Don’t ever underestimate the importance of the bass. We all know guitar players who put a silly hat on and surround themselves with dozens of effects pedals. And then does his or her ‘rock star’ bit. If they went home, it all would just carry on without them. Take away the bass and see what happens. A someone once said, “no bass equals a trainwreck.”
No matter what music you play, the bass is vital. So if this is your first bass, then understand the importance of your role. And if you are new to it, which is why I presume you are here, you might need a little help. This Bass Guitar Buyer’s Guide is here to do just that.
I will be dealing here with four-string basses. If you are a starter or an early beginner, in my view, it’s better to stick with them.
Where Did I Come From and Why Am I Here?
Not the age-old philosophical question, but we haven’t always had bass guitars. They are a recent innovation. In the 50s, the early rock ‘n’ rollers and the jazz bands had upright basses. Check out Joe Mauldin on early Buddy Holly clips. But as bands got louder, the bass got lost, no matter how hard you hit it.
Enter the Man
Enter Leo Fender. He came up with a masterpiece. It was such a masterpiece that, in my view, it is still the best bass guitar ever made. Don’t get me wrong, not all Fender Precision bass guitars are good. They have produced some very bad ones, in the US as well as overseas. You need to be careful what you buy.
I have had four of them. Three US and one Japanese. I got rid of two of the American ones, which were not so good. My 1962 is special, and my 70s Japanese model is very good.
And the rest followed
The arrival of the Precision changed things. And started a frantic charge by manufacturers to make more and different designs. There were some good ones. The Hofner Violin Bass was one. I had one of those as well. Excellent, but too much feedback. Great for the studio for some genres, not all.
But let’s talk about the bass guitar itself.
There will be a few choices. The first is a short-scale or long-scale. That does depend to a certain extent on you. Long scale basses like the Precision are about 34 inches in length. Short-scale basses are about 30 inches.
To give you a little perspective. If you are coming from the guitar on to bass, the scale length of a Strat is a bit less than 26 inches.
The Short Scale
Apart from length, there are quite a few differences. I have a 1968 Gibson EB0. It is so easy to play. Nice thin neck, not too much of a reach down the fingerboard. It is lightweight compared to a Fender.
Distance between the frets is shorter, and the string tension is lower, which makes it easy to play. For young musicians or older people with smaller hands, a short scale is a great choice.
Not many, really. The short neck means that the vibration length of the string is reduced. This alters the timbre and the feel. It will therefore sound a little different. Also, it is hard to use drop tunings because there isn’t enough tension in the strings.
They are a practical solution for younger people and those with small hands, as I have said. And some of them are great bass guitars. But if there is no real reason for getting one, I would go with the long scale. Why have I got a short scale then? Long story.
The Long Scale
As the name suggests and as we’ve already said, 34 inches in length. They often have a neck that is a little wider. We shall discuss the necks a little later. The sound is the important thing.
Long scales will have a sound that is more defined, especially at the top end. One of the advantages of a long scale bass guitar is that the sound will generally be fatter and rounder.
Long scales are naturally heavier and more unwieldy. The distance between frets and higher string tensions can make it more difficult for a beginner. They don’t suit young learners or people with a short reach.
Fretted or Fretless
There are both options to choose from. However, if you are not familiar with the bass, starting with a fretted one is most definitely my recommendation. On a fretted bass, the notes will be easier to find. The real benefit of a fretless bass is the sound. But in the early stages, that shouldn’t be an issue.
What Is It Made From?
This can have an impact on the sound of the bass. Some woods are better than others. Alder is often used as it produces a nice tone. Mahogany has a warm sound and helps the lower frequencies. It is, though, very heavy.
Basswood is preferred by bassists who like to play fast patterns as the sustain is very short. There are some other commonly used woods like Agathis and Ash. They are similar to Basswood.
