Modern music has gone leaps and bounds and there's no denying the importance of the bass guitar. Part rhythm, part melody, a bass fills up the music and helps create textures that make the sound the bands we love so much. This Buying Guide covers critical information that can help you choose the right bass guitar for your needs. There’s a lot to consider when purchasing a bass guitar, so please don’t hesitate to call your product experts at 1-800-200-6930.
A number of factors determine the tonal properties of wood. Most luthiers believe that the wood chosen for the top is the single most important factor in determining the quality of tone of the instrument. It is also interesting to note that the wood itself takes on different characteristics depending on which part of the bass guitar it’s used for. But wood species can be responsible only for certain aspects of the tone of any guitar. Equally important are design, skill of the maker, and the quality of the wood used. Tonewood selection, however, can be a determining factor in the creation of a very special guitar, or a guitar designed for a specific purpose.
Ash and Alder
As ash and alder are extremely similar, both provide sustain and evenly balanced tone that is resonant and rich in harmonic overtones. The most common reason that guitar makers choose ash is because of its more attractive grain, which is apparent under a transparent or semi-transparent finish.
Many wonderful entry-level basses made from agathis since it is relatively inexpensive. Tonally, it is a medium between ash/alder and mahogany, resonating with a rich tone that emphasizes the lower midrange over the upper.
Mahogany basses are best generalized as sounding warm and full bodied. The medium density and low resonance of mahogany gives the lower register of the bass guitar a pronounced emphasis and rolls off the snappier string attack that you would get with an ash or alder body.
Basswood is a favorite body wood for bassists who play a wide range of music. An interesting quality of basswood is its extreme softness, which readily absorbs vibrations. It has a shorter sustain, making it ideal for fast or more complex playing techniques.
Maple is a very dense wood, producing phenomenal sustain and a bright, crisp tone. Many bassists and recording engineers swear by maple because of the clarity and definition it gives bass guitars.
It’s tempting to say that if you need to ask, you’re better off sticking to a traditional 4-string bass. Regular 4-string basses have, by design, much narrower necks than 5- or 6-string basses and are tuned in standard E-A-D-G format; this makes them easier to handle and to learn to play on. However, there are some styles of music that favor 5-string basses. Modern worship music and country seem to have more songs that root in B, therefore its B-E-A-D-G tuning is ideal. Regardless of style, 5- and even 6-string basses give bass players more room to expand creatively. Particularly if you perform a lot of bass solos, a 6-string bass, tuned B-E-A-D-G-C, will let you pull off some fancier tricks.
There are two different fretboard layouts to choose from when you’re looking for a bass guitar: fretted and fretless. A fretted neck is the standard guitar neck, with steel frets dividing each half-step of the chromatic scale. This makes finding the correct notes much easier, especially if you are just starting out on the instrument. A fretless bass, however, features a neck that does not have steel frets; it’s just smooth wood, similar to an upright bass or violin. While many bass players believe that fretless basses offer a smoother, warmer sound, the pitch of the note you’re playing completely relies upon your finger position. Skilled players rely on muscle memory to place their hand in the proper position, but practice always makes perfect.
If you’re looking for a bass guitar, but you don’t want to be slave to an amp, then an acoustic bass might be for you. With all of the same characteristics of an acoustic 6-string guitar, an acoustic bass produces sound through a resonant hollow body. This allows you to play unplugged with a full-bodied, robust sound, which is sometimes more appropriate for acoustic music. However, many different models of acoustic-electric bass guitars exist, giving you the hollow-body sound of an acoustic bass with the ability to plug in to an amp for additional volume.
There are two kinds of bass guitar pickups to choose from. Passive pickups, which have been around since the beginning of the electric bass, provide you with a dynamic sound and a warm, full tone. The downside to passive pickups is that they give you less overall control over the tone of your instrument. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if you like fat and punchy, passive pickups are for you.
Active pickups are a much newer development than passive pickups. Many modern bassists consider them the coolest thing since sliced bread; others find them to be almost heretical. The tone that active pickups produce on a bass guitar is bright, percussive, and clear. Additionally, active pickups include a built-in battery-powered preamp, producing a much higher output than passive pickups. You must remember to periodically change the battery.
Some controversy exists about which construction style is best for bass guitars. The bolt-on neck design is the more common and traditional construction method in which the neck is a separate piece of wood that’s bolted onto the body. There are some important advantages of this design, including the ability to replace the neck if it’s damaged.
In a neck-though-body design, the bass guitar’s neck wood actually spans the entire length of the instrument. Neck-through bodies tend to provide greater sustain and more direct energy transfer. These basses are made of several pieces of wood that have been glued together. One upside of this design is that the wood is usually of extremely high quality, which in itself increases the quality of the instrument.
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