Bass Guitar Buying Guide
Learn about what to consider when buying a bass guitar, including the types of bass that exist, how to choose a size, and what things you need to start playing bass.
By Ben Nemeroff
Congratulations! It’s a bass! Now that you’ve decided to join the legions of low-end rhythm players, it’s time to shop for a bass guitar. Learning to play bass can be exciting -- honing your skills, trying new techniques, playing your favorite songs and crafting your own basslines. Buying your first bass guitar is just as exciting. But before you take the plunge, there are several things to consider when choosing the right instrument for you.
Buying A Bass Guitar For Beginners
In this guide, we’ll walk you through some of the considerations you may want to keep in mind when buying your first bass guitar. To make the process easier on you, we’ll cover:
• What To Consider When Buying A Bass Guitar
• The Anatomy of a Bass Guitar
• Different Types of Bass Guitars
• Should You Choose A 4-, 5-, or 6-String Bass Guitar?
• Bass Tonewoods Explained
• What Size Bass Guitar Should You Get?
• Which Bass Guitar Is Right For You?
• Getting Started With Bass Accessories
• Learn To Play Bass Guitar Now
What To Consider When Buying A Bass Guitar
There are a number of factors to consider when trying to decide which bass guitar is right for you. The right bass will combine different attributes that work for you and can include the right price, size, and more. Here’s what to look for when buying a bass:
• Price: The price of a bass guitar can range wildly -- from under $150 to $1,500 or higher. When choosing a bass guitar, keep your budget and mind and how much you’re willing to spend. There are plenty of great starter bass guitars and many of these lower-priced options are still quality instruments.
• Body style: There are two different types of body styles when it comes to bass guitars: solid body and semi-hollow.
– Most electric bass guitars have a solid body, similar to that of an electric guitar. They produce a louder and meatier sound since they’re made with amplification in mind.
– However, there are also semi-hollow options that offer up a sound more in-line with an acoustic bass. A semi-hollow bass still works with an amp, but gives you flexibility with your tone to shift between the full-on amplified style of a solid body, with the resonance of an acoustic bass.
• Neck: The neck of your bass guitar is another consideration to keep in mind. Necks come in a variety of styles. Depending on your preference and playing style, certain neck shapes may make it easier to navigate the fretboard.
– U-shaped - Sometimes referred to as “baseball bat” necks, basses with U-shaped necks may be great for players with large hands. This style of neck is thick and rounded.
– V-shaped - There are two different types of v-shaped necks: a “soft” V and a pointer “hard” V. The soft V-neck is more rounded, while the hard is often cited as being more comfortable for players.
– C-shaped - The C-shaped neck can be either an oval shape, or more like the “modern c” that takes on a flat oval shape. The C-shaped neck lends itself to most playing styles.
• Scale length: There are long-scale and short-scale basses. A standard (or long-scale bass) is 34”, while a short-scale bass is only 30”. Short-scale basses are better for bassists with smaller hands since they have a shorter distance between frets.
• Tonewood: One factor you might not have considered in choosing a bass is the tonewood. Different types of wood affect the sound, tone, and even the weight of the guitar. (We’ll go into the different types of bass tonewoods a little later to help you make your decision!)
• Style of music you want to play: What was the band or artist that made you want to pick up the bass? The genre and style of music you’re drawn to might help you decide on the type of bass you choose. Rock, metal, jazz, and funk often look to different types of solid body bass guitars. That’s not a hard and fast rule, however. Some genres, like the blues and even some more experimental styles, sometimes lean toward a semi-hollow body style. There are a ton of choices of solid body guitars, so testing each one out to find the right sound for you is part of the fun of shopping around!
The Anatomy of a Bass Guitar
Before you buy your first bass guitar, it’s important to know the different parts of your instrument. This can help you understand what other players are talking about and help you develop a better understanding.
The bass has three main parts that contain some of the other components of your instrument.
– Bridge & String saddles - This is where your strings rest and are anchored to the bottom of your bass.
– Pickups - “pick up” the vibration of the strings and turn them into an electric signal transmitted through an amp.
– Volume and Tone knobs - These separate knobs control the sound of your bass.
– Pickguard - This is a section of laminated material that protects your bass from getting scratched by the pick.
– Output jack - Your output cord plugs into this jack. From there, you’d plug the other end into your amp.
– Strap buttons - There is a strap button at the bottom of your bass guitar and another near the top part of the body.
– Nut - This small piece material sits between the headstock and fretboard. It lifts your strings away from the fretboard so that they can ring out when you fret a note.
