How do you buy a bass guitar? Easy! You go to a music store and give them a bunch of money.
The real question of course is, how do you choose the bass that’s right for you.
Recently, someone was asking me about choosing an inexpensive first bass. The questions were all about what kinds of wood the bass should have. Is basswood good? Is agathis better? I’m familiar with both woods but since I wanted to get my facts straight, I thought I’d better start doing some research.
But after a few minutes I realized how many basses I’d bought over the years and, good or bad choices, how often did the type of wood determine if I purchased it.
Mostly I think my decisions come down to:
- Does it sound good?
- Does it feel good?
- Does it look good?
- And, does it work well?
Really what else is there?
Well how much money you have really goes to the top of the list. Given enough money you could surely buy the best bass in the world. Right? Well, maybe not.
Let’s go through the list of things to consider. Not in the above order, but rather in the sequence that they occur. And, I’m going to assume that you are a player and not collector.
- Not unlike when you are looking for a car or even a partner, usually it’s the visuals that get you first. Is that bass shiny or does it have that certain look? It really is important. But just more than a shiny paint job, does it it fit in with the style and look of the kind of band or musicians you are playing with. A double neck Gibson SG isn’t going to fit in well with that Celtic folk band, is it? But more importantly, does it stir up some emotion in you? If so, that probably a good thing. Isn’t music all about emotion?
- Once you grab that bass down off the wall, you start to get a feel for it. Is it heavy? Or, does it feel light and flimsy? You’ll probably start off playing it sitting in a stool. Is it comfortable to hold? Is it head heavy? That is, if you let go of it does the head and neck drop toward the floor? If you sit with a bass a lot, it is comfortable in your lap? I have a bass where the lower horn sticks in to my leg. So I keep a folded towel in my lap while playing it. How does your hand fit around the neck? And, very importantly how is that action? That is, are the strings easy to press against the fretboard. Play some scales. Actually play chromatic scales up the entire neck. Do you hear buzzes? Is there a comfortable place for you right hand? There are so may types of right hand methods that may make a bass work, or not work, for your particular style. Try playing with a strap and make sure you can get comfortable playing standing up with it. And, even though this seems silly, ask someone what the bass looks like on you. If you are tiny a huge bass can make you look like something from a circus show. Conversely, I’m quite tall and I once had someone tell me a bass was too small for me.
- Okay, so this far, it looks good and it feels good. But, most important, does it sound good. After all when somebody listens to your record in twenty years are they going to say, “yeah but they played an ugly bass”? To be honest the above points can effect the sound. If you have a bass that is uncomfortable, it is going to affect how well you play it. But this is were the rubber hits the road. And cheap bass, expensive bass, basswood or solid granite, what you want is good sound. When Paul McCartney started playing bass in The Beatles he couldn’t afford an expensive Fender bass. Instead he bought a cheaper bass. That bass helped to define the sound of the band for it’s first few albums. Overall the sound is what matters most and every bass will have a different sound. And even buying a brand new American Fender Jazz Deluxe is not going to ensure you get a great bass. If you want a Fender Jazz bass, play several of them. You find they all have a different feel and sound. In one store I played an Epiphone bass costing $350.00 and the same Gibson bass cost about $1300.00. I quite honestly can say that the Epiphone had a sound that I thought was superior to the Gibson.
- So now that you’ve decided that is the bass for you, let’s get down to the logical side of the purchase. If the action isn’t perfect, can it be adjusted? Most new instruments aren’t that well setup and a good setup can fix a lot of stuff. But there are problems that setups don’t always fix. And if you’re buying a new instrument, shouldn’t it already be setup? Kinda. They are setup in the factory. At least roughly. And most good music stores will perform some level of setup for you. Part of the setup, and your own evaluation beforehand, is the intonation. For modern basses this is mostly not a problem. The fret slots have been cut by a CNC machine and most bridges are fully adjustable. One notable exception is the Hofner 500/1 B-Bass. It comes with an old fashioned floating bridge. It can be adjusted, but you have to know how to do it. The other thing about most instrument purchases is that you never know who’s been playing these things before you buy them. Even if you buy them direct, it’s likely that somebody’s been playing the bass and likely they didn’t wash their hands. Not that I’m a germaphobe, but those dirty hands deaden the strings. So if that bass doesn’t have that pristine sound, you want, a new set of strings can make a big difference. Often, if you ask, you can get a set thrown in.
- The last point, which maybe should be the first, is of course money. Before you decide to buy, like anything, you need a budget. As of this writing, here’s my price guidelines. (USD or CAD)
- less than $500.00 – budget
- $500.00 to $900.00 – intermediate
- $900.00 to $1400.00 – professional
- $1400.00 to $2000.00 – premium
- above $2000 – collector or boutique
It should be noted that these prices are just general guidelines, but it gives a good sampling of what instruments go for. There are certainly instruments in the budget range that are totally playable and more than adequate to learn on. But if you look around you’ll find quite a few pros that play on those so called budget instruments. The Fender Mexican made (intermediate) basses as certainly decent instruments, but play a few to find a good one. That said, even the Fender American “professional” instruments vary dramatically in quality. So play a few. A great number of instrument these days are being made in China, Korea and Indonesia. The prices are amazing and the quality is surprisingly good. But made in America, Germany, or Japan is more desirable and more expensive.
Make sure when you buy a bass you get a case or gigbag. Hardshell cases are optimal for protecting your instrument, but gig bags are way more practical. Unless you have a hollow body instrument, in this case I prefer a hardshell case. I like gig bags for, well, gigging. It’s way easier to carry a gig bag over your shoulder and to get the instrument in and out of the bag in a cramped venue.
If you are buying more expensive instruments, try to negotiate a strap in to the deal. They all need to be set to different lengths so I try to have a strap for each bass that I keep in the gig bag for that bass.
Hopefully this has been helpful to those that are buying a new bass. It’s the first step in one of the most rewarding aspects of your live.