Bass guitar

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For other uses of the term see Bass (disambiguation).

Bass Guitar refers to an electric or acoustic stringed instrument with a similar appearance to the guitar, but with a larger body, commonly 4 strings, longer scale neck and tuned an octave lower in pitch than a guitar.


The instrument is a descendant of the double bass (a cousin of the violin and viola da gamba) and shares design attributes of the electric guitar and features in common with a range of other bass instruments. Electric basses may be fretted or fretless, although fretted basses are more common.

The electric bass, in contrast to the electric upright bass, is played while being held horizontally across the body. The bass may be played with the fingers (and sometimes the thumb) or a plectrum (pick).

In electric basses, as with the electric guitar, vibrations of metal strings create electrical signals in electromagnetic sensors called pickups. The signals are then amplified and played through a speaker. Various electronic components, and the configuration of the amplifier and speaker, can be used to alter the basic sound of the instrument.

The electric bass is the standard bass instrument in many musical genres, including country, jazz, many flavors of rock and roll, soul, funk, and modern orchestral music.


There is much debate about what to call the instrument. While "bass guitar" (pronounced "base") is a common term many people prefer "electric bass" or simply "bass". This confusion is found among musicians, manufacturers and fans of the instrument. The majority are happy to use the terms interchangeably but some express a strong preference for one or other of them.

The instrument clearly shares common characteristics with the guitar family, particularly the electric guitar, in terms of how it is held and played. However, it also draws on the double bass for inspiration. Early uses of the instrument saw bass guitarists doubling the double bass part or replacing that instrument entirely with their new, more portable and easily amplified alternative. Modern bass playing draws on both guitar and double bass for inspiration as well as an increasing vernacular of its own.

Fender's early dominance in the market for mass produced bass guitars led to the instrument frequently being called the "Fender bass" although, with the plethora of alternative manufacturers producing similar instruments, this term has fallen out of fashion.


The necessity for a louder individual bass instrument can be traced back to the 1920's. Jazz combos had double basses accompanying banjos, brass and woodwind sections, pianos, and drums. Simply being heard was hard, and transporting a double bass was even harder.

The Audiovox Manufacturing Company in Seattle, Washington had an upright solidbody electric bass on the market by February 1935, designed by Paul H. Tutmarc, a musician/teacher/instrument & amplifier maker. Audiovox's sales catalogue of around 1935-6 listed what is probably the world’s first fretted solid body electric bass played horizontally - the Model #736 Electric Bass Fiddle. The change to a "guitar" form and the addition of frets made the instrument much easier (and more precise) to play.

The first mass-produced electric bass was developed by innovator and manufacturer Leo Fender in the early 1950s. Fender trained as an accountant and was a self-taught electrical engineer who started repairing radios and built P.A. systems before getting into the electronics and amplification of electric instruments. Ironically, Leo Fender could not even play guitar or bass, by his own admission "not a note".

The Fender Precision Bass was first offered in 1951. Named for the exact intonation a player could achieve with its fretted neck, the Precision Bass was equipped with a single piece, four-pole pickup, and a simple, uncontoured 'slab' body design. In 1954 the body was contoured with beveled edges for comfort. In 1957, the pickup was changed to a single "split pickup" (staggered) design. The pickguard also underwent a radical change, as did the headstock.

This 1957 design has remained as the standard electric bass, and is still widely available. Another industry standard, the similar, but more highly-engineered Fender Jazz Bass, was introduced in 1960. These designs have become so ubiquitous that pickups based on the ones found on the Precision and Jazz basses are often referred to as "P" or "J", respectively. (Fender also produced a six-string bass, the Fender VI, in the 1960s.)

Following Fender's lead, other companies such as Gibson, Danelectro, and many others started to produce their own version of the electric bass. Some, like the Rickenbacker 4000 series, became identified with a particular style of music. Rickenbackers were pioneered by John Entwistle, Chris Squire, Geddy Lee, and other progressive rock bassists.

In 1971 Alembic established the template for what would subsequently be known as "high end" electric bass. Key design elements included active electronics, premium woods, and multi-laminate neck-through-body construction. Other innovations by Alembic included the world’s first graphite neck bass and the first production 5 string bass with a low B string - both in 1976.

The first low B string on a bass appeared in 1975, when Fodera collaborated with Anthony Jackson to create a new six-string electric bass.

Early uses of the instrument saw bassists doubling the double bass part or replacing that instrument entirely with their new, more portable and easily amplified alternative. The upright double bass became functionally obsolete for a while in many kinds of popular music, allowing bassists to move further up front in the band mix, both visually and audibly. However, the improvement in pick-ups and amplifier designs for electro-acoustic horizontal and upright basses as well as the trend for "unplugged" performances has lead a revival in interest in the upright bass and the increase in choices for acoustic-electric basses.