There is one wood that stands out, though. Maple is the best wood for the body of a bass. It gives a sharp and crisp sound with loads of sustain. You can hear it on the Rickenbacker 4001 and 4003 models. Both are made from solid Maple. Maple body guitars are often preferred by session players. They are, though, very heavy.
If You Are Learning
Then you won’t need to worry too much about the tonewood. That is the wood the body is made from. In many cases, lightweight wood would be better. Alder or Basswood is probably best. An added advantage is that they are both quite cheap. However, a quick overview needs to be part of any bass guitar buyer’s guide.
An important area. We have already touched on the neck when talking about the scale length. There are differences, as I have mentioned, about length, frets, etc.
There are shapes of the neck that have been produced over the years. The shape refers to the back of the neck, not the playing side. Now, this is quite important. Unfortunately, they are not all the same, even when they are described as being so.
Eight, yes eight
There are eight bass guitar neck shapes. We aren’t going to describe all of them as there isn’t enough space here. The most common is the ‘C’ shape. This is what is found on virtually all Fender basses.
The other common shapes you may find are the ‘V’ and the ‘U.’ If you are new to playing, try to avoid them. They take a bit of extra work to play. The ‘D’ shape is a newer shape, similar to ‘C’ but a little flatter at the back.
But even the ‘C’ can vary. No guitar will ever be exactly the same. That is what gives them their “feel.” The key is you. Does it feel right when you put your hand on it? Try the ‘C’ and the ‘D’; it will probably be one of them.
Two Design Styles
It won’t matter to a starter so much, but there are two bass guitar design styles. There is the ‘bolt-on’ neck and the ‘thru-the-body.’ As you might imagine, the bolt-on does just that. The thru-the-body runs the length of the body.
The benefits are simple. The bolt-on ones are easier to change if there is a problem. The thru-the-body gives a little more sustain to the sound. Probably not things you have to worry about at this stage.
These create your sound, turning the vibrations of the string into electrical signals. This is an area where there is often great debate. There are the traditionalists who prefer the original single-coil, or split-coil pickups, on the first and some of the later Fender’s.
These create a defined sound. Sharp and Crisp, they can attack if need be but also have a mellow, warm sound.
The problem with those pickups is they can hum at times. The humbucker was created to get rid of the hum. In doing so, the sound changed, and they produced a much thicker sound. Not always a good idea for a bass guitar.
There will be advocates for both sounds. As a first-time user, this will be an area you should pay attention to. Go in the shop and try both, split-coil and humbucker. It will be down to what you prefer.
A Little More, but Unfortunately More Money
You will probably have realized your bass is not acoustic. You are going to need an amp. They can be expensive, but you don’t need three hundred effects and every bell and whistle you can get. You are not a guitar player. Something simple will do. You can always upgrade before you go to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time.
Here are some suggestions for equipment. I have chosen good quality stuff but at a cost-effective price.
Long Scale Bass with amp:
Short scale bass:
And if you need to buy a practice amp:
Looking for a Great Bass Guitar?
We can help you find the perfect one, so check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Beginner Bass Guitars, the Best Short Scale Bass Guitar, the Best Left-Handed Bass Guitar, the Best Bass Guitars, the Best 5-String Bass Guitars, the Best Acoustic Bass Guitars, and the Best Bass Amps you can buy in 2023.
Also, take a look at our comprehensive Sterling by Music Man StingRay Ray4 Review, our Ibanez GSR200 Review, and our Fender American Professional Precision Bass Review for more great bass guitars currently on the market.
Bass Guitar Buyer’s Guide – Final Thoughts
There are some other less costly things to consider. You should get yourself a decent guitar stand and also a case if you intend to carry it around. Some will come with a bag. That is a manufacturer’s gesture. Get a case, a hardshell case.
A chromatic tuner would also be a good idea, and you will need a strap to play standing up. You may get some of those items in a ‘bundle.’ That may be a part of your deal when you get the guitar.
Have a great time choosing and an even better one playing.