The bass guitar is a cornerstone in the foundation of modern music. Whether it is creating powerful grooves that form the backbone of the music or creating fireworks with solos and unique effects, the bass guitar has found a role in nearly every genre of music.
With all of this popularity has come a huge wealth of bass manufacturers, models, and options.
For the beginner, all of the unfamiliar lingo and the sheer variety of options can be a bit confusing.
That’s why we’ve put together this guide to helping beginner and intermediate bass players find the best bass guitar to suit their needs. More advanced players might even find some advice they can incorporate into their next purchasing decision.
Let’s take a look at how to get the most for your money when picking out a bass guitar.
Table of Contents:
- I. The Bass Essentials
- II. Basic Terminology
- III. Bass Guitar Pickups: Active vs Passive
- IV. Don’t Forget Your Amp!
- V. Best Bass Guitars – Our Hot Picks
- VI. That’s A Wrap!
The Bass Essentials
The electric bass was first came to popularity in the 1950s. Leo Fender (of Fender Guitars fame) designed the first mass produced electric bass guitar.
Seeking to equip a modern-style guitar body with the low end of a traditional stand up bass, Fender stumbled on one of the most iconic instruments of the 20th century.
The style of these bass guitars, known as a “Precision Bass” remains widely copied down to today. The overall style of the Precision Bass has become the template for just about every bass guitar since.
While instruments like the upright bass had existed previously, the bass guitar revolutionized the low range by allowing musicians to delve deeper into the bass spectrum with greater fidelity than ever before.
This is all thanks to electronics. Equipped with a pickup and an amplifier, a bass guitar can move a lot of air, allowing the bassist to explore low tones that would be inaudible without the help of amplification.
You’re sure to encounter a few new terms if you’ve never bought a bass or a guitar before. Here’s a little glossary to help you out.
- Pickups: The pickup is what captures (picks up) the vibrations from a bass string and converts them into an electric signal. These are important for the overall tone of your bass.
- Wood or Tonewood: This refers to the type of wood the bass is made out of. Often, bass guitars will use several different types of woods for various parts of the instrument. It’s not uncommon for the Body, the Body’s Top, the Neck, and the Fretboard to all have different types of woods. Some feel strongly that the type of wood has strong impact on the instrument’s tone (Tonewood,) while others feel the impact of the wood choice is exaggerated.
- Number of Strings & Frets: How many Strings your bass has will affect the range of the instrument. A bass with more string can hit lower Typically a bass has 4, 5, or 6 strings. Similarly, the number of Frets affects the range of the instrument, but in this case, a bass with more frets can hit higher pitches. Most basses have 21, 22, or 24 frets.
- Tuning Gears & Intonation: The quality of a basses Tuning Gears will impact how well it stays in tune while being playing or stored. A bass with poor or damaged tuning gears will not stay in tune, causing a lot of headache. Intonation refers to how well the string stays in tune across the entire fretboard. In other words, an instrument with good intonation will have every note be in tune across the neck, whereas an instrument with poor intonation will only have some notes be in tune. Intonation can be adjusted to some degree, but certain instruments cannot be helped.
- Action: Action refers to the strings height above the fretboard. Action is perhaps the single most important factor in the playability of a bass guitar. Too high an action and the strings will require a huge amount of force to press down. Too low an action will result in the strings buzzing against the fretboard. Action is adjustable, but instruments with poor action can’t always be saved.
- Short vs Long Scale: This refers to the length of the instrument’s neck. The “scale” of a bass guitar is the distance between the nut (top of the fretboard) and the bridge (on the body, where the strings end.) A short scale bass has a 31” scale length, compared to a 34” long scale bass. For the player, the difference is the distance between frets, the physical size of the instrument, and its overall tone. For new players or players with smaller hands, short scale basses can be easier to play.
Bass Guitar Pickups: Active vs Passive
A major concern with any bass is whether it has active or passive pickups.
Passive pickups don’t require any electricity to work. They utilize magnets which pickup electromagnetic vibrations created from the bass string. All they do is dutifully pass that signal along.
Active pickups, on the other hand, require a bit of energy. Typically provided by a 9V battery, this little energy boost lets an active pickup slightly amplify the signal it’s sending out.
This also gives it an opportunity to alter the frequency response of the pickup along the way.
The result? More volume and more control over your tone.
But there’s a catch: you’ll need to keep fresh batteries in your bass. This can be a bit of a hassle, but many bass players find it more than worth it.
On the other hand, some purists swear by the sounds of old school passive pickups. Passive pickups produce much less volume and have less fidelity, but some prefer their old school sound.
You’ll have to experiment to see what suits you! Just remember that if you buy a bass with active pickups, you’ll need to have a 9V battery handy to get any sound out of.
Don’t Forget Your Amp!
Without an amplifier, a bass guitar isn’t very exciting at all. It doesn’t produce a lot of volume and you certainly couldn’t take it to a jam.