Innovations and refinements continue through to the present day.

Design considerations

The classic 4-string Fender bass designs remain popular choices. In some musical settings departing from these de facto standards is discouraged.

General open-mindedness toward new technologies and musical instrument design as well as appreciation of fine lutherie by bassists has given the modern bass player a wide range of choices when choosing an instrument. Design options include:


Bodies are typically made of wood although other materials such as graphite (for example, some of the Steinberger designs) have also been used. A wide variety of woods are suitable - the most common include alder, mahogany and ash. The choice of body material and shape can have a significant impact on the timbre of the completed instrument as well as aesthetic considerations. Other design considerations include:

  • A wide range of colored or clear lacquer, wax and oil finishes exploiting the amazing variety of natural wood forms
  • Various flat and carved industrial designs for different types of both traditional and exotic woods, large percentage of luthier-produced unique instruments (affecting weight, balance and aesthetics)
  • Headed and headless (with tuning done at the bridge) designs
  • Several artificial materials developed especially for instrument building, most notable being luthite
  • Unique production techniques for artificial materials, including die-casting for cost-effective complex body shapes

One further variable is the solidity of the body. Most basses have solid bodies but variations include chambers for increased resonance or to reduce weight. Basses are also built with entirely hollow bodies. Many of these have enough volume for unamplified performance and are discussed in the article on acoustic bass guitars.

Number of strings (and tuning)

Note positions on a 4 string bass

Leo Fender's classic design had four strings, tuned E, A, D, G (with the fundamental frequency of the E string set at 41.3 Hz). Modern variants include:

  • Five strings (normally B, E, A, D, G but sometimes E, A, D, G, C)
  • Six strings (B, E, A, D, G, C or B, E, A, D, G, B—although E, A, D, G, B, E has also been used). Basses with seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven and even twelve (untripled) strings are also available.
  • Double and triple courses of strings (eg, an 8-string bass would be strung Ee, Aa, Dd, Gg while a 12 string bass might be Eee Aaa Ddd Ggg, with standard pitch strings augmented by two strings an octave higher)
  • Tenor bass: A, D, G, C
  • Piccolo bass: e, a, d, g (an octave higher than standard bass tuning—same as the bottom four strings of a guitar)
  • Sub Contra bass : C#, F#, B, E (C# being at 18 hz and the E string being the same as the E string found on standard basses)
  • Detuners, commonly called Hipshots, allow one or more strings to be easily adjusted while playing (most commonly used to give the option of dropping the E string down to D on a four string bass). This type of tuning peg is descended from the Scruggs peg, used on banjos.


"P"-style split pickups

The earliest basses had a single coil, later split coil magnetic pickup. Modern choices include:

  • Active or passive electronics (active circuits use a battery (usually a 9V PP3) to boost the signal and/or provide active equalization)
  • Magnetic pickup type (single coil, split coil, dual coil "humbucker", triple coil "humbucker")

Pickup type:

  • "P-" pickups (name taken from the original Fender Precision) are actually two distinct single-coil halves, wired in opposite direction to reduce hum, each offset a small amount along the length of the body so that each half is underneath two strings.
  • "J-" pickups (name taken from the original Fender Jazz) are wider single-coil pickups which lie underneath all four strings.
  • Soapbar pickups, found, for example, in MusicMan basses, are the same width as a J pickup, but about twice as tall (much like an electric guitar's humbucker). The name comes from the rectangular shape being similar to a bar of soap.
  • Non-magnetic systems, eg. piezos or the innovative new optical systems (by Lightwave Systems) allowing the bassist to use non-metallic strings
  • Pickup configuration. Many inexpensive basses (as well as older/vintage basses) have just one pickup (typically a "P" or "J"), but multiple pickups are also quite common, the two most common configurations being a P near the neck and a J near the bridge (e.g. Fender Precision Deluxe), or two J pickups (e.g. Fender Jazz). For single pickup systems, the placement of the pickup greatly affects the sound, with a pickup near the neck joint thought to sound "fatter" or "warmer" while a pickup near the bridge is thought to sound "tighter" or "sharper."


The majority of basses use frets to break the fingerboard into semitone divisions, although fretless basses are also widely available. The original Fender basses had 20 frets but some modern basses have 24 or more frets covering a range of two or more octaves per string.

There are also further variations on the theme of frets. Some fretless basses have 'fret lines' inlaid in the fingerboard either because they have been converted from fretted necks or as an aid to intonation. Some fretted basses feature a "zero fret" on the fingerboard just in front of the nut, which is alleged to offer tonal and setup advantages.

