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Bass Guitars

Like the electric guitar, the electric bass guitar is a relatively new addition to the world of musical instruments. In fact, it was the growing popularity of the electric guitar that created the necessity for an electrically amplified bass guitar in the first place.

Whilst it may look similar to the solid-body electric guitar, the electric bass guitar is characterised by a longer neck, larger body and thicker strings (four in comparison to an electric guitars six). The strings of a bass guitar are typically tuned one octave lower in pitch than the corresponding strings on an electric guitar.

A brief history of the electric bass guitar

Bass GuitarBefore the introduction of the electric bass guitar, the double bass was the mainstay of bands and musicians. However, with the rising popularity of big band music and the electric guitar, the sound of the double bass was getting lost in the crowd, and as bands became more mobile the cumbersome nature of the double bass and the difficulty in transporting it began to become major drawbacks.

The first electric bass guitar, created by Paul Tutmarc and sold by his company Audiovox, appeared on the market around 1935. It had little impact and it wasn't until 1951 that the first mass-produced and commercially successful electric bass guitar was introduced, the Fender Precision Bass. The Audiovox and Fender bass guitars were guitar-style designs created to be played horizontally, both breaking with the upright tradition of the acoustic double bass guitars that preceded them.

The guitar-style design and playing position made it much easier to hold and transport the instrument, plus the addition of frets to the fingerboards allowed bass players to play notes accurately and stay in tune with their band mates more easily. The electric pickups of these new electric bass guitars solved the volume issues, delivering a much more defined, harder sound with a much clearer tone.

It was this increase in volume and change in sound that lead to the bass guitar gaining a more commanding and prominent role in the band, consequently changing the beat and rhythm of popular music at the time.

Buyers guide to electric bass guitars

The materials from which an electric bass guitar is made can have a great effect on the overall sound and tonal character of the instrument. It is important to find an instrument whose characteristics will match the style of music you wish to play.

Which pickups?

Similar to electric guitars, the majority of electric bass guitars use magnetic pickups to turn vibrations from steel-cored strings into an electrical signal that can be amplified.

The Fender brand dominated the electric base guitar market during the 1950s and 1960s, due to this two styles of pickups are still referred to as P-pickups and J-pickups (the initials stand for Precision and Jazz, models of Fender electric bass that featured their own distinctive style of pickup). Both pickup types are single-coil in design, the P-pickup consists of two single-coil halves, wound in opposing directions and placed slightly offset from one another, each sitting under two strings, whereas the J-style pickup is a wider single-coil that sits under all four strings. The P-style pickup is considered to deliver a solid, well-defined bass sound as opposed to the J-style pickups cleaner yet softer tones.

Another type of single-coil pickup featured on electric bass guitars is the ‘soapbar’ pickup, so called because of its smooth edged, rectangular design. More complex and larger in size than regular single coils, the ‘soapbar’ pickups produce a more higher output sound.

Humbucker, or humbucking, pickups are another popular choice of pickup for electric basses, consisting of two coils arranged together and wired in opposite directions, they reduce hum and produce a higher output but less defined sound than regular single coil pickups.

Many modern basses now come with powered 'active' electronic pickups onboard. These pickups use circuitry to actively modify the generated signal, giving the player more control over their sound; typical features include preamp, filters and sound-shaping controls. Advantages of active pickups are a higher output and a more consistent and solid, if less defined, tonal character free from hum and noise; the disadvantages being the need for a power source and the relatively high cost in relation to traditional 'passive' pickups.

A break from norm is the non-magnetic piezoelectric pickup. These use crystals to convert vibrations into an electric signal and produce a somewhat acoustic sounding tone. Their non-magnetic nature means that they can be used with non-metallic strings such as nylon or silicon rubber.


Alder, ash and basswood are the woods most commonly used in the construction of an electric bass guitars body. Ash is a very durable wood; alder is resonant with a rich tone with a great low-end and midrange characteristics, whereas basswood is a relatively lightweight yet fragile wood noted for its exceptional low-end response.

Maple, rosewood and ebony are popular choices for fret board woods. Rosewood provides a clear tone with a warmer, darker sound in comparison to the brighter sounding maple. Ebony is traditionally used on the necks of violins and classical guitars but can be found on bass guitars where its sound damping characteristics can be particularly useful.

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