For a beginning bass player buying a bass can be highly confusing- you can either end up with a low-quality unusable instrument, or be dashed into buying an instrument that is far beyond both your budget. This guide, written by a performing bassist, aims to help beginning bassists choose an instrument that fits them, and give an explanation of bass terminology also.
Types Of Bass-
There are many different basses available for sale, both online and in music shops. I will outline the main types here, although this is not definitive and does not include specialist models and special edition basses.
4 string basses- This is the standard number of strings for any model of bass guitar. These are probably the best for beginning bassists as these are the easiest to handle, and also that most tutors and tution courses/books will use. These are tuned EADG.
- Cheap and very common.
- Easier to handle for an inexperienced bassist.
- Better for specific techniques like slap-bass.
- The cheaper basses often suffer from bad manufacturing, and are often badly set up also.
5-string basses- These are less common than 4 string basses, but are still equally considerable. These basses are typically bigger than most 4-stringers, and heavier also. These are tuned BEADG or EADGC normally.
- Bigger range of sounds from the extra string.
- May be easier to handle due to the wide neck.
- Often more expensive than the usual 4 string models.
- Can be bulkier to carry.
- Some smaller music shops may not stock the strings and parts for these basses.
6-string basses- Generally not recommmended for the beginning bassist due to the difficulty in playing one of these, their size and their cost.
Don't Fret- fretless v. fretted basses.
Many eBay sellers and also many music sellers online and in music shops highlight this as one of their main selling points. Frets basically refer to the metal wires embedded into the neck of the bass.
Fretted- this refers to a bass which does have the metal wire frets in the neck. These help the bassist place their fingers to make a note. In bass tablature (a type of sheet music for bass) the number tells you which fret you need to place your fingers on to make the note. A typical bass has 24 frets, although some basses have 25 or even 28.
Fretless- These are basses with no metal fret wires placed in the neck to aid fingering position. These come in two types.
- Unlined fretlesses have nothing on the neck to help finger postion and rely on the skill of the bassist to play them. These are not particularly good for beginners as their general skill and confidence at the instrument is not high enough.
- A lined fretless will have no frets, but instead will have engraved lines to mark where the bass player should place their fingers. These may be better for those bassists who are transferring from double bass to electric bass.
It is generally expected that a beginner will choose a fretted 24-fret 4-string bass.
Basses are composed of many different parts like any other instrument. Here I'll explain the main parts of an ordinary bass and also give points to help inspection of a potential purchase, starting from the bottom upwards.
- Straplocks- These are what keep the bass' strap attached to the bass itself. These are usually little round nuts, one directly at the bottom of the instrument, one on the 'horn' on the side. Recessed straplocks are sunk into the bass body, and are usually preferred where the bassist wishes to travel with the bass. However I must stress that it is not truly important.
- Any evidence of repairs to these. This may indicate that the bass has been manufactured badly, or that the shop or seller is trying to cover up evidence the bass has been mistreated in some way
- Wear and damage to the nuts- if the nut itself is worn. it may not hold as well as normal. However it will NOT affect general playability.
- Pickups- These are easily the most important and yet least visible of the electric components. The most visible part is the magnetic strip which are affected by the movement of the strings, as the steel of the strings causes the electromagnets underneath to change the electric flow, changing the sound. Underneath is the coil, a thin wire wound thousands of times round a plastic core.
Pickups come in 2 different types-
- A passive or P pickup is made up of two pickups, one above the other, slightly overlapping each other in a step-type shape. These pickups are usually fat in shape and almost square.
- A Jazz or J pickup is made up of two thinner pickups than the P pickups. These pickups lie one above the other, about 3-5 inches apart on most models.
- Some models may be P-J models, a combination of the two. This is completely normal and should not cuse concern.
Look out for
- Replaced pickups- the seller could have easily wanted to upgrade, but some sellers often hide electrics problems or poor quality electrics. You must really just use common sense- if online, email the seller and enquire. If in a shop, try the bass out both without an amp and with an amp.
- Misaligned installation- cheaper poorer quality basses often have this problem, leading to issues of sound quality later.
- If the bass has been converted or the pickups are an addition to the bass, enquire why. It may simply be a case of upgrading, but some more dishonest sellers may not.
- Strings- These are the most important visible part of the bass. Strings are graded by gauge, which tells you the thickness of the strings. Light-gauge strings are better for styles such as funk and slap bass, whilst medium and heavy-gauge strings are better for general playing and some rock and metal styles. These come in two types-
Roundwounds strings refer to any strings where a wire is wrapped in a finer steel wire in a 'round' spiral shape.
Flatwounds refer to a flat string with no spiral pattern. These are used more with fretless basses.