In addition to frets, many basses have further markers inlaid into the neck as a guide to position. A typical arrangement would be single dots below the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th frets and double dots at the 12th fret, all repeated at the equivalent positions an octave higher. However, there are many variations, including decorative shapes, large blocks and small dots on the side of the neck.

Scale length

Scale length is the distance from bridge to nut. A wide range scale lengths are used including:

  • Standard (commonly called Long scale) 34 inches (864 mm) length
  • Extra-long scale (also called Super-long or Long-scale-plus), 35 or 36 inches (889 or 914 mm) in length, frequently used on five or six string basses
  • Medium scale, between short and standard scale such as Rickenbacker's 4001 and 4003 models at 33-1/4" (844.55 mm).
  • Short scale, down to 30 inches (762 mm) scale lengths (most notably Paul McCartney's 1962 Höfner Violin/"Beatle" Bass).
  • Very short scale, a small number of basses exist with scale lengths below 30 inches eg. Fender Precision Jr (28.59"), Fernandes Nomad (25-1/2") and the silicone rubber stringed Ashbory (18")
  • Variable scale length systems developed for more balanced string tension and response, especially for basses with five or more strings, the most notable design of which is the Novax Fanned Fret System.

Playing styles

Sitting or standing

Most bass players stand whilst playing, although in some orchestral type bands, the player prefers to sit. It is a matter of opinion as to which position gives the greatest ease of playing. With sitting , there is no discomfort on the left shoulder due to the weight of the instrument. With standing, the nut or first fret is usually further away from the body centre line making low positions need more left arm movement.

Plectra v fingers or thumb

Most bassists prefer to pluck strings with the fingers but some also use plectra (often called picks). Picks also come in many shapes, sizes and thickness. This often varies according to the musical genre—very few funk bassists use plectrums, while they are almost a necessity for punk rock. Using a plectrum typically gives the bass a brighter, more punchy sound, whilst playing with fingers makes the sound more soft and round. Some bassists use their fingernails flamenco-style to provide some compromise between playing fingerstyle and using a pick. Bassists trying to emulate the sound of a double bass will often pluck the strings with their thumb, and use their fingers to anchor their hand.

James Jamerson, one of the most influential bassists ever, was well-known for his work in many popular Motown songs and is widely considered one of the greatest, most musical bassists of all time. Jamerson played the bass with only his index finger, (which gained him the nickname "the hook") but created intricate bass lines that have proven challenging even for modern bassists using the more usual two-fingered (typically index and middle) technique.

Right hand support and position

Variations in style also occur in where a bassist rests his right-hand thumb. A player may rest his thumb on the top edge of one of the pickups. One may also rest his thumb on the side of the fretboard, which is especially common among bassist who have an upright bass influence. Also, bassists with more than 4 string basses may utilize a low string which isn't often used as a thumb rest. By resting their thumb to anchor their hand while they use their index and middle fingers, bassists create a fuller and louder sound. Early Fender models also came with a "thumbrest" attached to the pickguard, below the strings. Contrary to its name, this was not used to rest the thumb, but to rest the fingers while using the thumb to pluck the strings. The thumbrest was moved above the strings in 70's models, and eliminated entirely in the 80's.

Striking or plucking position

Bassists also have different preferences as to where on the string they pluck the notes. While the influential bassist Jaco Pastorius and many with him preferred to pluck them very close to the bridge for a bright and sharp sound, many prefer the rounder sound they get by plucking closer to the neck, mostly near the neck pickup. Geezer Butler, among others, plucks the strings over the higher frets.

Adding to the many choices is a decision for a bass player to use a fretted or fretless instrument. Fretless basses are known for the smoothness of glissando and unique tone, but require precise fingering. Jaco Pastorius was one of the players to bring the fretless bass into the spotlight. Fretted basses are still a more common choice although some bassists have examples of both.

'Slap and pop' and related techniques

The famous slap and pop method, in which notes and percussive sounds are created by slapping the string with the thumb and release strings with a snap, was pioneered by Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the 1970s Stanley Clarke developed Graham's technique further, adding the popping and speed that are a hallmark of contemporary playing. Today, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers exemplifies slap and pop with a foundation in funk, and Les Claypool of Primus is known for playing extremely complex slap and pop basslines.

An even more recent development is the two-handed tapping style, where both hands play notes by tapping the string to the fret. This makes it possible to play contrapuntally, or to play complicated chords and arpeggios. Since this gives the bass a wide audio spectral range and a brighter sound, it is mostly used by bass players who act as the lead in their music. Notable examples are Stuart Hamm, whose music is metal-oriented, as well as Victor Wooten and Michael Manring, who have a more jazzy/new age style.

Amplification and effects

An electric bass must be amplified to be audible in a live setting. The choice of amplification will have a significant impact on the bassist's overall sound.

