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All basses work the same, whether they are conventional or radical in style. You want a bass that balances well on your shoulder, isn't too heavy, and has the right look and sound for the kind of music you play. The most important thing about the look of a bass is that you like it. The more it fits you and your music, the more you'll play and enjoy it.
In recent years, many very affordable "starter" basses have become available. Many of these are very playable. They aren't as elaborately finished as more expensive basses. They will have pickups and hardware of lesser quality yet they are quite playable and will take you through the early stages of learning to play the bass. For players uncertain of their talent or sustained interest, these lower-cost instruments let them give bass a try without a big investment. If you are more sure that your interest will be long term, it might be better to go a little higher in price and quality. You won't outgrow the instrument too quickly, and an intermediate bass can also make the learning process a little easier.
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. The advantage of the five-string is that it goes lower, down to a B. Modern funk and pop often use these lower notes for a heavy bottom. The six-string bass extends the instrument's scale on both ends.
Solidbody basses are the most common type of electric bass. In better instruments, these bodies are often made of a solid piece of wood—alder, maple, swamp ash, mahogany, or some other wood that transfers vibration well. In lower-priced basses, the bodies may be made of ply, softer woods, or pressed woods. There are even basses with plastic bodies.
Hollowbody basses have a hollow body like an acoustic guitar but use the same magnetic pickups as the solidbody basses. They are used mostly by jazz and folk players, and for music that is quieter and requires a more acoustic-like tone. A famous hollowbody, the Hofner violin-shaped "Beatle" bass, is an example of a hollowbody used for rock music. Hollowbody basses have the advantage of being lighter, but they usually are more limited in the volume they can produce because they feed back more easily than solidbody basses. There are also a few semi-hollowbody basses, with a solid center and hollow outer halves of the body.
Another type of hollowbody bass is the acoustic-electric. This is really an acoustic instrument with a piezo pickup that allows it to be amplifed. Most often a piezo pickup will be located under the bridge, while an onboard preamplifier allows tonal adjustments when played plugged-in.
Most bass necks are made of hard maple or mahogany because these are strong woods that will handle the tension put on the neck by the strings. Usually necks are made of a single piece of wood, but sometimes multiple pieces of different types of woods are laminated together for greater strength and rigidity.
Any neck will eventually bend a little from string tension, making the fretboard bow a little. For this reason, bass necks are usually fitted with a truss rod, sometimes two, that allows you to straighten the neck or to add curvature.
Fretboards are usually made of rosewood, maple, or ebony. All are excellent woods for the purpose but can vary in quality. The best fretboards are smooth, hard, and dense so that they wear slowly. Fretboards are usually arched side to side. This arching is called the radius, referring to an imaginary circle that would be formed if the arch of the fretboard were extended to make a circle. Fretboards on some basses will be close to flat, while others may have a radius as short as ten inches. The shorter the radius, the more pronounced is the side to side arch of the fingerboard.
Most basses have necks that bolt onto the body. The number and pattern of the bolts is a consideration. You want your bass to have bolts that will keep the neck stable and not allow it to shift up or down. You also want a solid, tight connection between the neck and the body. It is also good to have more rather than less overlap of neck and body for greater stability and better vibration transfer.
There are a few basses with set necks, meaning that the neck is permanently attached to the body with a mortise or dovetail joint rather than bolted to it. A set neck has the advantage of greater sustain and resonance, but isn't as easily adjusted as a bolt-on neck.
The thru-body neck is often found in step-up basses. This type of neck continues as one piece through the body. Wings are attached to each side of it to form the upper and lower parts of the body. With a thru-body neck there is no joint between the neck and body that can inhibit vibration, resulting in better response and sustain.
Scale is the distance between the nut (the notched piece between the fretboard and the headstock) and bridge where the string anchors at the other end. The most common scale length is 34". There are a few shorter-scale basses, such as the Fender Mustang or the Gibson EBO, that are around 30". These shorter-scale basses are a good choice for young players with small hands who may have trouble with a standard-size instrument. A long-scale neck usually has a 35" scale. This longer scale gives you a few more frets, but it is most often used for five- and six-string basses because it improves string tension and minimizes floppiness on the low string.