– Frets are thin metal strips used to show you where to place your fingers to play a specific note on the fretboard.
– Fretboard - This is the long strip of wood that extends between the headstock and the body of your guitar.
– Fret markers - These are small dots inlaid between specific frets on the fretboard. These markers make it easy to visualize what fret you are playing, especially when using tablature.
– Tuning pegs can be turned to tighten or loosen the strings of your bass guitar.
– String tree, which holds your strings down.
Different Types of Bass Guitars
Like their six-stringed counterparts, there are several different types of bass guitars. The two main categories of bass guitars are electric and acoustic. Electric basses tend to leave you with more options to choose from -- including solid-body and semi-hollow body basses. Let’s get to know more about each of these types of bass guitars.
Electric Bass Guitars
Before Leo Fender created the Fender Precision Bass in 1951, bassists played large, cumbersome stand-up instruments. The electric bass as we know it came to life thanks to Leo Fender, packing the powerful sound of a standup bass into a compact package that could be electrified in the same way as a guitar.
In the early days of rock n’ roll and country-tinged rockabilly in the 1950s, the electric bass helped define the sound of these genres, giving them the hefty, low-end rumble that could reach even the cheap seats of a crowded concert hall. To this day, the electric bass remains a staple of funk, rock, metal, pop, and country.
Here are a few reasons why you might lean toward playing an electric bass:
• Multiple sizes: Electric basses are available in both a standard (long) scale and a short scale size, giving players of all ages and sizes more flexibility to find an instrument that works with their unique physiology.
• Different styles, different sounds: From solid body electric basses to semi-hollow body basses that give you the best of both acoustic and electric worlds, electric basses offer players a variety of tones.
• Amplification: An electric bass produces a big, booming sound. Its ability to be amplified allows you to play quietly during a practice session, keeping your amp tuned low -- or to crank the volume when you’re ready to play live.
• Fits with many genres: While the electric bass has its roots in early rock n’ roll and rockabilly, to this day, the electric bass remains a staple of funk, rock, metal, the blues, and country. If you’re a fan of any (or all!) of these styles of music, the electric bass can be a gateway to unlocking a whole new level of appreciation for the music you love.
Browse through some of Fender’s most iconic electric bass guitars and see which one you might want to play.
Acoustic Bass Guitars
Acoustic bass guitars look similar to classic acoustic guitars in that they both have a similar hollow body and sound hole. And while they definitely possess the low-end rumble of their electric bass counterparts, acoustic bass guitars have a more mellow, muted sound. Acoustic basses are less common than electric bass guitars, but you can listen for them in more laid-back genres such as folk and world music where the bass isn’t quite as front-and-center as it is in funk or rock.
You might be drawn to playing an acoustic base if you like:
• Keeping it simple: With an acoustic bass, you don’t have to worry about plugging into an amp, although there are some electrified acoustic basses available.
• A unique sound: The role of the bass in a song is to provide the rhythm of a song. While the bass is often an unsung hero of a band, an acoustic bass lends a different sound to a song. An acoustic bass still has that powerful low-end, but it’s less in-your-face as an electric and works well with genres like folk, world, and possibly even blues.
An acoustic bass might not be the right fit for beginners, given that it has a thicker neck than an electric bass. For beginners or players with smaller hands, the structure of an acoustic bass may be more difficult to master than learning on an electric bass. Similarly, if you want to play louder, more rhythm-driven like funk and rock, the mellow sound of an acoustic bass may not be suited to your style of music.
Feel like an acoustic bass is right for you? Check out Fender’s selection of acoustic basses.
Other Types of Bass Guitars: Fretless Bass Guitars and Upright Basses
Beyond the more popular electric and (slightly less popular) acoustic bass, there are a few other different types of basses:
• Fretless bass guitars are electric basses that don’t have fret markers. They produce a similarly deep, booming resonance as a fretted electric bass, however, they give musicians an added element of freedom. Bassists don’t have to worry about placing their fingers too close to a fret, accidentally creating a buzzing sound from the metal fret hitting the string in the wrong way and distorting the note. However, a well-trained ear and mastery of the fretboard is required to truly make a fretless bass guitar sing. Artists such as Jaco Pastorius, Les Claypool of Primus, and James Brown bassist Bernard Odum are some of the most notable names spanning the genres of rock and funk to pick up a fretless bass and show legions of music lovers how it's done.
