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Buying Basses - Part 2

How Many Strings? Fretted or Fretless?

If you already know what you want and why, you can skip this section. I'm not about to try to change your mind. Every bass player has to decide for himself what he wants to play. There is no right or wrong answer.

For those of you who have an idea what you want, but can't explain why, I advise you to talk to other bass players and try all types of basses. When you have a good understanding of why you want a 4, 5 or 6-string fretted or fretless, then you're ready to get one.

If you are a first time buyer with no clue and don't have the opportunity to actually talk to people and try various models, I advise going with a 4-string fretted model. Most of the tablature and music you find will be done for four strings. Most of the music you hear will be done on a 4-string fretted. You will have so many things to learn as it is that the extra string might make it more complicated to learn. In terms of money, generally speaking you'll get a better quality 4-string than 5-string at any given price point.

Just remember, this is one big gray area. There is no right or wrong answer. I'm of the mind that if you have to ask someone what to get, stick with a 4-string fretted. If you have a reason for going with something else, then do it!

Neck Choice - Bolt-on or Neck-Through?

Bass Buying Tips

On some basses the body has a big notch cut out of it where the neck is bolted on. On other basses the neck is one continuous piece that runs the length of the instrument. Pieces of wood are glued to the top and bottom of the neck to form the body.

Both types of necks can be found high-quality instruments. Generally speaking lower priced instruments are almost always bolt-ons because it's harder and thus more expensive to make a neck-through bass. They are not lower quality just because they are bolt-ons, it's just that to keep the price down, a bolt-on neck is the less expensive choice.

Now, I am about to make a very important point here that on the surface may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but bear with me. I am going to tell you that the type of neck (and wood and pickups and bridge and fingerboard, etc.) does not matter one little bit! That's right, it doesn't matter at all in your decision making process.

You're probably thinking I'm nuts. After all, the type of neck has a big influence on how the instrument plays and sounds. You're right. What I am saying is that what is important is how the instrument plays and sounds, not the type of neck. It's the end result that counts, not the subtle mechanics of how that sound and feel are derived. If you're buying a bass purely on specifications, you're taking the wrong approach.

Now, just to cover my ass, if you're ordering a custom built bass, you're going to order 100% by spec because your bass doesn't exist yet. I'm not talking to you. You've learned over the years what you want and are going for something very specific. For the rest of you what I'm saying is that you need to concentrate on how the instrument feels and sounds. Some bolt-ons feel like they are of neck-through construction and vice-versa. If it feels good to you, then it doesn't matter one bit how the neck is constructed. After you've played a number of instruments, you'll probably find that you prefer one type over another. That's to be expected. But if you're looking at the wall of basses and don't take two minutes to try out a bolt-on because you "prefer" neck-through basses, you're doing yourself a disservice.

Don't let anybody tell you that one is "better" than the other.

The Neck and Fingerboard/Fretboard/Fongerboard

There are several shapes such as round, oval, flat-back, vee, and so forth. Be aware of these shapes as you play. See what's more comfortable for you. You should also pay attention to how wide the neck is and how that feels to you.

Fingerboards can be made of different types of woods or synthetic materials. These affect how the instrument plays and sounds. You might find after a while that you prefer ebony or rosewood or something else. They have different tonal characteristics, but like everything else these are blended with all of the other parts of the bass to produce the unique sound and feel for that bass.

Fingerboards will be listed as having a radius. How can a fingerboard have a radius if it's not a circle? Fingerboards have curvature to them. The fretboard is really just a segment of a large circle. The radius measurement refers to the imaginary large circle in which the fingerboard curvature would fit. Some are virtually flat while others have a large curvature.

Just remember the goal is to find something that's comfortable for you.

What Type of Wood?

Again, the wood by itself doesn't matter. Some folks will say a certain type of wood sounds brighter or darker than another, and generally speaking they would be right. Different woods have different tonal characteristics. If you took the exact same bass and constructed the bodies with one being walnut and the other ash, they would probably sound different. When you're placing your order at Alembic (www.alembic.com) you get to make that choice.

But until you have $5,000 to $20,000 to spend on a custom bass, you're going to find that one off-the-shelf model will use one type of wood and another model will use a different wood. And the neck will be different. And the pickups. And the construction. And the body shape.

