Basses come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most are solid-body instruments, with various types of pickups, strings, string lengths, hardware, and finishes.
However, many players today are finding that the warmth of acoustic bass guitars is very desirable. The bass guitar is really a descendant of the upright double bass or bass violin.
Most bass guitars have frets so that the player does not have to worry about intonation while playing if the instrument is tuned properly and set up well. However, some players prefer the fretless neck and do quite well.
The fretless has a different sound and usage for music. It is not suitable for all styles of music. For me, it seems as if the fretless bass is almost another instrument to me.
Another factor for basses is the number of strings that they come with today. In the beginning, the electric bass guitar had four strings: E, A, D, and G, just like the upright acoustic bass.
However, it is very common to find 5 and 6-string bass guitars. If you have never played a 5 or 6-string bass before, it does take some time to get used to the extra strings.
Muting these strings is an added problem for the bass player. The other problem is that the extra strings, especially the low B string, affect the sound of the E string on most basses.
The weak tension and the extra harmonics on the B string somehow make the E sound noticeably different. Additionally, some basses with a B string, do not sound that good, specifically, the B string sounds flabby and weak. This is part of the reason for 35-inch, 36-inch and 37-inch basses.
If you listen carefully to Marcus Millers 5 string Jazz bass (a 34-inch) bass, you can notice that while the notes on the B string are punchy they do have an odd harmonic tone. However, some basses with a 34-inch string scale do very well with the B string issue.
The Upright Heritage
Some players, like myself, started on the upright bass, which has four strings G, D, A, and E, and a fretless fingerboard. The scale on the upright ¾ size bass is about 41 inches. This is the length of the string from the bridge to the nut.
The advantage of coming to the bass guitar from the upright bass is the left-hand techniques and holding positions employed. The left-hand fingering can be the same too, although some may prefer to use all four fingers in the lower-hand positions. Classical upright bass uses fingers 1, 2, and 4 to play three different half-step notes in one left-hand position.
However, in the upper fingerboard area, past the shoulder of the bass, the classical upright bass player uses all five fingers: T, 1, 2, 3, 4. The thumb is brought out and placed on the fingerboard and used before the 1st finger. This is not usually done on the electric bass, but it could be.
The upright bass player has to use more left-hand and right-hand strength to play the instrument. The right-hand angle of attack to the strings is almost parallel to the strings, while the electric bass player is more perpendicular and lighter in touch, and usually over the pickups instead of the fingerboard.
The Fender Precision bass is a recognized standard of the industry, conceived and designed by Leo Fender (Now the maker of G & L Basses). This bass features a single split-coil humbucking pickup, between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard.
The placement of this coil (sensor), is actually very critical to the sound. The fretting scale is 34 inches. The term “Precision” comes from the fact that this bass employed frets in its early days so that the player did not have to worry about intonation, once the instrument was tuned. This bass has a very fat bottom-end sound, with open mid-range tones.
The jazz bass is another creation by Leo Fender and features two single-coil pickups. When both pickups are on, the electronic sensors are in fact hum-bucking. The Forward (Neck) pickup is slightly closer to the fingerboard than the P-bass.
The advantage of the sound of this bass comes largely through the bridge pickup. This pickup adds a significant amount of clarity to the sound. These basses typically have a harder and more focused sounding quality.
They are very useful in live performances where greater bass clarity is needed. This is the bass preference of Marcus Miller and many others. The early 70’s Jazz basses actually have better sound because the bridge pickup is actually 1/4 inch closer to the bridge.
This was to compensate for a hardware issue for the manufacturer during this time. The classic Jazz bass sound comes from using both pickups. Although there have been some notable players who have used just one pickup.
For instance, the song “The Tin Man”, by America was recorded with a Jazz Bass using the forward pickup only. Ray Parker Jr. used the forward pickup only on many of his tracks for Earl Klugh. The Barney Miller TV theme song using only the bridge pickup.
Many P-Bass owners have, over time, decided to route their basses for additional Jazz bass bridge pickup. This requires either using a split coil Jazz bass pickup (i.e. Dimarzio) or rewiring the P-Bass pickup as a straight single coil, no hum-bucking feature.
My Preference is the hum-bucking mode, even though my Fretless bass has all single coil wiring because I am using Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder J-Bass at the bridge.
Many manufacturers are now making basses with this combination of pickups. The advantage of this pickup configuration on the bass, is greater clarity, especially during a live performance. The bridge pickup provides a better low-end definition and also adds good high-frequency tones as well.
Double P-Bass Style
Now, this is a bass where I built the body from scratch, from mahogany wood scraps from the job. The body is laminated vertically in 3/4-inch strips. I had to build jigs and patterns for every detail.
The body is a Jazz bass shape with Passive P-Bass pickups by EMG. The Neck pick-up is forward toward the neck about 1 inch.
This is quite a jump for the pick-up placement, and if I had it to do over, I would put the neck pickup in the standard Precision placement. I am not sure where and how I would place the bridge pick-up. This was my second shot at a Double P-Bass design.
Many Players are finding their roots with acoustic basses these days. The advantage of acoustic is the resonant qualities that are added to the instrument, reminiscent of the upright bass.
This of course all depends on the size and shape of the body of the bass. One of the disadvantages is the possibility of feedback, which can limit the volume of your system, depending on how close you are to your speaker system.
Many acoustic basses are using piezo pickup devices to amplify the sound of the bass, along with onboard EQ and volume controls.
Now for the more adventuresome bassist, is the fretless bass. However, the name is only for the instrument, not the player.
The player may find that he/she is fretting quite a bit, especially if you are sight reading music, and it is in one of those terrible keys (i.e. Db, Gb, Ab). On the upside, if you know your instrument and music well, the fretless bass has qualities that cannot be replicated on the fretted bass.
I personally feel that the fretless bass is almost like playing another instrument to me. There are songs that this type of instrument is well suited to. There as some great fretless players, who exclusively use the fretless bass (e.g. Jaco Pastorius).
There is a variety of Modern Basse’s, for a lack of a better term. These are basses that do not fit into any of the above classes. These are usually quality instruments. My example here is the Schecter Stilleto 5-string bass.
This has two active high impedance EMG pickups, with a neck-thru the bass design. The fingerboard is a 35-inch scale system, which gives a solid B-string sound. The onboard electronics are wired as Volume (Neck Pickup), Volume (Bridge Pickup), Treble (Cut/Boost), and Bass (Cut/Boost).
Originally this bass came with S-Tek type bridges, but I changed it to the narrow Carvin Hipshot type, to gain an extra 1/16 inch at the bridge for string spacing, since I have large hands, I need all the space I can get.