question to now ask yourself is…
How much should I spend?
Because the P-Bass and Jazz both come in several sub-models at a wide range of prices.
Luckily though, with almost any name-brand bass guitar in this day and age…
You’ll still get a quality instrument regardless of the price.
In fact, any of the following Squier (Fender’s line for beginners) models would be absolutely PERFECT as a first bass guitar for beginners:
- Affinity Jazz Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
- Vintage Modified 70’s Jazz Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Classic Vibe 50’s P-Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
- Classic Vibe ’70s P-Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Affinity PJ Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
Now if you’re looking to upgrade, or you’re just lucky enough to be able to afford whatever you want…
Here are the links to the more high-end Fender versions:
- Standard P Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- American Standard P Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/Thomann)
- Standard Jazz – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- American Standard Jazz Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/Thomann)
- 50’s P Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
- Mustang PJ Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Special Edition Deluxe PJ Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
NOTE: Some of the links above are labeled as a “PJ Bass”, which means that the pickups feature a P-Bass pickup nearest the neck, and a Jazz Bass pickup nearest the bridge.
6. The Best “Other” Options
If you don’t really like the design of Fender basses…
Or you’re just curious to see what other options exist…
Here is a complete list the most popular and well-reviewed bass guitars on the market today, made by brands other than Fender:
For a more “classic” look:
- Epiphone EB-3 SG Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Hofner Ignition Series – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Sterling by Music Man – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
- Epiphone Thunderbird IV – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
And for a more “modern” look:
- ESP LTD B-50 – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Schecter Omen Extreme – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
- Schecter Stiletto Extreme – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Ibanez GSR200 – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Epiphone Goth Thunderbird IV – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
Advanced Upgrades for Bass Guitar
For some reason, once bass players get bored with their first instrument…
And they begin looking for something new…
Rather than just dropping a bunch of cash on a name-brand, fully-loaded, “ready-to-play” bass…
They instead tend to prefer the “do-it-yourself” route of mixing and matching different parts to build a unique one-of-a-kind instrument.
So right now, let’s fast-forward a bit, and take a look at the 5 main features you will need to understand to customize your bass later on in the future.
When building a custom body and neck…
The first step is choosing an appropriate wood.
Because with bass guitars especially, the wood can have a significant impact on:
The 6 commonly used woods are:
- Alder – which is possibly the most commonly used, due to its balance, clarity, and versatile sound.
- Ash – which is a common alternative to alder, with a slightly brighter sound.
- Maple – which is a dense wood with a bright sound and long sustain, and can be ideal for studio recording.
- Mahogany – which is dense wood with a warmer sound and long sustain.
- Basswood – which is typically used on cheaper instruments, as it as softer, with a shorter sustain. In some cases though, the short sustain can be ideal for fast, complex basslines.
- Agathis – which is another common option for cheaper basses.
2. Neck Types
With electric bass guitars, the neck attachment is particularly important…
Because of the long heavy strings which can be extremely stressful on a weak neck joint.
The 3 commonly used methods for this procedure are:
- Bolt-on Necks
- Set Necks
- Thru-Body Necks
Bolt-on necks are most common because they are the easiest to assemble, and easiest to adjust.
But they are also the least stable, and offer the least sustain.
NOTE: Bolt-on necks are still used on many high-end bass guitars.
Set Necks, which are are a bit tougher to properly attach…
Typically offer better sustain than bolt-ons, as they have a larger overlap between the body and neck.
As such, they are often found on higher-end guitars.
Thru-body necks, which are the most difficult to execute, and most expensive, but offer the greatest stability and sustain…
Are typically only found on individually produced custom-designed instruments.
3. Single-Coil vs Humbucker Pickups
In order to convert string vibrations into actual sound exiting an amplifier…
Bass pickups work using a series of magnets under the strings…
Which encode the information into an electric signal…
Which is then sent through the cable, to the amp, where it is then decoded back into sound.
The two standard pickup designs, known as “single-coils” and “humbuckers”…
Each have their own set of pros and cons:
- Single-coils – typically have a thinner, brighter sound, with more noise, and a lower output.
- Humbuckers – typically have less noise, with a warmer, rounder sound, and higher output.
On the Fender Precision Bass, a pickup design known as “split-coil” humbuckers is used, which essentially offers the “best-of-both-worlds” between single-coils and humbuckers.
As you gain more experienced with bass playing…you may or may not one day want to experiment with different pickup options to find your own “signature” sound.
4. Passive vs Active Electronics
Regardless of whether you’re using single-coil or humbucker pickups…
A certain voltage must be generated in order to create a useable signal.
And this is achieved in 1 of 2 ways:
- actively – meaning a battery-powered preamp in the pickup is used to boost the signal generated by the magnets
- passively – meaning a stronger magnet is used to generate the signal in the first place
While passive pickups are simpler to use and require less “tweaking”…they also offer less control as well.
Which is one reason why many bass players prefer active pickups.
The main reason though, is that on bass guitars especially, they just sound better in many ways.
With all other factors being equal, active pickups typically have:
- less noise
- better harmonics
- more attack
- longer sustain
- increased headroom
Yet despite all these advantages, for some reason it’s more common to find stock bass guitars with passive pickups, rather than active.
So to use active pickups, you’ll often need to install them yourself.
The final key upgrade to consider for bass guitar is the hardware.
Which means two things specifically:
- the bridge
- the tuning keys
With upgraded bridges, the two main goals are:
- better sustain and vibration transfer – which occurs simply by building it from a heavier metal such as brass.
- better string positioning – which occurs by adding precise horizontal adjustments for intonation, and vertical adjustments for action
Some of the top brands for high-end bass bridges include:
With upgraded tuning keys, the two main goals are:
- tuning precision – which occurs by using higher gear ratios of around 20:1.
- tuning stability – which occurs simply by using better parts built with better craftsmanship.
Some of the top brands to check out include:
So there you go guys…the Ultimate Guide to Bass Guitars for Beginners. Hopefully this answered all your questions and concerns.
‘Til next time.