How To : Choosing A Bass Guitar

How To : Choosing A Bass Guitar

How to choose a Bass Guitar
Part rhythm, part melody, there’s simply no denying the importance of the bass guitar in modern music. This Buying Guide covers critical information that can help you choose the right bass guitar for your needs. There’s a lot to consider when purchasing a bass guitar.

The important question regarding the wood is whether you like the sound of the bass. Choice of woods naturally affects the tone and weight of a guitar, so consider how you will use the bass (ie. playing long gigs or sitting in a studio).
A number of factors determine the tonal properties of wood. Most luthiers believe that the wood chosen for the top is the single most important factor in determining the quality of tone of the instrument. It is also interesting to note that the wood itself takes on different characteristics depending on which part of the bass guitar it’s used for. But wood species can be responsible only for certain aspects of the tone of any guitar. Equally important are design, skill of the maker, and the quality of the wood used. Tonewood selection, however, can be a determining factor in the creation of a very special guitar, or a guitar designed for a specific purpose.
  • Ash and Alder
As ash and alder are extremely similar, both provide sustain and evenly balanced tone that is resonant and rich in harmonic overtones. The most common reason that guitar makers choose ash is because of its more attractive grain, which is apparent
under a transparent or semi-transparent finish.
  • Agathis

Many wonderful entry-level basses made from agathis since it is relatively inexpensive. Tonally, it is a medium between ash/alder and mahogany, resonating with a rich tone that emphasizes the lower midrange over the upper.
  • Mahogany

Mahogany basses are best generalized as sounding warm and full bodied. The medium density and low resonance of mahogany gives the lower register of the bass guitar a pronounced emphasis and rolls off the snappier string attack that you would get with an ash or alder body.
  • Basswood

Basswood is a favorite body wood for bassists who play a wide range of music. An interesting quality of basswood is its extreme softness, which readily absorbs vibrations. It has a shorter sustain, making it ideal for fast or more complex playing techniques.
  • Maple

Maple is a very dense wood, producing phenomenal sustain and a bright, crisp tone. Many bassists and recording engineers swear by maple because of the clarity and definition it gives bass guitars.
4, 5, or 6 Strings?
It’s tempting to say that if you need to ask, you’re better off sticking to a traditional 4-string bass. Regular 4-string basses have, by design, much narrower necks than 5- or 6-string basses and are tuned in standard E-A-D-G format; this makes them easier to handle and to learn to play on. However, there are some styles of music that favor 5-string basses. Modern worship music and country seem to have more songs that root in B, therefore its B-E-A-D-G tuning is ideal. Regardless of style, 5- and even 6-string basses give bass players more room to expand creatively. Particularly if you perform a lot of bass solos, a 6-string bass, tuned B-E-A-D-G-C, will let you pull off some fancier tricks.
Fretted vs. Fretless
There are two different fretboard layouts to choose from when you’re looking for a bass guitar: fretted and fretless. A fretted neck is the standard guitar neck, with steel frets dividing each half-step of the chromatic scale. This makes finding the correct notes much easier, especially if you are just starting out on the instrument. A fretless bass, however, features a neck that does not have steel frets; it’s just smooth wood, similar to an upright bass or violin. While many bass players believe that fretless basses offer a smoother, warmer sound, the pitch of the note you’re playing completely relies upon your finger position. Skilled players rely on muscle memory to place their hand in the proper position, but practice always makes perfect.
The fretboard or fingerboard is usually a thin piece of wood— typically rosewood, maple, or ebony. All are excellent woods for the purpose but can vary in quality. The best fretboard are smooth, hard, and dense so that they wear slowly. Fretboard are usually arched from side to side. This arch is called the radius, referring to an imaginary circle that would be formed if the arch of the fretboard were extended to make a circle. Some bass fretboards are close to flat, while others may have a radius as short as ten inches. The shorter the radius, the more pronounced the arch of the fretboard. The fretboard is embedded with frets which are narrow strips of metal. These frets divide the neck into half-step increments, and determine where each
Acoustic Bass Guitars
If you’re looking for a bass guitar, but you don’t want to be slave to an amp, then an acoustic bass might be for you. With all of the same characteristics of an acoustic 6-string guitar, an acoustic bass produces sound through a resonant hollow body. This allows you to play unplugged with a full-bodied, robust sound, which is sometimes more appropriate for acoustic music. However, many different models of acoustic-electric bass guitars exist, giving you the hollow-body sound of an acoustic bass with the ability to plug in to an amp for additional volume.
Pickups : Single-Coil or Humbucker ? 
Pickups are electromagnetic devices that capture the sound created by the vibrating strings and body of the bass, converting it to an electronic signal. Most bass guitars have two sets of pickups to provide a greater tonal range. Pickups nearer the fretboard have a smooth, low-end sound, while the pickups closer to the bridge have an edgy, mid- to high-end tone.
The most common types of pickups are single-coil and humbuckers, and most others are simply variations on one of these two types.
Single-coils were the first kind of pickups and the most simple. Each pickup has only one coil and one magnet, which creates a bright, focused sound. Single-coil pickups can be noisy, however, which is why humbucking pickups were developed.
Humbucking pickups were created in an effort to cancel the hum or noise of the single-coil, but they also have a fatter sound in addition to being more noise-free. The humbucker sound can get muddy at higher volumes though.
One common variation is the split-coil (the design found on the Fender Precision Bass). It is a single-coil wired to function like a humbucker. Two halves of the pickup are separated and one side is reversed in polarity to the other. Thus, you get a tone that is closer to the single-coil sound, but with the quietness of the humbucker.
Passive vs Active Pickups
There are two kinds of bass guitar pickups to choose from. Passive pickups, which have been around since the beginning of the electric bass, provide you with a dynamic sound and a warm, full tone. The downside to passive pickups is that they give you less overall control over the tone of your instrument. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if you like fat and punchy, passive pickups are for you.
Active pickups are a much newer development than passive pickups. Many modern bassists consider them the coolest thing since sliced bread; others find them to be almost heretical. The tone that active pickups produce on a bass guitar is bright, percussive, and clear. Additionally, active pickups include a built-in battery-powered preamp, producing a much higher output than passive pickups. You must remember to periodically change the battery.
Bolt-on vs Neck through Body
Most basses have bolt-on necks, which mean the neck is bolted onto the body. The bolts should keep the neck stable and not allow it to shift up or down. A solid, tight connection between the neck and the body is essential. It is also good to have more rather than less overlap of neck and body for greater stability, better string vibration transfer, and enhanced sustain.
Some bass guitars have set necks, meaning the neck is attached to the body with a mortise or dovetail joint rather than being bolted to it. A set neck creates better resonance and sustain, but can be more difficult to adjust.
Thru-body necks are found on higher-end bass guitars. This type of neck continues as one continuous piece through the body. Wings are attached to each side of it to form the upper and lower parts of the body. With a thru-body neck there is no joint between the neck and body that can inhibit vibration, resulting in better response and sustain. Some controversy exists about which construction style is best for bass guitars. The bolt-on neck design is the more common and traditional construction method in which the neck is a separate piece of wood that’s bolted onto the body. There are some important advantages of this design, including the ability to replace the neck if it’s damaged.
In a neck-though-body design, the bass guitar’s neck wood actually spans the entire length of the instrument. Neck-through bodies tend to provide greater sustain and more direct energy transfer. These basses are made of several pieces of wood that have been glued together. One upside of this design is that the wood is usually of extremely high quality, which in itself increases the quality of the instrument.
Precision vs. Jazz Basses
Fender’s Precision and Jazz Basses dominate the world of bass guitars; and that’s no accident! Leo Fender and his small crew invented the first electric bass guitar more than 50 years ago. And though there have been many changes to both models over the past 50 years, the new P Bass or J Bass you buy today still carries the tradition of the classic originals.
  • Body Design

