Buying a guitar: Bass Guitars
Prepared by Alan Humm
Although the guitarrón is apparently not historically derivative from
the guitar. See the Wikipedia
This is indeed coincidental; other members of the viol family (violin,
viola, and cello) are tuned in fifths.
Guitarrón (photo: Marco Antonio Torres).
Historically, bass guitars are themselves a hybrid development. Before
the days of amplification, the instrument of choice was the bass viol,
although Mexican mariachi bands had long been using what is essentially
a bass guitar1 called a guitarrón (six strings,
fretless, tuned a fifth lower than a standard guitar). But the idea of
an electric bass instrument flowed fairly naturally from the invention
of the electric guitar, and the first such instrument was on the market
(developed by Paul Tutmarc) within the same five year period that saw
its first six-string cousins. Like the bass viol (unlike the guitarrón)
it had four strings, tuned in fourths (which coincidentally happens to
be like the bottom four strings of the guitar2). But like the guitar it
had frets and was intended to be played like a guitar (lap or strap).
Needless to say, it caught on.
Fender Precision Bass.
Epiphone (Gibson) SG Bass.jpg.
Since, unlike with the (standard) guitar, the first bass guitars were
electric, I will deal with them first. The pickup story is not hugely
different, so I will not re-tread that path. Current variations in
electric basses are also similar to guitar, but with some variation.
Fender makes bases with a 34" scale. Many other manufactures have
followed them down this path. Gibson standardized on a 30" scale. Some
others exist, especially the half-way 32" scale, which I first heard of
on the custom bass made for Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna)
by Alembic in the 1970s.
Jack Casady playing his Alembic bass.
So which is better? OK, you should know by now that I am not going to
tell you ☺. Since they are tuned the same, the longer scale generally
gives you a little more brightness (you can always get rid of it with
the tone control). In contrast, that makes the shorter scale somewhat
more growly. The scale difference also means that you can get away with
a slightly lighter gauge string on the longer neck basses.
However, depending on the size of your hand, the short scale is a little
easier to play in the range that most bass-players spend most of their
time. My first professional quality bass was a Fender (Precision), but
it did not take me very long to trade to the shorter scale. Now days I
am back on the long scale. Go figure. What you need to do, unless you
are already a bass player and you know what you like, is go the store
and try on different scales for feel (you may not find the 32"). Don't
even plug them in at this point, just look for how they feel to play.
Then you start plugging them in and seeing which ones sound good to you
(try more than one in each scale).
Fender Jazz Bass.
In the same 'feel' category is neck width. The Fender Precision bass has
a wider neck at the nut and widens slightly approaching the bridge. The
Gibsons are narrower all the way down (I think that is why I liked the
Gibsons better in my 20s). The Fender Jazz bass tries to live in both
worlds-narrow at the nut, wider by the time you get to the bridge (but
still with the 34" scale). Other makes each do their own thing; only you
will know what you like, and you may not find out until your second or
As with guitars, some models have built in pre-amps. If you don't want
that sound right now, or if your battery dies, some higher-end basses
may allow you to by-pass the preamp. As I mentioned earlier, also in the
high-end range, some come with piezo pickups along with the magnetic
ones to give you a wider frequency response when you want it.
What I said in the electric guitar portion about how necks are attached
applies here as well.
Schecter Five String Bass.
Finally, how many strings you get is something you need to ask. If you
are a beginner, I would probably recommend a four-string bass, which
continues to be the standard. If you have been playing for a while, you
should consider whether you want more. The extra string you get when you
go to five definitely gives you some useful low end. You should at least
give it a try. The loss, of course is that your neck gets wider. If you
have been playing a wide-neck bass already (like a P-bass), this will
probably mean that your strings get closer together than you have been
used to as well. You will have to see if you are comfortable with that.
Many quality players find that they are simply more comfortable with
four, and stay there&mdasy;or go back.
Six string basses are also available. I own one, but I don't necessarily
recommend them (I was enticed by the fact that the extra string only
cost $20 more). They definitely make your neck wider, and unlike with
the five string, the strings you use more often just got farther away.
If you play bass solos frequently, though, the extra high string can
come in handy. Play one and see if you like it. If you play out, borrow
one and see if you like it in a real world situation.
If you are really a guitarist who happens to be playing bass, you can
tune a six-string just like a guitar an octave and a fourth lower (some
people just do an octave lower, but you loose the advantage of the low B
string). If you are already a bass player, you will probably just tune
the high string to a C.
The guitarrón was actually the inspiration for the first commercially
available acoustic bass, made by Ernie Ball in the 1960s. They generally
have a weaker sound, but will work for playing around the living room,
and for practicing. Most (not all) also sport some sort of plugability,
using pickups of one variety or another, so they are still useful for
What I said about scale and neck width apply here as well, but I think I
would recommend against the shorter scales in acoustic basses. Without
the amplification, you are going to need those longer strings. Five and
six string offerings are also available.
Taylor AB Acoustic Bass.
A little before the turn of the millennium, Taylor put out an innovative
acoustic bass called the AB series which completely dropped my jaw. They
were loud and had decent tone quality. At least part of this was
doubtless because of the design which allowed the full lower bout to
sound, unlike the standard centered sound-hole design you usually see.
The image at right is from an e-bay listing. This is because they are not
made any more. They were plenty expensive, and I suspect that the market
simply couldn't bear the price, when you could easily pick up a
perfectly good one that sounded like a cardboard box for a tenth of the
Warwick Alien 5-String Acoustic Bass (fretless).
Tacoma used to make a similar design, called the 'Thunderchief.' It
fell a little short of the Taylor, but blew everyone else out
of the water (in my extremely humble opinion). When the company got
swallowed up by Fender, they sold off the stock and shut the series down.
You might be able to find some of these (or the Taylors) second hand,
but I think Warwick sill makes one (picture) that even sounds good in a
Ibanez Acoustic Bass.
Nevertheless, there are a ton of ordinary acoustic basses out there, so
unless you are really looking for the high end, there should be plenty
of options, such as this quite reasonably priced Ibanez.
Washburn Hybrid Bass.
You knew this was coming. From what I have been saying about acoustic
basses, I would probably consider most of them hybrids anyway. However,
no doubt there are some that are more so than others. Some, like this
one, will probably give you a better plugged in bass punch, and a little
less living-room, but you keep some of the acoustic sound, even plugged