The question is always, "How does the whole package sound?" When you bring it to your first rehearsal and the guys in the band tell you that it doesn't sound as good as your old bass, how do you respond? "But, fellas, this is made from genuine swamp ash!" Like I said before, don't buy it just based on specs.

Don't let a salesman tell you one type of wood is "better" than another. What's okay is when he tells you that one type of wood has more sustain or something specific like that. In a perfectly constructed experiment where every variable was controlled and only the type of wood varied, he may be right. If sustain is an issue for you, the only thing that counts if the bass has good sustain. Wood will certainly be a factor, but so will a number of other things. Evaluate each bass on its own merits - just because it has wood that normally has better sustain doesn't mean it will have good sustain.

Scale Length

Bass Buying Tips Did you know basses come in different lengths? Well, they do. They have a big influence on the sound as well as the playability. For a 5 or 6-string, be aware that the standard scale (34 inches bridge-to-nut) may result in the low B string sounding kind of "floppy". If you're trying out these instruments, be sure to ask about the length. If you somehow managed to play several standard scale 5-strings without knowing the scale, you may find you didn't like any of them. You then might decide you don't like 5-strings at all. But maybe when you play a 35 or even 36 inch scale you find that it sounds and feels better.

Remember, the longer the scale, the greater the distance between the frets. Shorter scales may be easier to play for some, but watch out for the G string not sounding like you might expect.

They also make short scale basses. These can be great for people with smaller hands, but they can be played by anyone. Ibanez offers the GSRM20 Mikro Electric Bass which has a very short scale (see picture on right).

How Many Frets? You will find that most basses have 21, 22 or 24 frets. If you tend to play in the upper registers, this could be an important factor. Much of my playing is nowhere near that area, so this is a matter of personal taste. Just remember to check it out when shopping.

Tuning Machines

You know, the little things you turn to tune the instrument. Enclosed tuners are less susceptible to corrosion, but I had a set of open Schaller (my favorite) tuners for over 20 years with nary a problem. Good tuners are well worth the expense. Try tuning the bass and see how smoothly and finely they work. If they seem cheap, ask about the cost of upgrading them. If you love a bass, you can always spend another $100 to $150 for a new set tuners at a later date.

Pickups

This is probably the greatest influence on the tone of the bass. The same pickups will sound different on different basses. You really have to listen and find what you like. Check out my article on how many different tones you can get from one bass.

If you get active pickups, remember that you will have to change the battery on a regular basis. How easy is this to do? Are you comfortable doing this? Is the mechanism for getting to it a sturdy one or do you think it might easily break or wear out? Usually you have to unplug these basses to preserve battery life. If you're the forgetful type, maybe this is not a good option for you.

You also have to look at the tone/volume controls. Some systems have an on-board preamp with EQ. If you tweak your sound live, this can be pretty useful (and annoying to the sound man). Passive pickups generally have separate volume controls for each pickup plus a shared tone control. Make sure they all work smoothly.

Finish

Some finishes are higher maintenance than others. My Spector Euro requires that I rub lemon oil into it and clean it on a regular basis. Other basses have heavy clear finishes that can be wiped clean with a dry cloth. Trust me, the finish on an electric bass will have virtually no influence on the sound. However, it will have an influence on how you hand moves up and down the neck.

Conclusion

My conclusion is the same as my introduction. Play as many basses as you possibly can. If you're at a local bar watching a band and want to try the bass player's axe, strike up a conversation during a break. Tell him you're shopping, talk about your experiences and ask him for his opinion. He'll probably offer to let you try his. If not, just ask nicely. The worst he can do is say no. Try not to take up too much time and buy him a drink afterwards.

If you don't have local stores with much selection, please don't just buy a bass because you like the specs. Plan a weekend trip somewhere where you can play a lot of instruments. If you ever get to Washington, DC, go to Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center. They have a large number of basses in stock including a few Alembics! Hell, plan a trip to DC and tell your wife it's an educational thing for the kids!

The most important thing is to be patient. You have a lot of choices, so take your time. If you like it, that's all that counts.

Back to Part 1.


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