In all types and styles of music, bass guitarist plays a very crucial role. He provides a solid foundation for other members of the band to build upon. So, it is very important to choose your first bass guitar wisely. The chosen guitar should be easy to play, have a great sound and match your style. The article below provides the salient features of different types bass guitars. This will help you in deciding, what type of bass guitar to purchase, as a beginner.
Differences with acoustic and electric guitars
Bass guitar is quite similar to acoustic and electric guitar in construction and appearance. The difference lies in number and thickness of strings, length of the neck, the scale length and frets.
1. Number of strings:
Traditionally, bass guitars have four strings tuned to standard E - A - D - G. However, five and six string versions are available. These extra strings extend the range of the guitar and provide a wider harmonic and melodic sound.
Five string bass guitar have
- an additional B string on low end
- deeper bass range
- suitable for heavier styles of music like hard rock, fusion and metal
Six string bass guitar have
- additional B string on low end and additional high C string
- more range
- suitable for soloing and progressive style, due to much wider range
Both five and six string guitars have a much wider neck making them difficult to handle for most players.
It is recommended to always start with four string guitars as these
- have narrow necks
- are suitable for most music styles
2. Thickness of strings
The strings of bass guitar are thicker than the other guitars. These are tuned similar to the bottom four strings of a six string guitar, but an octave lower. Style of music played, feel and sound of the strings may depend on their gauge. Thicker strings produce a rich bass tone but require more finger strength to play the guitar. These are suitable for styles requiring lesser movement across the fretboard.
Strings in bass guitar are usually wound strings. This means that usually there is a winding of bronze or steel over a steel core.
3. Length of the neck
Bass guitars usually have longer neck than normal guitars. In normal guitars, you would have noticed that higher frets are closer to each other. Bass guitars are normally tuned one octave lower than six string guitars. So, the distance between the frets increases, requiring a longer neck.
Bass guitars produce lower frequency sounds, typically between 20 to 320 hertz. Frequency of a string depends on its thickness and length. Higher the thickness and length of the string, lower is the frequency of sound produced.
4. Scale length
Scale length for any string instrument is the maximum vibrating length. For guitars, this is equal to the string distance between the nut and the bridge. These are the anchoring points of the strings on the guitar. Bass guitars are available in following common scale lengths.
- Extra-long scale - 35 inches or more
- Long scale - 34 inches
- Medium Scale – 31 to 33 inches
- Short scale - 30 inches or less
Long scale is most commonly used, unless you want to choose other scales for a particular reason. With the increase in scale length, the notes are located further apart on each string. With increased spread of notes, more stretching and shifting is required while playing. Hence, there is always an optimum balance, between scale length and ease of playing.
Short scale basses are suitable for small sized or young guitarists. However, the sound by these is different, from other bass guitars, sometimes called floppy, unless the strings are made thicker.
Five and six string guitars, usually have extra-long scale for the lower B string.
Playing guitar with longer scale lengths is a bit difficult and uncomfortable in the beginning. But you will slowly become accustomed to the requirements with practice.
5. Fretless Bass Guitars
All standard guitars including bass types, have frets on the neck. The frets accurately divide the notes on each string such that each fret is at half step increment from neighboring one. It is possible to see the frets in a fretted guitar. Thus, finding the correct notes on the instrument is much easier, especially for the beginners.
A fretless bass, as the name suggests, has a neck, without the steel frets. It has a smooth wooden neck, like a Violin or an upright bass. Obviously, playing a fretless bass guitar is more difficult than fretted basses for beginners. Experienced and skilled bass players rely purely on their muscle memory and trained ears to accurately play the desired notes.
This version of guitar produces a warmer sound and allows the player to smoothly slide from one note to another.
You can consider transitioning to fretless guitar, if you are able to tune your bass accurately by use of your ears alone.
Some notable fretless bass guitar players are Jaco Pastorius, Mick Karn, Les Claypool and Percy Jones.
Other Considerations for Bass Guitars
So far, we have discussed the major features which differentiates a bass guitar from acoustic and electric guitars. In this section, we will look at other construction and design aspects, which will further help you in choosing the correct guitar for your needs.
These features include the type of neck, tone woods, pickups, bridges etc. So, let’s begin to explore these.
1. Type of Neck
Bass guitars come with three types of necks, depending on how these are connected to the body of the guitar
- Bolt-on type – In this type, the neck is connected to the body using four or six bolts. Stability of the neck is very important, as any movement will result in tuning and playing issues. To achieve stability, adequate overlap between neck and body is essential. This is the most common type of neck in bass guitars, as these are easiest to assemble and adjust, but least stable of the three types.
- Neck through - This type of arrangement is used in high-end bass guitars. The neck is one continuous piece through the body of the guitar. Several high-quality wood pieces are glued together to form this arrangement. No joint between neck and the body results in better response and sustain.
- Set Neck - instead of bolting the neck to the body, a mortise or dovetail joint is provided.
A metal truss rod is also provided inside the neck, to prevent its twisting or bending under the tension of strings. Adjustments in truss rods help in straightening the bent or twisted rods.
2. Tone woods
Resonance, tone and playability of a bass guitar is significantly impacted by the type of wood used for constructing the body. Common Tone woods are
- Ash and Alder – Full and Balanced tone with nice clarity, provides sustain and has attractive grain finish.
- Agathis – Less expensive, Reasonably balanced tone emphasizing lower midrange frequencies.