To see just what you can do with a fretless bass and the fluidity of fretboard movement allows, check out this demo of Grammy Award-winner Mel Brown playing the Fender American Standard Jazz bass:
• The upright bass, as its name suggests, is a large acoustic bass played in an upright position. It lacks the portability of the smaller electric bass. Sometimes known as the “double bass” or “standup bass,” this bass can be played either with fingers or with a bow -- like a violin, albeit a very large violin. You can typically hear an upright bass in classical music, or in jazz or bluegrass. Like fretless electric bass guitars, an upright bass does not have fret markers. Another thing that makes this instrument unique is that many players need to stand in order to play the upright bass, as opposed to being given the option to sit when settling in for a practice session on an electric bass.
Both the upright bass and the fretless electric bass guitar are undoubtedly impressive instruments. However, they are better suited for more seasoned musicians that have already developed their ear, as well as a feel for where to fret a particular note.
Should You Choose A 4-, 5-, or 6-String Bass Guitar?
While the standard electric bass guitar has four strings, there are also five-string and five-string models. Five-string bass guitars are most often favored by heavy metal, hard rock, fusion and jazz bassists. Six-string bass guitars are also a favorite among jazz-style players, giving them more room to improvise.
While a five-string bass (like the Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass® V) or a six-string bass (such as the Bass VI) can offer you a greater range of strings to expand your range of notes and creativity across the fretboard, they’re not often advised for beginners.
In understanding what to look for when buying a bass, ease of playing is often at the top of the list. For beginners, learning to play on a standard four-string bass allows them to learn the basics first. Similarly, most tablature written for bass uses four lines to correspond to the four strings of most bass guitars. If your goal is to start learning songs you love, this may be all the more incentive to start your musical journey with a four-string bass.
Another reason why a four-string bass may be better for beginners is due to the thickness of the neck of a five- or six-stringed bass. Bass strings are thicker than guitar strings. As a result, the neck is thicker and wider than a standard electric guitar to prevent the strings from touching or reverberating too closely to one another. A five-string bass or six-string bass needs to have an even wider neck to accommodate the thickness of those strings. As a result, they may not be the best style of bass for a beginner or younger player with smaller hands to start with.
When buying your first bass guitar, consider opting for a standard four-string bass. Then, once you master four strings, you can challenge yourself by branching out into five- and six-string bass territory.
Bass Tonewoods Explained
When it comes to playing bass, tone is everything. Part of the allure of playing bass is hearing a thick, booming sound produced, giving songs that awesome low-end rumble that lays down the rhythm of a song, giving it some soul. While pickups and string thickness play a role in producing the right tone, the type of wood that your bass guitar is made from is a critical factor in giving you a specific sound.
As a beginner, don’t worry too much about the differences between the various tonewoods that go into making the body of your bass guitar. In time, you’ll learn more about the tones you like and get to experiment with different sounds. However, if you’re in the market for your second or third bass and want to achieve a certain sound, knowing the different types of tonewoods and how they impact your sound can be helpful.
• Ash & Alder
Both ash and alder woods are looked to as some of the more “traditional” tonewoods for Stratocasters.
Swamp Ash (one of the two Ash wood varieties along with Northern hard Ash) was used to create many of the iconic Fender instruments during the 1950s and ‘60s. Ash offers more of a bright tone with some snap to it along with long sustain. Ash comes in two varieties: Northern Hard Ash and Swamp Ash.
Alder, on the other hand, offers a full, rich tone with plenty of low-end, warmth, and sustain. Its light weight makes alder one of the most coveted types of wood -- heavy on tone and comfortable to hold.
As a basswood, walnut offers medium tones across the board. It has a bite, but not quite as bright a tone as a wood like maple or ash.
Mahogany is a striking basswood with an open grain that lends itself to a variety of appearances. In terms of tone, it’s warm and full with a nice mid-range sound and sustain. Its tone makes it a popular choice of bass tonewood for jazz and blues players.
Basswood has a tone similar to alder -- rich, with a good overall warmth -- although it’s easier to source for instruments made in Japan.
Maple has a bright tone with a bit of bite on the high end and great sustain. Due to the fact that maple is a very heavy wood, it’s rarely used to build an entire bass guitar body. Instead, it’s used just as a laminated top to create a striking tone. Due to its outstanding tonal properties. maple is one of several woods that is also used to construct fingerboards and the neck of many guitars and bass guitars, too.
Learn more about the different types of tonewoods and how they impact the sound of your instrument:
What Size Bass Guitar Should You Get?
The more comfortable you are playing your bass guitar, the more you’ll want to pick it up and practice! For this reason, the size of a bass guitar is often one of the most important factors when it comes to determining how to choose a bass guitar.