So don’t skimp when getting an amplifier. It will be a huge part – the main part, even – of your sound.
It will affect how your bass sounds, responds to your playing, and how much it inspires you to keep up practicing.
Best Bass Guitars – Our Hot Picks
Squier by Fender Vintage Modified Jaguar Bass Guitar
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This short-scale Squier is hard to beat as a beginner’s instrument. Based off of Fender’s classic Jaguar bass guitars, it has a classic look with an enduring appeal.
It also plays amazingly well, sounding and feeling like an instrument far above its price range.
The action across the Rosewood fretboard is great and well-suited to beginners just acclimating their muscles to playing. The Maple neck features a C-shaped profile which sits nicely in the hand.
Two pickups are included: a single-coil passive Jazz Bass pickup in the bridge and a nifty looking vintage inspired passive split-single coil middle pickup. These offer a nice diversity of tone, something you don’t often find on entry level bass guitars.
All in all, this is an awesome looking bass at a winning price. Excellent as a starter bass or a great practice instrument even for the more seasoned player.
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Ibanez 4 String GSR100EXMOL Bass Guitar
This entry-level bass from Ibanez boasts a beautiful natural wood mahogany oil finish and dead simple electronics.
With a single passive PDP4 pickup controlled by volume and tone knobs, this bass doesn’t have a tone of tonal versatility. What it does have is excellent play ability and a dependable tone that is excellent for a beginner to get off the ground or intermediate to advanced player to practice with.
If you’re looking for something that provides a bit of a break from the Fender-inspired visual aesthetic that pervades bass design, this is a great and exceptionally affordable option.
Epiphone “Toby” Standard Bass Guitar IV
This beautiful full sized long scale bass from Epiphone makes an excellent choice for a beginner looking for something to last them awhile, or an intermediate player who wants a reliable instrument.
Equipped with two powerful Tobias SCR and SCT active pickups, the “Toby” can deliver some pretty powerful bass lines and commands great volume and presence even from smaller bass amps. Further tone sculpting is achieved with the active pickup’s Tonexpressor controls, which let you adjust the pickups’ frequency response.
The 34” scale neck offers great intonation and play ability, especially for such an affordable bass.
This is an instrument that would do well in the practice room or even at a few gigs.
Fender 4 String Standard Precision Bass Guitar
The Fender Precision Bass, also known as the P Bass, is the definitive work horse instrument in the world of bass guitar. It has appeared on countless stages and innumerable recordings.
It is truly the sound of the P Bass that has defined the electric bass and laid the groundwork for so much incredible music.
Suffice to say, no serious bass player’s collection would be complete without at least one P Bass.
These modern P Basses have a few new nifty features, like a split-coil hum bucking pickup that can be used as a single-coil just by pulling the tone knob. This offers some exceptional versatility from a single pickup.
Of course, the classic tones are all still here, too. So is the feel. The C Shaped neck feels very natural to play, and the action can be adjusted liberally to find that sweet spot of zero buzz and buttery-smooth playing.
Yamaha TRBX605 5-String Bass Guitar
If you want to step up – or maybe we should say down – your game, this 5-string Yamaha adds an extra dimension of low end with an extra string.
Usually tuned to a low B, 5-string bass guitars have worked their way into many heavy metal and rock songs, as well as jazz and popular music.
But this Yamaha has more to offer than just an extra string. The included YGD H5 active pickups have a very clean and high fidelity tone that really brings every note to life. Between the two pickups and extensive active tone controls, there are a lot of great sounds in this bass.
Ibanez Bass Workshop SRFF805 Multi-Scale
If you’d like to test the waters of owning a higher-end bass without it costing an arm and a leg, the Ianez SRFF805 is an incredibly beautiful instrument at a reasonable price.
It’s also stacked with some incredible specs and sounds.
Making use of some rather unusual woods like Jatoba and Bubinga in the neck, this Ibanez has quite a unique look. The Ash wood body and gorgeously dark Rosewood fretboard round out the look for a very appealing look that runs off the beaten path.
For electronics, we find a set of Bartolini BH1 pickups set in the neck and bridge positions. These are active pickups and controlled by Ibanez’s own 3-band equalizer system for a huge range of control over your sound.
One of the more unique features of this model is its “multi-scale” design. This design improves intonation and reduces the overall tension on the neck by setting each fret at a slight angle. The result of this is the instrument’s thickest string being its longest, while the thinnest string is marginally shorter.
Though this “fanned” fret design might look unusual at first, it is remarkably comfortable to play after just a few moments and offers real benefits to the instruments intonation.
This is a bass anyone would be proud to own, no matter their level of musicianship.
That’s A Wrap!
Finding the exact bass to suit your playing can be a journey in itself. Always keep your eyes out for something new and intriguing!
Let your influences guide you towards what to get. You might not even know how to play a 4-string, but if all of your favorite bass lines were written for 5-strings, you may find that 4-strings just don’t satisfy.
Give it a try and see what happens.