This column will review some of the numerous things that go into the design of a bass guitar. Some matter more than others, and different people have different tastes. Hopefully, when you are done, you'll have an idea of what to look for the next time you're in the mood for a new bass.
The Fender Precision Bass is the grand-daddy reference bass guitar for all time. Some people consider the Fender Bass in the same class as AOL, Chevrolet, or Microsoft; an enormous number of people use them.
The Fender Precision has a single set of pickups located mid-way between the bottom of the neck and the bridge. It has two simple controls for volume and tone. The neck is fairly thick. The body is solid, medium weight, and has symmetric "hips". With flat-wound strings, this guitar produces the classic "thump" sound that was so common in early rock and Motown music. With the advent of brighter round-wound strings, it remains popular for many types of music.
The Fender Jazz Bass is very similar to the Precision, with the following changes: it has two pickups with 3 controls, the neck is thinner, and the body has asymmetric "hips". The extra pickup allows a greater range of tones, from a warmer "jazzy" sound to a rounder "folksy" sound.
Most bass guitar manufacturers have a variation of the P-bass and/or the J-bass. Lets review the various parts of the bass and how they can affect the sound and playability.
The neck is very important for how well you can play the bass. The thickness, string spacing, total string length, and finish all combine to give you speed and flexibility you need to play well. And smaller is not necessarily better. Players with large hands may find a bigger neck more comfortable. Narrow string spacing is good for small hands, but it can make slapping and popping more difficult.
Necks are usually bolt-on, which means that they are connected to the body by 3 or 4 screws. A "through-neck" uses a single piece of wood (or a set of laminated pieces) that continues all the way through the body. Thus the bridge mounts to the bottom of the neck, instead of to the body. This method is usually more expensive and harder to maintain, but it can be argued that it should sound better without the bolt-on joint between the two ends of the string.
The standard bass guitar neck is 34" long, from bridge to nut. Longer scale necks are available, as well as smaller size basses for students. Note that the ¾-size double-bass cello is about 34".
How Many Strings
The standard bass has 4 strings, tuned E-A-D-G. Recently, the 5 and 6-string bass have become more popular, as some of the current music has very low bass lines, and more bassists contribute to the melodies on the higher end of the scale. The standard 5-string is tuned B-E-A-D-G, and the standard 6-string is tuned B-E-A-D-G-C. Some 6-strings are tuned E-A-D-G-C-F (don't tune it like a 6-string guitar E-A-D-G-B-e, or you will get a lot of criticism from other bassists).
With each additional string, the neck gets wider, which makes it more difficult to reach across the neck.
As with anything, higher string counts can be taken to the extreme, and you can find semi-custom basses with 7, 8, or even 9 strings (and probably more out there somewhere).
Unless you know that you are going to be playing "grunge" or other punk music that goes very low, I don't recommend getting more than 4 strings for your primary bass.
Frets vs Fretless
The original double-bass cello was of course fretless. The Fender Precision got it's name because it has frets for "precise" fingering. Frets also provide a hard termination for the string, which allows the highest harmonics to sing undampened. Playing fretless produces a warm tone without being overly bright, and it's fun to slide up and down the neck. It does help to have a good ear so that you know when you're in the right place.
In a perfect world, the body of a bass guitar is infinitely rigid, so that all of the energy remains within the strings, thus providing maximum sustain and the broadest range of harmonics. In reality, the weight and type of materials used to make the body will have some impact on the tone. This effect is more noticeable with the bass than the electric 6-string, as the lower frequencies need more body mass to work against. The real question is whether you can hear it. If you were to rank the contribution of the various parts of the bass guitar to the resulting tone, the body would come in dead last.
Most solid-body guitars are made of wood, usually a strong hardwood such as maple, ash, or alder. Other exotic woods are sometimes used for their beauty and strength. Cheap guitars can be made from plywood.
Since the invention of epoxy, there have been attempts to make guitar bodies out of various rigid polymers, with generally poor results. Recently, the material "luthite" was developed specifically for electric guitars. Traditionalists tend to frown on these materials, but I assure you that no one can tell if it sounds different in front of 100 (or 100,000) screaming/drunk fans.
One of the advantages of the solid body guitar is that the shape of the body contributes (almost) nothing to the sound. This allows people to get very (overly?) creative with body shapes. . And back in the late 70s, the Steinberger designers decided that the body was superfluous, and reduced it to almost nothing.
As you are shopping, you should check the weight and balance of the body. Do the "waist" and "hips" fit naturally against your body? Does the neck tend to pitch downward when you let go of it? Do you like the way it looks, the color and finish? Pick-ups?
Remember an electric guitar works by converting the movement of a steel string over a magnetic rod into an electrical signal - this is done by the pick-up. A pick-up is essentially a coil of wire wrapped around several magnetic rods. As you might imagine, the shape of the magnetic rods and the style of the winding can affect the efficiency and tone of the coupling with the wire.
The most obvious difference in coil design is "single-coil" vs "humbucker". A single-coil pick-up can also detect the 60-cycle noise generated by stage lights and amplifiers, but the tone is generally bright and the noise is not usually a problem. A humbucker is made with two separate coils that are wound in opposite directions, which cancels out the 60-cycle "hum". In general, a humbucker is wider than a single-coil pick-up, and it has a slightly warmer tone, but this varies with manufacturers.
Recently, musicians have been demanding newer and bolder sounds from their guitars. To achieve this, manufacturers have employed on-board electronics to act as the pre-amp and tone controls. Usually, there is an improvement in sound quality, and a reduction of noise (no long cable between the pick-up and the pre-amp). These active electronics are usually more expensive (and don't forget the battery!). As with everything, some people prefer the sound of passive pick-ups.
There are two important mechanical parts on a guitar. The tuners (or machine heads), and the bridge. Unless the bass is extremely poorly made, the tuner shouldn't be a problem. They are designed mostly for cosmetics.
The bridge on the other hand, is very important. It sets the height of the string, and improper design will affect the tone and reduce the sustain. Many Fender owners will replace the bridge immediately after purchase. Other manufacturers will create sophisticated pieces of machinery, with lots of screws and other moving parts. There are a few brands of after-market bridges, and sometimes it's a good thing to do. You can ask your guitar shop if they recommend replacing the bridge on your particular bass.
In part 2 tomorrow we will discuss where to shop and how to shop for a bass guitar.
Link: How To Buy a Bass Guitar Part 2