HOW TO CHOOSE AN ELECTRIC BASS (A.K.A. BASS GUITAR):

For first-time bass purchasers:

It’s time…you’ve got your tax refund, some birthday money from Aunt Edna, or you found a duffel bag of money in the crawl space under your house, and you’ve decided you want an electric bass. What is it that made you want to play bass? Was it Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, sneering from behind his blood- and sweat-soaked Fender Precision? Or was it the intricate jazz basslines of fusion innovator Jaco Pastorius, soloing on his fretless FenderJazz Bass? Whatever your reason, you want a bass.

The next step is to find your “soul mate”: the bass that feels right, has the tone you want, and the look you want. But how do you find that instrument? You have to be ready to spend some time looking if you really want to find “your” bass. If you just buy the first instrument that falls in your path, you might not get the best value for your hard-earned money, and you might not get the features you need for the style of music you play.

What type of bass should I buy?

When you first walk into a music store, the first thing you will be struck by is the huge choice of basses. There are wooden basses, plastic basses, hollow-body basses, fretless basses, four-string basses (the most common type), five-string basses, and even six-string basses. They come in a huge array of colours and finishes, from varnished wood to metallic paint, and the bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes ranging from the curvy, rounded lines of the classic Fender Precision to the angular, edgy look of basses designed for metal bassists.

Our practical side makes us want to say “looks don’t matter; its the quality of the wood, the pickups, and the workmanship that counts”. Yet if you truly want to fall in love with your instrument, and practice it, and get good at playing it, you do have to really like the look of the bass!

In addition to finding a good-looking instrument, you also need a well-built instrument that has a good, consistent tone and sound. The weight of the instrument has to be comfortable when the bass is strapped on over your shoulder, and the controls need to be easy to access. As well, the instrument has to be well-suited for the style of music you play. (For more details, see the section below on Trying out instruments).

Confused by all the choices?: If you really find the huge range of choices too confusing, a safe bet for your first bass is a four-string, fretted bass with a solid body, a bolt-on neck, a volume control and a tone control, and the classic, curvy Fender Precision-style body shape. You could play a bass like this in a folk group, a jazz trio, a metal band, or pretty much any other style of music. As far as reputable brands, there are a number of brands with reputations for quality that date back decades, plus some newer brands that have also earned a good reputation–ask the salesperson for advice.

Where to buy?

Should you buy a bass at the same store you bought your electric can opener? These days, in addition to finding basses at music stores such as your trusty neighbourhood Spaceman Music store (or online from www.Spaceman Music.com), you can buy an electric bass from a department store or a electronics store. The low prices of the instruments at your local department store or electronics store may be appealing, but remember that the prices are so low for a good reason. These are typically “no-name” basses made from soft plywood which use cheap pickups and slipshod assembly methods. They tend to have thin, hollow tone and poor sustain, and the wiring and knobs are prone to breakdowns.

There are several good reasons to buy musical instruments from a music store, rather than a department store or an electronics store. At a music store, the staff have can answer your questions about music gear and choosing instruments, and you will have a good range of instruments to choose from. As well, a proper music store will have guitar repair staff who will set up and adjust the instrument for you before you take it home.

When choosing a music store, you should try to find a store that is OK with you trying out several different instruments. If you go to music stores that pay commission to sales staff, the staff may pressure you into making a quick purchase (or into buying a bass that is more expensive than you originally wanted).

Consider a used instrument: There are several good reasons to consider getting a used instrument. For the same price as a new, cheaply-made “no-name” instrument, you can buy a used instrument from a trusted, well-known instrument manufacturer, which will have a better-quality wood body and pickups, which means better tone.

It is safer to buy used instruments from a music store with a good return/exchange policy. If you buy a used electric bass from a private seller (eBay, Craigslist, etc.) or from a pawnshop, even if the neck cracks open the second day you are using it, you are often stuck with the instrument. At Spaceman Music, all store-owned guitars and basses carry a 6-month warranty. (Consignment items do not have a warranty, but they can be brought back during 3-day period after the sale for a full refund if the guitar is defective).

Trying out instruments:

Getting set up: Try out a variety of different instruments in your price range, to see if you can hear and feel the differences between the instruments. Since you will probably be playing the instrument standing up in a band, you should try out instruments this way. As well, by standing up with the instrument on a strap, will you be able to feel if the bass is too heavy and find out if it is well-balanced. If you come into Spaceman Music, just ask a friendly staffer (or, if it is early on Monday morning, a tired staffer) to help get you set up with a bass and an amp.

