Ultimate Guide to
Electric Bass

Whether you're buying your very first bass guitar or you're upgrading to a brand new instrument, it helps to know what to look out for!

In our ultimate guide, we'll run you through the classic bass styles, the types of woods used and the range of different pickups and other electronics available so that you can make an informed choice when buying your bass!

Introduction

The bass guitar is one of the most important parts of any band. While in the band they can take on multiple different roles but the key to a great bassist is consistency and timing. You’re there to hold up the low-end in the mix but also keep the band tight and in time.

When the guitarist forgets where he is in the song he should be able to look back at you and get right back into it. That is why your gear is so important to your sound and the sound of your band. If you don’t have the right gear your sound will never be right. We have put this guide together to get you thinking about electric bass guitars and how to find the right one for you. From the traditional to the modern, basses come in a wide range of different styles that suit different kinds of players. So let’s start with the basics and go from there.

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The Bass-ics

A bass guitar is an instrument normally with 4 strings tuned an octave below an electric guitar (EADG). This allows it to hold up the low-end in a mix making sure your band sounds tight and punchy. Although most bass players will play a 4 string bass they also come in other widely used forms with 5 or 6 strings. Starting out we recommend a 4 string but as you start to find your own style you may find that something with a wider range suits you better. First let’s take a look at all the parts that make up a bass guitar.

As you can see there are a lot of different parts that make up this instrument, all of which are vital to making the bass sound as good as possible. The most important part of buying any guitar is the feel of the instrument. Unlike, machine heads, pickups and controls the body and neck are hard to change out on most instruments so make sure you like the feel first.

All basses will have different sized necks and bodies and once you’ve found a shape you like, buying basses in the future becomes easier. As we just mentioned you are not stuck with the hardware like pickups, bridge, machine heads, control knobs or even pickguard that come with your guitar. These can all be changed out by any trained guitar luthier with either custom or off-the-shelf parts.

The Bass Body

The first thing you will notice on any bass is the body. Not only does it need to look great and suit the style of your band but it also needs to feel good in the hands. Every company has their own body shape but you can really break them up into 3 major categories. These are not really strict rules as you can get modern-styled basses fitted with J or even P bass hardware which will completely change the sound.

P-Bass The P-Bass design is based on the Fender Precision Bass and is focused on being a simple to use instrument. Normally found with a single pickup and a smaller body. Perfect for Rock, Punk but also widely used in dub bass styles like Reggae.
J-Bass The J-Bass design is based on the Fender Jazz Bass. This bass has a larger body normally with a pair of single coil pickups and therefore a larger range of sounds compared to the P-Bass style. This is suited to pretty much any style where accuracy and subtlety are needed more than aggression.
Modern Modern-style basses are normally fitted with soapbar or humbucking pickups with a large thick body. Brands like Fender, Ernie Ball, Ibanez and Chapman Guitars make basses in this style that work really well for a wide range of styles although you will most commonly see them used with rock and metal players.

None of these bass styles are better or worse than any other. It all just comes down to exactly what you are playing. While I mention the pickup types and recommended genres these are not hard and fast rules and will change depending on the player.

Bass Guitar Woods

Now this is a complex subject and one that takes up a lot of time to explain but I will keep it brief here. Most basses you will find will either have an Alder, Ash, Mahogany or Basswood body. Each of these different woods produce a slightly different sound depending on what kind of sound you are after.

Alder This is considered to be the most balanced and versatile of any bass tonewood. That’s why you will often find it on basses that are focused more on versatility than one set sound. If you want one bass for any style check out Alder.
Ash Ash is very similar to Alder tonally but it does have some slight differences. With Ash you will generally get a bit more high end and faster attack. These small differences make this the perfect wood if you are a slap player that also needs to play with a pick or fingers as well.
Mahogany Mahogany is a deep warm wood that works brilliantly for picked and fingered styles that need to really hold up the low end in a mix. The main issue with mahogany is that is weighs a lot which when used on such a large instrument can make it a pain to play.
Basswood Warmer than Alder but not as dark as Mahogany, Basswood has an interesting sound that you will either love or hate. It has a beautifully balanced sound but with a bit more low end to carry the mix. This is most commonly used on basses with active preamps as it lets you take advantage of that balanced sound.