- Mahogany – Having soft warmth and full bodied sound emphasizing lower midrange and lower range tones. Mahogany is heavy with high sustain.
- Basswood - Suitable for wide range of music. Inexpensive and softer wood, which absorbs all vibrations. It has a very short sustain. Hence, used for faster playing styles and complex techniques.
- Maple - Very dense and heavy wood resulting in phenomenally long sustain with a clear tone. Preferred by many professional bass guitarists and recording engineers.
The purpose and functioning of pickups has been discussed in our article on electric guitars.
Bass guitars, generally, have two sets of pickups. First one is near the Fretboard, producing a smoother tone at the low end. Second pickup, near the bridge, creates a brighter sound at the high end.
For Bass guitars, the points of consideration are related to choice between single coil or humbucking pickups and between active or passive pickups.
Single Coil Vs Humbucking pickups –
Single coil pickups have thinner, brighter sound with low output and more noise. Humbucking pickups on the other hand provide warmer sound with higher output and less noise.
Split coil pickups are also available which enjoys the best of both worlds. It has bright sound characteristic of single coil types and is also hum-free like humbuckers. It is used in Fender’s Precision Bass Instrument.
Passive or Active Pickups
The difference between active and passive pickups and their utilization was discussed in our article on electric guitars. The details provided there are equally relevant for bass guitars.
Various metal pieces and knobs on the guitar are commonly referred as hardware. They usually have chrome, black chrome and gold colored finishes. Bridge, also called as tail piece is a metal plate where strings are anchored. They transmit the vibration of the strings to the body of the guitar.
Each string is terminated on the bridge on an individual adjustable saddle, which ensures adequate spacing between the strings and correct height. They also help in adjusting the tuning of individuals string, by moving forward and back, called as intonation.
Three different types of bridges used are
- Through bridge - Strings pass over the saddles and are threaded through back of the bridge. Changing the strings is lot easier in this type of bridge arrangement.
- String through body - strings pass through the body of the bass and over the saddles. Strings are threaded from the back side of the body. Guitars string through body bridges have more sustain to the notes.
- Bridge and tailpiece combination - Strings pass through a separate tailpiece.
Types of Bass Guitars
So far, we have gone through the differences with other types of guitar and main considerations for a bass guitar. Let us now have a look into different type of bass guitars in the market.
Electric Bass Guitars
Majority of the bass guitars currently are of electric type. As with any electric guitar, you will need a bass amplifier to get heard. Bass amplifier can be considered to be a powered speaker. Electric Bass guitars are mostly of solid body type, made of Tone woods discussed above, to transfer vibration well.
Lower-priced bass guitars may use laminated, softer or pressed woods. It is possible to alter the tone using various type of effect pedals. But, in majority of experienced bass guitarists avoid doing it.
Some of the major and famous models of electric bass guitars, which have been virtually industry standards, are
Fender Precision bass or P - Bass
P – bass was the first electric bass guitar to be invented and still one of the most sought-after guitars in the market. It has a split 4 pole single coil pickups with cutaway body style.
It has a tune knob which
- on low end produces a deep and almost rumbling type of sound.
- on high-end, has a sharp tone which still has a great low and.
It was modeled after the shape of 1954 model of Stratocaster. It has a more consistent neck contour width with lesser taper towards headstock.
James Jamerson, with many Motown hits, played P - Bass.
Fender Jazz Bass or J - Bass
Jazz Bass is the next most commonly used electric bass guitar. Its body shape was modeled after 1960 Jazzmaster guitar by Fender. It has its center of gravity close to neck, thereby, providing better balance. It has a narrower neck with a noticeable taper towards headstock, bringing the strings closer. This makes it easier for the players to form chords.
It has dual humbucking pickups. As indicated by the name itself, this guitar is great for jazz. It is commonly used for funk, metal and Reggae.
Jaco Pastorius used a fretless J – Bass.
Acoustic Bass Guitar
Like normal acoustic guitars, it does not depend on any electronics like amplifiers or pickups. Instead, they use only their sound holes to project the sound. They are a combination of deep bass frequencies and soft, natural tones of acoustic guitars.
These guitars are ideal for playing blues, country music or rock music. They can also be used to enhance bluegrass, Americana and folk music.
These are available in the dreadnought style bodies as well as the classical ones. Options with cutaway design to reach frets closer to sound hole are also available.
Guitars with adequate depth to project clear full tone with small enough size to ensure portability are available for frequently travelling players.
Semi acoustic bass guitars
These are bass versions of normal semi acoustic guitars. They have a semi-hollow body and f- shaped sound holes. Their normal sound in an unplugged condition is more than the electrical bass guitars. But a power source is required by them to produce best sound.
They are best to produce a warm, clean sound. Similar to semi acoustic guitars, the sound has best of both worlds, a punch of electric bass and resonant sound of an acoustic guitar.
Electric Acoustic Bass Guitars.
Electric acoustic bass guitars provide the acoustic and rich tones of an acoustic bass guitar and can also be heard when plugged in. They have the shape of an acoustic bass guitar but the sizes similar to any electrical bass guitar. They can be played without an amplifier.
They have piezo electric pickups, making their tones little different from electric bass guitars. These pickups are more prone to feedbacks, so their volumes should be adjusted slowly, particularly when using pedals.
We hope that the above article has given you sufficient basic knowledge about the bass guitar. This will be helpful in letting you select your first bass guitar. If you require any other information about them, do write to us, and we will be more than happy to assist.