Bass guitar

Fender Precision Bass
Fender Precision Bass

Bass Guitar refers to electric and acoustic basses - stringed instruments similar in design to the guitar, but with longer scale and tuned lower in pitch. The evolution of the instrument was influenced by both the double bass (a cousin of the violin and viola da gamba) and the guitar. It shares things in common with a range of bass instruments. Bass guitars may be fretless, although fretted is more common.

The bass guitar is played while being held horizontally across the body and may be played with the fingers (and sometimes the thumb) or a plectrum (pick).

In electric bass guitars, 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.



Some regard the term "bass guitar" as a misnomer, preferring to call the instrument a "bass". It is possible that "bass guitar" originated in retail catalogues and the phrase has since gained popular currency.

The point is moot. Some influential manufacturers of the instrument use the terms "bass" and "bass guitar" interchangeably (for example Warwick and Musicman), whereas others refer to the instruments solely as basses.


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 design that would attract bass players was an electric bass that was a compact, fretted instrument one could hold and play horizontally. This was achieved by a musician/teacher/instrument & amplifier maker named Paul H. Tutmarc, of Audiovox in Seattle, Washington.

Tutmarc had an upright solidbody electric bass on the market as early as February 1935. But it is the #736 Electronic Bass advertised in 1937 that was probably the worlds first fretted solid body electric bass played horizontally and pioneered the modern bass configuration. The change to the guitar form and the addition of frets made the instrument much easier (and more precise) to play. To play a note, the player presses down the string to a specific fret with one hand (typically the left) and "plucks" or pulls the string with the other hand.

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. Interestingly, 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.

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. The upright double bass became functionally obsolete in most kinds of popular music, allowing bassists to move further up front in the band mix, both visually and audibly.

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, mutli-laminate through neck construction. Other innovations by Alembic included the worlds first graphite neck bass and the first production 5 string bass with 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 the first 6 string bass.

Innovations and refinements continue through to the present day.

Design considerations

Although the classic 4-String Fender bass designs remain a popular choice among players (hybrid basses are sometimes cringed upon), general open-mindedness toward new technologies and musical instrument design as well as appreciation for unique luthery in bass playing community gives the modern bass player a wide range of choices when choosing an instrument. Design options include:

  • Number of strings (and tuning): Leo Fender's classic design had four strings, tuned E, A, D, G (with the fundamental frequency of the E string vibrating 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 or even more 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)
    • Detuners, which 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)
  • 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 is 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 be "fatter" or "warmer".
  • Body shape, production technique, material and color
    • 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
  • Scale length (distance from bridge to nut)
    • Standard 34 inches (864 mm) length
    • Long scale, 35 or 36 inches (889 or (914 mm) in length
    • Short scale, down to 30 inches (762 mm) scale lengths (most notably Paul McCartney's 1962 Hfner 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.

Add in the factors of amplification and effects units and the electric bass has an overwhelming amount of tonal flexibility.

The fretted acoustic bass is similar to an acoustic guitar with a large, hollow body that is clearly audible without amplification. However, they are relatively quiet compared to most other acoustic instruments, and many guitar-style modern acoustic basses are equipped with pickups to enable them to function with louder ensembles, while still maintaining some of the acoustic characteristics of the sound. The Violent Femmes' first album is a good example of acoustic bass playing in modern rock music.

Playing styles

Most bassists prefer to pluck strings with the fingers but some also use plectra (also called picks). This often varies according to the musical genre—very few funk bassists use plectrums, while they are almost de rigueur for punk rock. Using a plectrum typically gives the bass a brighter, more punchy sound, while playing with one's 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.

Variations in style also occur in where a bassist rests his thumb (if he does rest it at all...). One may 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, for 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.

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 bass guitars are known for the smoothness of its slide and unique tone, but generally require extremely precise fingering. Pino Palladino was known to play fretless bass. Fretted bass guitars are known more for an edgier tone than their fretless counterparts.

Figuring after these mechanics is the preference for the types of music, and the position in the music that bassist prefers to occupy. Paul McCartney of the Beatles, the Wings, and several other projects 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 treble 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. Geddy Lee of Rush has been experiementing with bass-guitar chords, layered bass lines, and flamenco-style fingerpicking in recent recordings.

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 makes the bass take up a large part of the aural spectrum, 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, and Michael Manring, who has a more jazzy/new age style. Manring occasionally plays on two (or even three) basses at the same time.

One of the most influential bassists ever, James Jamerson, well known for his work in many popular Motown songs. Jamerson played the bass with only his index finger, creating bass lines that have proven challenging for modern bassists using two (typically index and middle) fingers.

Influential bassists

An extensive list of famous and influential bassists can be found on the Bassists page.

Influential manufacturers

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

Related instruments

External links


  • The history of guitar-like instruments from 1900 B.C. through modern times is summarized at Classical Guitar Illustrated History (
  • Bass Tabs ( has some cool bass tabs available for free use, easy way to learn how to play.
  • Basstopia ( - features bass news, a bass tab search, and other resources for bassists.
  • Talkbass ( - extensive resources for bass players, including player interviews, equipment reviews and arguably the largest bass-oriented online forum.
  • The Bass Guitar Scale Page ( - has free lessons on standard and exotic bass scales.
  • [16] ( - lots of bass and guitar tabsca:Baix elctric

da:El-bas de:E-Bass es:Bajo (instrumento_musical) fr:Guitare_basse it:Basso elettrico ja:エレクトリックベース ko:베이스 기타 lt:Bosinė gitara nl:Basgitaar no:Bassgitar pl:Gitara basowa pt:Baixo ru:Бас-гитара zh:低音吉他


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