Because bass guitars come in a variety of lengths, it’s important to test which size works best for your own physiology. To find out which size bass is the best fit for you, try standing or sitting while holding each bass guitar in playing position. Your hand should comfortably be able to reach the first fret with your elbow still feeling relaxed and comfortable.
• Long Scale Bass Guitar
A long scale bass guitar is the most common-sized scale length at 34”. Sometimes referred to as a “standard scale bass,” this instrument was first introduced to the world in 1951 by Leo Fender with the launch of the Precision Bass. Most 5-string and 6-string basses come in a 34” long scale length.
• Short Scale Bass Guitar
A short-scale bass is is 30” and has a smaller distance between frets than its long-scale counterpart, making it a better fit for players with smaller hands. But don’t let its compact size fool you! A short-scale bass produces a rich, beefy sound thanks to the use of heavier gauge strings. While the Precision Bass was a pioneer for long scale bass guitars, the Mustang Bass PJ is equally iconic among 30” short scale basses.
Which Bass Guitar Is Right For You? Let Find Your Fender Help
There is no one singular feature that will make or break your decision to choose your first bass guitar. A lot of different factors will go into your decision. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when buying a bass guitar for beginners to make things easier and more fun:
• Price: Make a budget and stick with it. Try out a few bass guitars and purchase the best one that fits within your budget.
• Keep it simple: Look for a classic four-string bass with frets. While flashy, fretless or 5- and 6-string basses may look cool, starting with the basics is the best way to learn. From there, you can branch out into different styles of bass guitars and add to your collection when you’ve gotten several years of playing under your belt and feel ready to make the jump! Choose a fretted bass guitar for easier learning.
• Size: If you are young or a smaller player, a short-scale bass guitar will likely be the most comfortable style for you to play, with a shorter reach between frets.
• Style: Having an instrument you love to look at increases the odds of you wanting to practice and play more. Choose a bass guitar with a shape and color that appeals to you or feels like more of an extension of your personality.
When buying a bass guitar for beginners, there are a few ways to take the guesswork out of finding the right instrument. That’s why we’ve created Find Your Fender to help you find the perfect instrument to accompany you on your musical journey -- no matter what stage you might be at!
Recommended Bass Guitars for Beginners
• Affinity Series Precision Bass PJ
• Classic Vibe 60s Precision Bass
• Player Precision Bass
What Do You Need To Start Playing Bass? Bass Accessories
Once you’ve got your eager hands on your first bass guitar, you might want to consider adding some other tools to your musician’s kit, helping to build your skill and sound. Here are some bass accessories that beginner players will need to get started:
• Amps - Few things are more satisfying than hearing the rumble of a bass guitar when played through an amp. Plugging in and practicing is a great way to hear all of the tonal capabilities of your bass guitar and help you hone your technique.
• Bass Cables - In order to plug in and practice, you’ll need a bass cable to connect your instrument to your amp. Later on in your musical journey, you can also use bass cables to experiment with stringing together different effects pedals to create a sound all your own.
• Headphones - When you don’t want the entire neighborhood to hear you practicing (yet), playing with headphones allows you to listen to your playing in a more focused manner without disturbing others. Simply plug your headphones into your amp and enjoy a practice session.
• Tuner - While many musicians learn to tune by ear, having a reliable tuner can make it easier to be sure your bass guitar stays in tune. As you improve your skill, you can also use a tuner to help experiment with alternate tunings on your bass guitar.
• Guitar Picks - Even if you decide to play bass with your fingers instead of with a pick, having a few good picks in your arsenal can help you hear the differences between the two styles. • Straps - A strap isn’t just a cool accessory that shows off your personality. A bass guitar strap can help you hold your instrument securely in place and be sure it stays in the correct position when playing. • Extra Strings - Don’t let a busted string slow you down! Be sure to tuck away an extra set of bass guitar strings so you can replace any broken strings and keep the practice momentum going! • Bass Guitar Case - A bass guitar is an investment that should be protected. A bass guitar case isn’t just a great way to carry your instrument, but it can help prevent your bass from getting scratched or damaged.
If you’re shopping for your first bass guitar, Fender makes it easy with beginner bass bundles, packed with some of the essentials you’ll need to start playing.
Learn To Play Bass Guitar Now
Choosing your first bass guitar (or shopping for a new one after you’ve been playing for awhile) can be a fun and rewarding experience. It’s a big step on the road to learning to play and appreciate your instrument. Making time for regular practice and learning new songs and skills can be just as exciting, too. When you’re ready to start playing, check out Fender Play for bite-sized lessons that show you how to play basslines, songs, and level up your musical skills.