Ultimate Guide To Choosing & Buying A Bass Guitar

You’ve saved up your hard-earned cash and you’re ready to take the plunge. However, there are many factors to consider when buying your bass guitar and you don’t want to be lumbered with an unplayable dud. Read on to learn the most important considerations.

How Many Strings Should My Bass Have?

ultimate guide to buying a bass guitar
This could be too many strings

Go onto any forum and it won’t take you long to get mired in arguments about what number of strings is ‘correct’ or ‘better’. It’s probably a good idea to start on a 4 string but 5 strings are common too (6 strings slightly less so). You’ll be able to play most styles with a 4 and many people swear that the punch, tone, and sustain you get from a standard 4 string bass is superior to its multi-stringed siblings.

It’s all down to personal preference. A 5 string covers many situations where you need to go below E such as when playing a whole set of songs in many keys when you want to take only one instrument. Metal often requires below E exploration as does gospel. So choose the number of strings based on what situation you’ll find yourself in.

PRO TIP: Start on a 4 then add to your collection.

Here are the main features to be aware of when trying and buying a bass guitar.

Bass Guitar Tone/Sound

The tone you get certainly does come from your hands but the instrument plays a huge part too. Basses are made from tonewoods like alder, ash, and mahogany. They sound inherently different. The classic Fenders of the 50s onwards were made from ash and alder whilst Gibson favoured mahogany. These different choices will play a factor in the sound of the bass.

Necks can be made from different woods too; maple and rosewood being two of the common ones. I prefer the look of a dark rosewood neck and yet two of my favourite basses have unbound maple necks. Maple tends to have a brighter sound suited very well to rock styles. I use my maple necked 1978 Fender Precision on everything though and it sits in the mix well.

 

PRO TIP: Try playing a bass with the volume down to test the sustain, resonance, and tone. If it sounds good unamplified it’s a keeper.

Playability

A lot of this comes down to the neck. Necks come in a variety of shapes, contours, and profiles. The main terminology to be aware of:

  • Radius: This is the curvature of the fretboard. Some are flatter than others and this will affect playability. A more curved radius will follow the curved shape of your fingers as you play. I find a larger radius (which translates to being flatter or less curved) lends itself well to playing fast. It’s down to personal preference.

 

  • Shape/profile: Your fingers and thumb will prefer a certain optimal, comfortable neck shape. This is a very important consideration as we all have different sized fingers and hands. A fatter shaped neck (such as those found on many Fender Precisions) may be uncomfortable for those with smaller hands whilst a slimmer neck may be desirable to someone who wants to play fast lines all over the neck.

 

  • Frets. You don’t want to feel the sharp edges of frets as you run your hand along the neck. A properly dressed set of frets will add to the joyful experience of playing a great bass guitar. Sharp frets can be dressed by a good luthier but I like a bass that already feels good. This points to good craftsmanship. Cheap basses often fall down in this area.

PRO TIP: The feel of the back of the neck plays a big role in playability. A nice satin finish can feel fast whilst some necks feel sticky; leading to your fretting hand feeling like it’s in a swamp.

 

Looks

I reckon this is what most beginners think about more than anything else. Basses do look very cool and you can get fixated on the one you want. Be warned that it might not play how you want it to so always play several first. Basses come in a bewildering range of looks from classic…

…to more outrageous.

Looks are part of what makes playing the bass guitar desirable. There’s no getting around that so make sure you actually like what your bass looks like.

PRO TIP: If you’re looking to play in lots of bands or even to go into the industry professionally, get a bass that is appropriate for many styles. That rules out the BC Rich above as great as it may be. Modern basses are still very much designed around the time-tested designs of early Fenders. You can’t go wrong with that look as everyone is used to it. 

Bass Guitar Electronics

Basses are either passive or active (some active circuits have the option to bypass to passive). Active basses require a battery to power a preamp which enables you to control EQ: usually treble, mid and bass. Passive basses typically have a tone control which continuously rolls high frequencies in or out.

Many players like the ability to control EQ onboard as well as the more modern tone an active bass offers. Yet others swear by the tone of a passive bass and dislike the brittle high end present on some active basses.

You will need to work out what your requirements and tastes are. Are you playing a funk song followed by a reggae number? Maybe the ability to add some bass EQ for the reggae number would be beneficial. If you’re playing old school RnB, Motown and soul then a passive bass might be the one for you.

Bass Guitar Pickup Configurations

There are really two kinds of pickup configurations that have spawned the many we see today. Again, it was Leo Fender who was the pioneer. The Fender Precision has one split-coil pickup and the Jazz has two single coils – one at the bridge and one at the neck. The Jazz pickups can be blended or soloed. That gives rise to more sounds than the P bass.

Fender Jazz and Precision
Jazz above, Precision below

Then you have humbucker pickups like the ones found on MusicMan StingRay basses. They have a fat, full and punchy tone. Basses these days have any combination of pickups but they are generally blends of Precision, Jazz or MusicMan pickups.

Humbucker bass pickup
The classic StingRay humbucker pickup

Your electronics and pickups will have a huge influence on the sound of your bass so working out what sounds you want to make is crucial. Your tone and sound is a huge part of your bass playing.

