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The five

What are the five key points I need to look at?

Number of Strings

Bass guitars come with either four, five or six strings. The four-string bass guitar is most common and the best choice if you’re just learning how to play. Five-string basses expand the lower range and a sixth string adds a higher range, preferred by classical and jazz musicians.

Body

Most bass guitar bodies are solid, but choose a hollow body if you’re looking for a more acoustic sound. Choose high-end woods like maple, alder or mahogany for the most efficient vibration transfer. Ply and softer woods are a better choice if you need to reduce the weight of the bass guitar and the strain on your body.

Neck

Bolt-on necks provide the advantage of being removable if there’s a problem or adjustments need to be made. Set bass guitar necks provide greater sustain and thru-body necks offer the greatest sustain, but increase price significantly. A 34-inch length of scale will be fine for most people. Look for short 30-inch necks if you have small hands or for children.

Fretboard

If you’re just learning how to play, stick to bass guitars with fretboards. Fretless bass guitars require precise fingering and a well-trained ear to master and are best left to experienced players.

Pick-ups

There’s no wrong choice when it comes to choosing from single-coil, split-coil and humbucker pick-ups. What you choose depends on the tone you want to hear when you play, but remember that you can use an amplifier to further manipulate the sound your bass guitar produces.

Shop talk

What are the terms and definitions I need to know about?

Action

The distance of the strings from the fretboard. Basses with lower action are easier to play, as less energy is needed to hold a string down.

Frets

The small metal rods that are placed in increments across the neck of a bass guitar. These are indicators of where to place your fingers to produce different notes and chords. The surface of the neck with the frets is often referred to as the fretboard or fingerboard.

Intonation

The length of a bass guitar’s strings relative to the position of the frets. Bad intonation refers to the detuning that occurs when the string is stretched as it is fretted.

Neck

The long, thin piece of wood that extends from the body of a bass guitar with the strings stretched across it.

Pick-ups

Small, round magnetic receptors that pick up string vibrations electronically and transfer them to the amplifier.

Scale

Scale is the distance between the nut at the top of the bass guitar neck and the bridge at the base of the body, which determines the length of the guitar string that vibrates when open or relaxed. The most common length of the scale for bass guitars is 34 inches.

Sustain

The ability of a bass guitar to capture and preserve the vibration of the strings.

Number of Strings

The first thing to consider when buying a bass guitar is the number of strings. Traditional bass guitars have four strings, but you can also buy five- or six-string instruments.  Novices will do best with a four-string bass guitar, which is the easiest to learn.

Five- and six-string bass guitars are best suited to experienced players; five strings extend the bass guitar’s lower range and the addition of a sixth string adds a higher range. Although five-and six-string bass guitars are generally used in jazz or progressive rock music where greater range is needed, it’s important to note that a four-string bass guitar doesn’t limit the kind of music that you can play.

Body

Looks matter. Why wouldn’t you want a bass guitar that makes you look like a rock star? But before you add that Flying V to your shopping cart, you’ll want to consider a few things. The body of a bass guitar is about function as much as aesthetic form.

First, you’ll need to decide whether you want a solid- or hollow-body bass guitar. The most common type of bass guitar is the solid body. Solid bodies are comprised of a single piece of wood, while hollow bodies have the body of an acoustic bass guitar. Hollow-body electric bass guitars also play more like acoustic guitars and are more often employed by jazz and folk musicians. 

No matter which body you choose for your bass guitar, the quality of the wood is important. Higher-end bass guitars are made from woods like alder, maple, swamp ash and mahogany, which transfer vibration more efficiently than lower-quality ply or soft woods. However, ply and softer woods reduce the weight of the bass guitar and the strain on your body when you play standing up. The rule of thumb is to select a bass guitar body that’s comfortable and offers the sound that appeals most to you.

Neck

There are three types of bass guitar necks: bolt-on, set, and thru-body. The most common type is the bolt-on neck. This simply means that the bass guitar neck and body are two separate pieces of wood, and the neck is literally bolted onto the body. This has its advantages if something goes wrong, since the neck can be detached. If you choose a bolt on, make sure that the neck is firmly attached to the body to allow for the best vibration transfer. 

A set bass guitar neck means that the neck and body are two separate pieces of wood and the neck is permanently attached. This construction allows for greater sustain, but adjustments can’t be made as easily as they can be with a bolt-on neck.

In a thru-body bass guitar neck, the neck and body are one piece of wood. A thru-body bass guitar neck allows for the greatest possible sustain, but you’ll pay for the construction—thru-body bass guitars tend toward the expensive. The scale on a bass guitar neck is the distance between the nut at the top of the neck and the bridge at the bottom of the body. The most common scale length is 34 inches. If you have small hands or you’re purchasing a bass guitar for a child, look for short scales around 30 inches. Five- and six-string bass guitars may offer scale lengths as long as 36 inches, and these longer scales allow for more frets. The width of a bass guitar neck varies, and what’s right for you will be determined by how it feels in your hand.

Fretboard

Frets are the little metal rods that are placed in increments down the neck of the bass.  When shopping for a bass, you may notice that these are absent in some models. These bass guitars are called “fretless.” Novices should stay away from purchasing a fretless bass until they have more experience on a fretted bass guitar. It takes years of playing a regular fretted bass guitar to develop the precise fingering  and well-trained ear needed to play a fretless bass guitar correctly.

Another thing to consider is the action, or the distance between the strings and the fretboard. Bass guitars with a high action have strings further away from the fretboard, which makes the bass more difficult to play. 

Pick-ups

Pick-ups are small, round magnetic receptors in the body of an electric bass guitar. Pick-ups are responsible for picking up the vibrations of the strings electronically and transferring them to the amplifier. Pick ups are a big part of what creates a bass guitar’s individual sound.

Most bass guitars have two pick-ups that can be alternated by a switch on the body.  Keep in mind that there is no “right” pick-up—what you choose will depend on what tone sounds best to your ear. Remember that when you purchase an electric bass guitar, you’ll need to buy an amplifier that can be used to further manipulate the sound your bass guitar produces.

Pick-ups can be single coil, split coil or humbuckers. Single-coil pick-ups have a clearer tone than humbuckers, but can be noisier. Humbuckers are designed to eliminate the noise created by single coil pick-ups, but they can sound muddy at higher volumes. Split-coil pick-ups are a compromise between single-coil and humbucker pick-ups and provide sound close to that of single coils, but without as much feedback.

Experts say

  • Electric Guitars Guide—“If you're looking for a warm, natural sound, you need a bass with an uncoated fingerboard. With a coated fingerboard the sound produced is whining and trebly and it sustains longer.” Source: Electric-guitars-guide.com
  • Houston Bass Lessons— “Most importantly I would advise you not to spend too much money on your first bass. Choosing the right bass won’t be easy until after you’ve been playing for a while. Once you have a good year of lessons behind you, you can make wiser choices with your (or your parents') money.” Source: Houston Bass Lessons
  • Musician’s Friend— “There are four-string, five-string, and even six-string basses. If you are starting out, go for a four-string. You can play pretty much anything on a four-string bass, and it's best not to complicate matters when you are just getting started.” Source: Musiciansfriend.com