2 x 10" stacked on top of a 15" cabinet, with separate head unit

Bass amplifiers may be categorised as either:

  • combo units - the amplifier and speaker combined in a single unit; or
  • head and speaker (or "cabinet") - amplifier and speaker are separate.

Head units may, in turn, be either:

  • integrated units, in which the preamplifier and power amplifier are combined in a single unit; or
  • separate pre/power setups, in which one or more preamplifiers are used to drive one or more power amplifiers.

Amplifiers may be based on solid state (transistor) or thermionic ("tube" or "valve") technology. Tube amps are generally regarded as giving a warmer, more natural sound while solid state amps are lighter and lower maintenance, but this is an area of much debate. A common setup is the use of a tube preamplifier with a solid state power amplifier. There are also an increasing range of products that use digital modelling technology to simulate many different combinations of amp and cabinet choices.


The requirement to reproduce low frequencies at high sound pressure levels means that most loudspeakers used for bass guitar amplification are designed around large diameter drivers, with 10", 12" and 15" being most common. Some speakers are 18" or larger, while there are also commercially available systems using drivers of 8" or smaller.

The speakers are built into speaker cabinets, which contain one or more driver. The sound of these cabinets is influenced not only by the choice of driver but also their construction. Bass speaker cabinets are either sealed or ported with openings designed to elicit a specific frequency response. Speaker cabinets are largely designed around a single type of driver (common examples are 1x15, 1x12 and 2x10 or 4x10). Many players stack two (or more) cabinets containing different size drivers to obtain a particular sound.

It is also common for high frequency "tweeters" to be included. These extended range designs were initially developed in the late 1970s in response to the better quality pickups and electronics being built by Alembic and other high-end manufacturers and to better reproduce the more percussive bass playing styles that were becoming popular at the time.

Surveying the sites of the manufacturers mentioned below will give a good indication of the range of speaker cabinets currently available.

Amplification manufacturers

The 18 watt 1 x 12" Michael-Bell Bassamp, a closed-back amp designed specifically for upright bass, kicked off the modern era of bass amplification in the late 1940's. The upright basses were fitted with an Ampeg (short for "amplified peg") described in the 1946 patent application as a "sound amplifying means for stringed musical instruments of the violin family."

In 1949, after the Michael-Hull company break-up, the Ampeg Bassamp Company was founded by Everett Hull in New York.

Other well known manufacturers of bass amplifiers or loudspeakers include: Accugroove loudpeakers, Acme loudpeakers, Acoustic, Aguilar, Alembic (preamps and filters), Crate, Fender, Gallien-Krueger, Hartke, SWR, Marshall Amplification, Orange, Peavey and Ampeg.


Due to the particular role the bass plays in modern music, effects are not commonly used compared to the electric guitar, where the use of effects is the norm. Consequently, there is a much smaller variety of bass-specific effects available. Of these, "chorus" and "compression" are the most widely used effects for bass. "Wah-wah" and "synth" bass effects are also commonly associated with funk music. Some bands have experimented with "fuzz bass" where the bass is distorted either by overdriving the amp or by using a distortion unit; heavy distortion is typical of many metal bass players. Although many of these effects sound similar to guitar effects, players often use specialized bass effects units, which are adapted to work with the lower frequency range of the bass.

Musical role of the bass guitar

Another variable is the differing role of the bass within different types of music, and the position in the music that bassist prefers to occupy. Paul McCartney of the Beatles tends to favor a subdued, melodic approach a little further back in the mix. Progressive rock bassists have been revolutionary by making the instrument a more important and recognizable voice in their respective bands, a trend that caught on in many bands that have followed them. John Entwistle of The Who and Jack Bruce of Cream introduced a more aggressive styles with the former's trademark trebly tone and the latter's very smooth tone. Chris Squire of Yes took the instrument one step further in the early 1970s, combining McCartney's melodicism with Entwistle's energy and employing an aggressive, overdriven tone that expanded even further the bass's role as rhythmic and harmonic foundation. Geddy Lee of Rush has been experimenting with bass chords, layered bass lines, and flamenco-style fingerpicking in the group's recent recordings.

Influential bassists

There is an extensive list of bass guitarists linking to articles about many famous and influential bassists.

Influential manufacturers

The following manufacturers are among those that have produced widely regarded basses:

External links

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Wikibooks Guitar has more about this subject:

Spencer Conlin

See also

br:Gitar-boud ca:Baix elèctric da:El-bas de:E-Bass es:Bajo (instrumento musical) fr:Guitare basse ko:베이스 기타 it:Basso elettrico he:גיטרה בס lt:Bosinė gitara mk:Бас гитара nl:Basgitaar ja:エレクトリックベース no:Bassgitar pl:Gitara basowa pt:Baixo ru:Бас-гитара zh:低音吉他