Generally if you buy a bass and then are unsure as to what type and gauge of string you need, it is better to consult another musician, a tutor if you have one, or the guitar technicians at your local music stores. However you must only restring a bass one string at a time to maintain the tension on the neck.
- Frets- see above under 'Don't Fret....' heading.
- The neck- This is home to the frets and is where the bassist fingers the bass to make notes.
Look out for
- Bowing or arching of the neck. This usually is a sign the strings are too tight, or that the truss rod (the spine of the bass, located in the neck is in need of tightening/loosening. I would advise a proper set-up by a guitar technician, or at least by an experienced musician/tutor if this is the case.
- Evidence of a replacement or repair to the neck- this is highly unusual except in the case of an expensive bass. Like a broken bone, this creates a weak point, and as this is what a bassist relies on to make music, is a red flag.
- Alignment of the neck relative to the body- The neck should be 90 degrees to the body. It may be difficult to judge online or on eBay, but a seller should be honest. Again, this requires the skills of a technician to sort out properly.
- Headstock and machineheads. The headstock is the shaped part that is at the top of the bass. These are usually shaped in some way, with the logo of the guitar maker on it. Many brands of guitar such as Fender and Ibanez have distinctive or unusual shaped headstocks. On this you will find the machineheads and the string holders.
The machine heads help to tune a bass by tightening or loosening tension on the string. These must not be overtightened however as this may bow the neck and cause damage to the bass. The stringholders act as a vice to hold the string in place.
Look out for
- Missing/odd machineheads- this may indicate they do not give the tension needed.
- Any chips to the headstock- this is usually superficial, but it takes a substantial amount of force to do damage to this part of the bass. If online, ask the seller how the damage occured and the repair done to it. If you are happy with the sellers answer, then it should be of no concern. Some music shops/online sellers may even give a discounted price for this reason.
You can also get headless basses, which don't have a headstock. Again, as you can gather, check for damage and repairs and ask the shop/seller if unsure.
Buying the bass online- what to consider?
- Currency exchange rates- many luthiers and sellers may be outside your country. You should have no problem as most sites give the equivalent in your country's currency on the sites, and the banks will also do this for you.
- Shipping and Customs- you must consider how the bass is to be sent to you. Many companies will have little idea of how to handle a musical instrument. This shouldn't be too much of a problem if the bass is well wrapped. You may want to consider asking the seller to use a service such as Recorded Delivery where you can track the parcel and a signature is required to recieve packages. This will vary from country to country.
You may also have to consider Customs charges also if buying from a foreign seller/shop. Generally anything that is imported will have a charge on it, and can add a lot onto the price of your new purchase. Try to prepare for this. You may also want to make a telephone call to your nearest Customs and Excise office who can calculate any charges for you and tell you of any restrictions.
- Returns policies- If you find the instrument is not what you want, then you may want to return it. Check with the seller/shop as to how you should return something. Most places have time restrictions on purchases, and may require proof of purchase. Many will accept a bank statement for an online purchase.
- Extras- some basses come with extras. Check what comes with the bass, if anything. Normally what you receive may not be exactly what is shown, but this is perfectly acceptable as long as they tell you. However if they supply a completely different product, then you have the right to make a complaint or request they send you the correct product. Also to remember if you return a product, the extras must be returned with it unless the seller or shop says otherwise
Stolen and fake basses
Sadly some basses, mostly in the second hand market but also occasionally in the new basses market too, end up stolen and sold for quick profit. The result for you is that you end up without a bass and you could even find yourself at the recieving end of legal action.
You can however do something to protect yourself from this happening, and the following points should be of help.
- Firstly, every bass has a serial number. This is usually located on the body somewhere but some basses have them on the headstock as well. If it is an online sale it should be photographed and if not the seller should give it to you on request. If not then it is likely to either be a fake or stolen.
- Check up close important parts of the bass such as the neck, the headstock, the body detail and the pick-ups. If they look like they have been modified or tampered with, or seem poor quality, you're likely dealing with a fake. Another thing to check is the logo also- is it in the wrong place, fuzzy detail or seems to be generally not what you'd expect?
- Check the serial number with the company. This is easily the simplest and easiest thing to do. The company should have records and should be able to tell you if the bass is stolen or not. Also, musician's and bassist-specific message forums might be worth taking a look at, as many have a 'Lost/Stolen basses' section.
- Does the bass seem too good to be true? It usually is! Recently the bass retail market has been hit by cheap Chinese fakes of makes including Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Ibanez. If the price seems far too low for the bass then beware.
- Check the seller feedback if buying online and ask previous buyers their opinions. Also check reviews but be careful- 100% positive feedback means nothing if there is only one review.