The Precision Bass was a radical design in 1951. Its deep double cutaways and forward-raked design was like nothing the guitar world had seen. In 1954 the Precision Bass, which had been a “slab” until then, adopted the contoured body of the new Stratocaster. These sculpted recessions at the bottom and top made it more comfortable to hold. The original Precision body was ash; now you can choose from models with ash or alder bodies.
The Fender Jazz Bass, released in 1960, offered players an offset-waist body, which was drawn from the Jazzmaster guitar introduced a couple of years earlier. This moved the mass of the body forward and out of the way of the player’s right arm. As with the P Bass, ash and alder body models of the J Bass are available.
  • “C”-shaped Neck

Most Precision and Jazz Bass production models have what Fender calls a “modern C shape” neck. Each model’s neck is maple, with maple, rosewood, or pao ferro fingerboards available. Despite these similarities, the Precision neck maintains a fairly consistent thickness and tapers in slightly as it approaches the nut. However, the Jazz starts with its strings in a noticeably narrower spacing at the nut, which gives it a distinct “tapered” feel for what some players feel is easier fingering.
  • Different Pickups

Upon its first release the Precision Bass had a single-coil pickup with a chrome-plated cover. Within a few years Fender moved to a split-coil pickup that offered a more defined and solid bass sound. The Jazz Bass was released with dual 8-pole humbucking pickups that gave players a wider variety of tonal possibilities. The end result was a bass some players consider to have a cleaner sound, with more tonal variation possible through use of a pan knob that adjusts the balance between the two pickups.
Scale Length
Scale is the length between the nut (the notched piece between the fretboard and the headstock) and bridge where the strings are anchored at the tail end of the body. The most common scale length is 34".
There are a few short-scale basses, such as the Fender Mustang, various Hofner Violin Bass models, or the Gibson EBO, that are around 30". These are a good choice for young players with small hands who may have trouble playing a standard-size instrument.
The Hofner Ignition Series Violin Bass has a shorter 30” scale and is based on the model made famous by Paul McCartney.
A long-scale neck usually has a 35" scale. This longer scale gives you a few more frets, and is most often used for five- and six-string basses because it improves string tension and minimizes floppiness on the low strings.
Bass Bridges
The bass guitar’s strings terminate at the bridge, where their vibrations are transmitted to the body creating the resonance and tone that the pickups capture and amplify. The strings pass over notches, called bridge saddles, which can be moved up and down to adjust the action, or forward and back to adjust the intonation. Better bridges are made of brass, and are often plated with chrome or nickel silver. A bridge with more mass and weight will usually anchor the strings better and transfer more vibration from the strings to the body.
There are three different bridge types on most electric bass guitars:
  • Through-bridge
  • String-through-body
  • Bridge and tailpiece combination
On a through-bridge, the strings are threaded through the back of the bridge, and over the saddles. On a string-through-body bridge the strings are fed through the body of the bass and over the saddles. A bridge and tailpiece combination feeds the strings through a separate tailpiece that’s unconnected to the saddles.
Tuning machines (machine head)
Enclosed machine heads resist rust and airborne corrosives, and therefore don’t require as much maintenance or replacement as open tuning machines.
Intonation determines whether the notes play in tune as you move up the neck. If the distance between the frets (usually above the 12th fret) is off, the bass will be incapable of playing in tune and therefore is useless as a recording or performance instrument.
Number of Frets
Most basses have 21, 22, or 24 frets. Since most bass playing takes place in the lower positions, this is a matter of personal taste.

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