If you are just getting started, it's probably best to delay purchase of a fretless bass. intonation on these basses relies on very precise fingering and good ears. It's best for novices to let the frets do the work of keeping the notes accurate. Once you develop some basic skills, you may want to have a fretless as a second instrument. Once you get the hang of a fretless, it has a fluid quality much like an upright double bass that is wonderful for certain kinds of music.
The better bridges are made out of brass, and are often plated with chrome or nickel silver. The thinking is that a bridge with more mass and weight will anchor the strings better and transfer more vibration from string to wood. The notched pieces that the string passes over are called bridge saddles, and these should be adjustable, both up and down and forward and back. By adjusting the saddles up or down you can make the strings lower and higher over the fretboard to change the action. By making slight adjustments in the length of the string (moving the saddle forward or back), you can improve the intonation of the instrument.
There are two basic types of pickups: single-coils and humbucking pickups, and a number of variations on these two. Single-coil pickups are the original type and the most simple. They have a thinner, clearer tone that cuts through a mix more easily. On the downside, they are noisier than humbucking pickups.
One common variation is the split-coil (the design found on the Fender Precision Bass). It is a single coil wired to function like a humbucker. Two halves of the pickup are separated and one side is reversed in polarity from the other. Thus, you get a tone that is closer to the single-coil sound, but with the quietness of the humbucker.
Humbucking pickups were created in an effort to cancel the hum or noise of the single-coil, but they also have a fatter sound in addition to being more free of noise. The humbucker can, however, get muddy at higher volumes.
Most basses have two pickups rather than one, which gives you greater tonal range. Pickups closer to the fretboard will have a smoother, bassier sound, while the pickup closer to the bridge will have an edgier sound with more treble and mid tones.
The terms active and passive refer to the preamp circuitry of the instrument. Active basses need power, usually provided by an onboard battery. The advantage of an active system is stronger output and more control over tone shaping. Active basses can have separate EQ controls divided into frequency bands, such as a low-, mid-, and high-frequency boost/cut controls. They can also have contour switches which instantly reshape the EQ profile. Some even have controls that let you change the wiring of your pickups on the fly from series to parallel, or a switch called a coil tap that deactivates one set of coils in a humbucking pickup to make it sound like a single-coil.
Passive systems operate without any power source and have fewer controls, usually a volume knob, a tone knob, and a blend control if there are two pickups. One advantage of the passive bass is that it doesn't depend on a battery that can die in the middle of a gig. Another is simplicity of operation, and they have a more traditional low-fi sound that some players prefer over the hi-fi active bass sound.
Here are a few guidelines (not rules) for the first-time bass buyer:
Action: the feel of how a bass plays in reference to the height of the strings over the fretboard. A lower action is easier to play because the strings do not have to be pressed down so far in order to make contact with the fret.
Intonation: For a bass guitar, intonation refers to the length of the 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.
For a detailed description of how to adjust intonation click here.
Piezo pickup: Certain crystals, ceramics, and polymers exhibit the phenomenon of piezoelectricity. Piezo means pressure in Greek, and piezo materials directly transform mechanical vibrations into electrical signals. Most under-saddle pickups are based on the piezoelectric effect.
Truss rod: The truss rod is a metal rod located inside of the neck. It is anchored at both ends and has an adjustment screw that tightens or loosens the tension it puts on the neck. More tension pulls the neck downward to counter bowing. Loosening the truss rod has the opposite effect. There are a variety of designs, many of which require removal of pickguard to access the adjustment screw. A few designs allow adjustment without unstringing or removing parts of the bass. Sometimes the adjustment screw is located at the top of the neck just beyond the end of the fretboard, sometimes at the headstock just beyond the nut.