 

Weight/Balance

I own a Lakland fretless once owned by Pino Palladino. It’s such a great bass but one thing I don’t like about it is that the lower horn is so tiny that it often slips off my leg when I’m seated (which I am most often when playing this bass). I can use a strap but I like a bass that balances nicely when sitting.

Some basses also have a lot of weight down by the neck end. These ‘neck-heavy’ basses tend to dive towards the floor and encourage the nasty habit of grabbing hold of the neck with your fretting hand. This hinders technique.

Heavy woods might sound killer but they can become problematic when your back starts to go. So if you’ll be playing bass live a lot, it pays to find one that is nice and light.

PRO TIP: American swamp ash is a lovely sounding tonewood that is also light. 

Versatility

This is a funny one. The Fender Precision bass was the first mass-produced bass guitar in the 1950s. To this day the design hasn’t changed an awful lot and you will see and hear these basses in a wide variety of pop, rock, blues, funk, and other styles. So they are versatile but they only have one pickup and don’t really make a huge variety of tones. However, they sound so good that a P bass is often all you’ll need.

If you need something more tonally versatile then maybe you need to consider a bass with a neck and bridge pickup, active preamp (preferably one that can be bypassed) and possibly 5 strings. This comes down to what you need.

I record lots for people around the world via my remote session business www.onlinebassplayer.com. People require different tones and that’s why I need many basses (that’s the story I tell my wife and I’m sticking to it).

If you need a few tones, build up to a small stable of basses that can cover everything. A Precision, Jazz, 5 string, short scale, fretless, and hollow body will cover most things but most players won’t need all those options.

Short Scale And Hollow Body Basses

Short scale basses are typically 30 inches (rather than the normal 34) and you can also get 32-inch scale basses. These refer to the string length from the bridge to the nut. Shockingly, these short-scale basses can sound huge! They’re also kind on the hands if you have smaller digits. These are great basses for the beginner who struggles with the size of a standard bass.

Fender Justin Meldal Johnsen - A Modern Day Short Scale Classic
Fender Mustang Justin Meldal-Johnsen bass – a modern-day short-scale classic

Paul McCartney popularised the sound of the hollow body bass with his Hofner violin bass. You really can’t emulate the sound of a hollow body without, well… a hollow body.

 

Bass Modifications

Another option is to buy a relatively cheap bass and upgrade parts. This can get costly though and there is the danger of perennially changing everything as the flavour of the month changes. It’s quite fun though but be prepared to go down the rabbit hole…

I have a Warmoth parts bass that I put together myself as I fancied a project. Common bass guitar modifications are:

Modify Your Bass Pickups
Curtis Novak jazz bass pickups

 

  • Bridges. These can increase sustain and improve tone. Hipshot bridges are excellent.
Hipshot Bass Bridge - Modify your bass
Hipshot Fender-style bass bridge
  • Nut. A cheap, plastic nut is a sure-fire sign that your bass was designed with the bottom line in mind. Upgrading to bone, aluminum, or any of the other higher quality materials is a cheap way of improving tone.
Mammoth nut - modify your bass guitar
Nut blanks made of actual mammoth bone

 

  • Hardware. This can bring the weight down. Tuning machines that are stiff are no fun. Again, Hipshot products are great here.
Hipshot Bass Xtender
This tuning peg detunes your E string to D with the flip of a lever
  • Preamp. I don’t recommend routing out your 1960s Fender Jazz to add a preamp (in fact, please don’t do that!). Get a pedal. But a cheaper bass could do with a refit. John East, Noll, Aguilar, and Glockenklang all make great pres.
Popular Aguilar bass preamp modification
This model of onboard preamp from Aguilar is very popular

PRO TIP: Don’t mod a bass that sounds terrible when you play it acoustically (without plugging in). If it sounds decent like this then you have a good bass to work with.

Testing Basses In A Shop

Ok, I realise this is all a lot to take in. You could buy a bass online and, indeed, there are many excellent online retailers. Anyway, who hasn’t bought a bass whilst surfing the net after returning from the pub?

The best thing to do is to go to a reputable shop (even if it’s far away – make a day of it) and sit down and try loads. The advice you’ll get in a good shop will really help you too.

 

I think we’re actually in an amazing period for bass guitar production right now. Some of the factories in the Far East, especially South Korea are churning out very affordable basses that are of exceptional quality for the price. The Marcus Miller backed Sire bass brand springs to mind.

You generally get what you pay for though and I’d advise buying the best quality you can. If your budget is very low, don’t fret too much. Just get what you can and buy second hand. You can always upgrade later. A proper setup and a fresh set of strings will do your bass wonders.

Take the features from this post into consideration, take a notebook and figure out what basses fit your criteria. I urge you to prioritise playability over looks but, if you develop good technique, basses of all kinds will be no problem for you.

A good place to start is to check out what your favourite player uses. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like the features of the bass but trying a few out will help you decide what you like. Keep an open mind and don’t get stuck on an idea of a particular bass just because someone else uses it. Try it first to make sure it works for you.

It’s a personal choice and part of your journey is to find the bass that speaks to you and allows you to make the music you want.

What’s your favourite bass? Comment below.