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How Do I Know Which Bass Guitar I Should Buy?

The single most important question to ask yourself before buying a bass is: “What do I want in a bass?” The following are some key points to consider when choosing your new instrument:

  • Feel: The bass needs to feel good to you. Actually, it needs to feel good to your hands. You don’t have to be an expert to determine whether a bass is right for you. Just pick it up and play a few notes. If the bass responds to your touch and doesn’t feel awkward or stiff, it’s a good candidate.

    Play lots of different basses when you shop so you have some way of comparing the different models. Play a high-end model for comparison, as well. And then see whether you can find a less expensive model that feels similar.

  • Sound: The bass needs to sound good to you and to the people you play with. It needs to have a clear, clean bottom end (low frequencies) If you want to alter the tone of the bass and dirty it up, fine. But make sure that you start out with a clean bottom, er, tone.

  • Looks: Looks are a distant third behind feel and sound. Don’t sacrifice tone or playability for looks. You can always have the bass refinished. Of course, if possible, pick a bass you also enjoy looking at (or rather, you enjoy being seen with).

Here’s a really good piece of advice: Don’t settle. If you find a bass that sounds great but doesn’t feel good in your hands, don’t buy it. If you find a bass that feels wonderful but sounds like a buzz saw, don’t buy it. You can have the best of both worlds; you just have to look for it.

Thinking long-term

Some fledgling bassists feel that they have to earn that special bass. Don’t buy into that line of thinking.

You need to determine only whether your level of commitment is strong enough, and nobody knows that better than you. If you’re convinced you’re going to be playing bass for the rest of your life, or at least for the next few years or so, get the best bass you can afford. A great bass encourages you to play more, which in turn makes you a better player.

In the long run, buying a good instrument right from the start is more cost-effective than constantly trading in mediocre instruments without ever buying the one you really want. Every time you trade in a used bass, you lose money. Make your bass yours, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.

Thinking short-term

If you aren’t sure that you want to be a bassist, or if you’re just temporarily filling the bass chair for a band, go for a bass that feels good and has a good tone, but don’t break your bank account.

You can choose from a wide variety of bass guitars in the economy price range, and some of them are quite good. If you find that bass playing is growing on you, you can always get a better one later and keep the first one as a backup.

How many strings do I need?

Today’s bassists face a variety of choices when selecting a bass. Not only do you have a huge selection of brand names to consider, but you also have to decide whether to buy a traditional four-string bass or go for the extended range of a five-string bass, six-string bass, or beyond.

In the mid-1970s, Anthony Jackson — a top New York City session player best known for his work with Steely Dan, Chaka Khan, and Paul Simon — conceived of, and had luthier Carl Thompson build, a six-string contrabass guitar with an extra high string and an extra low string.

Soon after, other players saw his design and adapted the idea of adding a lower fifth string to compete with the extra low sounds of the keyboard bass on records. The resulting five- and six-string configurations allow bassists to reach lower notes for groovy, synth-like (or synthesizer-like) bass lines, the high notes for clearer soloing and filling, and everything in between.

To determine how many strings your bass guitar should have for the styles of music you want to play, figure out whether you need to venture into the extreme low and high registers frequently.

If you play a lot of dance or hip-hop, a five-string bass with its extra low string may be right for you. If you want to get into fusion jazz, a six-string bass may be the answer for extensive soloing on the high string. However, a four-string bass can fulfill the bass function just as well for any genre. So, the number of strings becomes a question of personal preference.

[Credit: Photo by Steven Schlesinger]
Credit: Photo by Steven Schlesinger

To fret or not to fret

Fretless basses, which have no frets on the fingerboard, have a distinctive sound. When you play a fretless bass, you press the string directly onto the wood, just as you would on an upright, or double, bass. In place of the frets, the neck has markers either on the top, where the frets would be, or on the side of the fingerboard.

If you’re just beginning to play and you’re buying your first bass, don’t get a fretless bass. A fretted bass is easier to play in tune; its frets cut off your string precisely at the correct note, whereas on a fretless bass your fingers are responsible for finding the correct intonation.

You may consider a fretless bass as your second bass when you reach the intermediate level or beyond. You may even want to use a fretless bass as your primary instrument after you become a more seasoned player.

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