Bass Guitar Necks

Bass necks are an interesting subject as there’s nothing more subjective on a bass. It’s all about the feel that you prefer. While some will like the wider 70’s Jazz Bass style necks others may instead want to go for the thinner neck of an Ibanez.

Bass necks can be made out of any of a large number of woods each of which will produce a different feel and tone. The most common design is to have a Maple neck reinforced with either Walnut or Bubinga with either a Maple, Rosewood or Ebony fingerboard. The only way to find the right neck for you is to get your hands on as many basses as possible until you find the right kind of shape.

Electronics In A Bass

This is where things start to get a little complicated. Don't worry, however, as we'll quickly brief you on different types of preamps and pickups. Unlike most electric guitars, with a bass you can have an active preamp (volume, eq section) without having to use active pickups.

This means you have a wealth of different options available to you including some active systems, some passive and others that mix together for the best of both worlds.

Preamps

Active Preamps With an active EQ the only limitation is how many controls are there. All active systems will be slightly different but most will contain at least 1 volume control, treble boost/cut, bass boost/cut and if you have multiple pickups either a blend control or a second volume pot. Active electronics give you much more control over your sound from your guitar allowing you to not only cut but boost frequencies without having to touch your amplifier. This is great if you like to change sounds often and don’t want to fiddle with the amp. Active electronics do require a battery to run (normally 9v) which will need to be changed out every few months to a year. And if you leave the bass plugged in, you’ll drain the battery.
Passive Preamps Although not strictly a preamp when it is passive the circuitry in the guitar would act much like any other guitar you may have seen. Normally you would have at least 1 volume control and 1 tone control as well as possibly a blend control or second volume if you have multiple pickups. This system lacks control when compared to an active circuit but it does affect the tone. A lot of bassists prefer a passive system for a more natural rounded tone that works better for jazz, blues and other similar styles.

Pickups

Just like the electronics the pickups come in active and passive forms but also different sizes and shapes. Each of these different pickup styles will drastically affect the tone and should be one of the most important parts of buying any bass. One of the things to keep in mind is that active pickups do require a 9v battery to run which will need to be changed every few months. There are three main types of bass pickups that can all come in different casings but there are three core designs. You have the split coil P-Bass style pickup, the straight single coil J-Bass style pickup and dual coil (humbucker) pickups.

Straight Single Coil
(J-Bass)
The Jazz style pickup is by far the most common type of single coil pickup you will see as depending on your amplifier you can use these with pretty much any style. They will never sound quite as raw or fat as a P-Bass pickup though you do get a much clearer definition.
Split Coil
(P-Bass)
Normally used as the only pickup on a bass or with a straight single coil pickup in the bridge position. These pickups are loved by rockers for their tight, clear and punchy sound that works well with high gain distorted guitars in a mix.
Dual Coil
(Humbucker)
Found on a wide range of different guitars these pickups don’t have the same humming issues that you get with single coils. They also produce a very large, round sound that works amazingly for some vintage rock style tones. Normally humbuckers will be found with an active preamp for a more diverse range of sounds.

Summary

Throughout this we have looked at bass types, necks, woods, preamps and pickups all of which make a bass what it is. Hopefully by looking through this you have learnt a little bit more about bass guitars and how to find what you are looking for.

At the end of the day instruments are a very personal thing. Something that works for one person may never sound right to another so the best thing to do is go and pick up as many basses as you can to find out what suits you the best. If you want to read a bit further into any of these subjects make sure to check out some of the following articles.

Things To Keep In Mind

Much like all stringed instruments you’ll need to change the strings on a regular basis. For most non-gigging bass players we recommend changing your strings every 3-6 months. If you are recording or gigging regularly you might need to replace them as often as every month depending on how you play.

Generally it’s best to replace your strings when you notice they have lost their shine and sound dull or there are visible rust markings on the strings. Your bass will need a regular tune up. This is not something you need to do very often and as time goes on you will most likely learn how to maintain your bass yourself.

It’s also worth getting your bass set up by a trained guitar tech once a year to make sure it plays and sounds the best it can.

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