The Day You Receive Your New Bass...
The day you receive your instrument should be a happy one. Aim to unwrap it as soon as possible and if there are then any problems rectify them with the courrier company/seller as soon as possible. The following steps are a guide as to what you should do upon getting the parcel.
- Firstly find a flat and clean surface to open it on. This makes clean-up easier.
- Using a flat blade, cut open the outer layers of sellotape/string and brown paper/plastic. This ensures you won't damage the bass or anything contained inside.
- Once the outer layer is removed, do the same with any other layers of wrapping the case/bag has around it.
- Most basses come in a box, case or soft gig-bag. Once you have reached this, gently ease open the case or box and then remove any packing such as polystyrene pellets or cardboard. Make sure this is then disposed of safely to make sure that animals or children don't come to harm, and that it is generally tidier.
- Gently remove the bass and check it using the checklist above.
- Once this is done, you can then begin tuning and playing!
Other things you may wish to consider buying.
As a new bassist, you may need (or want!) some other speciallised equipment. This is available through the internet, music shops and through the manufacturers themselves.
- Amps- electric basses are incapable of making any loud noise without one of these. The loudness and power of the amp is measured in watts. A beginner's amp may be 50watts, whilst a gigging bassist may need 500watts or more. Some basses come with these, especially the beginners' packs, but otherwise they can be picked up at most guitar and music shops for about £60 new. You will also need a connector cable for your bass to connect it to the amp.
- Tuners- These help a bassist tune quickly, although some bassists tune by ear or using a piano. A CHROMATIC tuner is capable of tuning any instrument, whilst a guitar tuner can be used only with basses and guitars. These can be used either by using the in-built microphone, or by connecting it to the bass with the amplifier connection cord. The string is tuned by plucking the string, then adjusting the machinehead until the display shows the note you wish for.
- Tuition books and music books- There are literally thousands of books to teach bass. Some place emphasis on playing whole pieces from the start, whilst others are more step-by-step. Many bassists including professional bassists are self-taught. It is a good idea to go to a music shop and ask them about tuition books if you are unsure. There are also websites and DVDs available. It is generally a good idea to use the step by step methods for theory and practical knowledge, particularly where you may wish to join a ban
. Music for bassists comes in 2 forms. There is traditional music with the bass clef, or tablature. Tab is a visual representation of a bass, with the four lines representing the four strings, E on the bottom line, G placed at the top of the stave. The number tells you which fret you need to place your finger on to make that note. Which you choose is a matter of personal preference, although jazz bassists need a knowledge of traditional music staves, whilst most popular and rock music is written in tab. Many bass magazines give both in their transcriptions.
4. Straps and picks- many bassists choose to have a decorative strap on their bass. This is dependant on personal choice. Also important is a pick. Some bassplayers choose a pick because the sound produced is louder,and many styles such as rock need this louder sound. Some prefer to use their fingers, which is known as fingerstyle. Again it is all about personal preference and style.
5. Cases- you should receive one with your bass if you are lucky but otherwise this is important, as the case provides protection from the heat, sunlight and dust, which can be ruinous to your bass. These come in three types-
Hardshell- these are cases that are usually made from metal, plastic or wood,and as the name suggests, are hard, so your bass is completely protected from knocks and bumps. This is the more expensive option of the three.
Buy if- you need to travel with your bass (to lessons, the music shop etc....).
Don't buy if- you need something light (these tend to be quite heavy), you are buying for a child or you do not wish to travel.
Softshell- This is the complete opposite of the hardshell cases. These tend to be made from fabric or soft plastics, and work out cheaper. These are also more common than the harder cases.
Buy if- you are buying for a child (they are lighter, and usually come with a backpack-type strap, if you do not want to travel much with the instrument, or you need something more portable (again, most of these have shoulder straps).
Don't buy if- the bass is to be carried for long distances. There is also a risk the fabric can be worn away and so these cases don't last as long as hard ones.
There are plenty of magazines specifically catering for bassists. The main ones are usually a mixture of equipment reviews, interviews with bassists and tution/transcriptions of songs. These are a good idea to read and look at, even before you buy a bass even. This will be a good way to see if something interests you.
- It will give you good tution topics and pictorial lessons, which may suit some better.
- You can gain a good view of what to buy, and many will have adverts in, and so you can find places to buy instruments.
- It is also necessary as a bassist to be familliar with famous bassists and some bands to consider- you may wish to learn some songs' basslines once your confidence grows.
Hopefully this guide gives the basics of choosing a bass and all the equipment to accompany it. Once you have found your perfect beginners bass, it should give you the best tuition time ever and be a delight to play. Happy bass playing!