Plug your bass into a mid-sized bass amp, rather than a $2,000 bass stack that is six feet high, because a mid-sized amp will give you a more reasonable sense of the sound you will get on your own amp. When you change basses to try different models, keep trying them on the same amp, because if you switch both the bass and the amp, you won’t know what aspects of the tonal change came from the bass.

Take the basses for a test drive: Take a few basses in your price range and try them out. If you don’t feel that you know enough about the instrument yet to play it, ask a more experienced friend to come with you and do the bass playing for you. Another option is to ask a staffer from the store to play a few basses for you.

Pluck a note, and then play with the knobs and switches and see if you can hear the different tones that are created, from twangy and bright to deep and dark. These controls usually control volume, tone, and the selection or mix between the different pickups. If you don’t know what a knob or switch does, ask the sales staff to explain it. Do not think that “more knobs is better”. It is better to have a bass with good, solid tone with only a single volume knob, than a bass with weak tone and five knobs and switches (This rule also applies to bass amps, where some bassists think that more knobs and flashing LED lights is better).

Play a low riff starting on the lowest, thickest string, and then play it starting at higher and higher notes on the bass, so that you try out all of the different ranges of the instrument. When you play high notes and then hold them down, does the note sustain, or does it just die out quickly? If a high note cuts out too quickly, it could be that the neck needs adjustment. The volume and tone controls need to be easy to access, and the knobs should turn smoothly.

Depending on how you play the bass, and on the style of music you play, some basses may suit you more than others. For example, some players who play mostly fingerstyle like basses where they can anchor the thumb of the plucking hand on one of the pickups. As well, the necks of electric basses have different contours on the back of the neck where your thumb glides along: ask the salesperson to show you basses with different neck types, so that you can feel which one seems most natural for your hand.

Copyright 2009: Spaceman Music

Intermediate to advanced bassists who are moving up:

Separate needs from wants:

Now that you are moving up to a more serious bass, you will be looking at the higher-end basses in the store. When you are trying out basses, beware of “falling in love” with a bass that meets your wants, but which does not meet your needs. If you’re not careful, the bass you fall in love with may have a beautiful, hand-rubbed wood finish and a unique body shape, but it may not give you the options and versatility that you need for your band or music projects. So you have to try and keep a rational head on your shoulders, and think about what you need for the future.

Needs you might have…

•     Going deep: Do you want to get into funk, latin, or a style of metal where bassists use really low notes to anchor their basslines? Then you might want to consider a five-string bass, which has a rumbling low “B” string.
•     Flying high: Do you want to soar into the upper ranges of the instrument? You might want to try an instrument with an extended fretboard and/or a deeper “cutaway” in the body to make it easier to get the high notes.
•     Quick-change: Do you need to be able to create a lot of different tonal variation from the same instrument? You may want to consider an instrument with several different pickups and a pickup selection switch (or a pickup mixer knob, to create different blends). You might also consider an instrument with an “active” onboard equalizer (EQ).
•     Natural tone: If you want a woody, natural tone that fits in well in a folk, country, or roots rock group, you might want to consider an acoustic bass guitar, a hollowbody bass guitar, or a semi-hollowbody bass guitar that uses piezoelectric pickups.
•     Long-lasting: Do you want longer-lasting sustain for held notes? A neck-through-body bass will give you longer sustain than a standard bolt-on neck bass.
•     Naked fretboard: The fretless bass has no metal frets on the neck, which allows players to produce an expressive upright bass-like sound.

Consider going vintage:

There are a lot of good reasons to consider having your main “axe” be a vintage bass. To become a working pro or session bassist, in addition to playing well, you need an instrument with solid tone that will record well and sound good onstage. Vintage electric basses from well-respected makers tend to have be made with higher-quality wood and better pickups than the modern re-issued versions of the same instrument. As well, if an instrument has lived through fifteen or twenty winters without warping and cracking, this shows you that its wooden body and neck has stood the test of time.

One of the benefits to coming to Spaceman Music is that we carry vintage basses, in addition to brand new instruments, so you can compare the sound of vintage vs. new instruments.

Versatility:

if you are taking bass seriously, and you want to start doing recording work, and become a working bassist, you need a versatile instrument. On a recording session, a producer might ask for a deep, low reggae tone; a dirty, twangy punk-influenced tone; and a smooth, round country tone–all in the same afternoon. As well, as a working bassist playing in the backup band for a singer, you might get asked to recreate bass tones for cover tunes from many different styles. This means that your bass needs to give you a variety of tonal options. You may want to consider an instrument with several different pickups and a pickup selection switch (or blender), and/or an “active” onboard equalizer.

by Nathan Morris for Spaceman Music Corp.
Copyright 2009: Spaceman Music