A bass guitar is built from many components, which contribute to its sound. In this article, we will inspect each component and evaluate options to help you figure out which bass to get.
At the end of the article, I will provide some sample builds as well.
Neck mass is primarily a matter of comfort. Players with big hands may prefer thick necks, while players with smaller hands may prefer thin necks.
However, neck mass allegedly affects the tone as well (check details here). According to that theory, which I subjectively support as well:
- If the neck has more mass, it will be thick and wide – a little harder to play fast, but the sound will have more low-mid body.
- If the neck has less mass, it will be thin and narrow – a little easier to play fast, but the sound will have less low-mid body.
That’s why many Precision basses have wide and thick necks. That contributes to their low-mid oriented sound. On the other hand, check the Geddy Lee signature Jazz bass – it’s thin neck will allow you to play fast lines easier, but its sound will have less body than even the average Jazz basses.
- If you have a strong preference for comfort, pick comfort over sound. If your hands are not happy, you won’t make good music anyway.
- Otherwise; pick bulky necks for a full sound (low-mids) or thin necks for scooped sound (good for slap) or speed.
If you are feeling finicky, you may consider the neck sawing type as well.
Fingerboard material will mostly affect the top-end of your sound, but contributes to the bottom end as well.
- Maple is a light-colored hard wood. It emphasizes lows & highs. If the tone is closed, it will growl beautifully (especially on the bridge pickup), but as you open the tone, it will emphasize pick / fret / finger noise as well – which may or may not be desirable for you.
- Rosewood is a dark-colored soft wood. It sponges some of the extreme frequencies, and provides a warm, mid-oriented sound. However, rosewood needs periodic maintenance with lemon oil.
- Pau Ferro can be considered as an alternative of rosewood – they have similar characteristics.
- Ebony is like a mixture of maple and rosewood. It is dark like rosewood, but hard like maple. It has an unmistakable “clicky” sound – not as bright as maple, but you hear the click as you play. Typically preferred for metal or fretless basses.
So, how to pick the best fingerboard material? Here are some suggestions; involving your string choice as well.
Body wood choice usually goes hand-in-hand with the fingerboard choice. Traditionally speaking;
That’s because those body types support the features of their corresponding necks very well. So; if you don’t feel adventurous, match a maple fingerboard with an ash body, or a rosewood fingerboard with an alder body.
Some players cross-match those woods and get good results too – it all depends on your tonal goal.
Basswood is a wood type you might encounter as well. It is a very soft wood, which is not only prone to accidental dents, but it also soaks up some of your sustain. Due to its cheap price, it is preferred on affordable instruments. However; some high end basses (such as MusicMan Bongo) also use basswood, mind you.
Pickups may be confusing at first, but I will share some tips on how to hear them with your eyes – before even plugging the guitar in.
- Position: Imagine the body of the bass like an EQ board.
- As the pickup gets closer to the neck, it will have a warmer / bassier sound.
- As the pickup gets closer to the bridge, it will have a brighter / treblier sound.
- Width: It is commonly believed (but disagreed by some) that:
- If the pickup is thin (like single coils), it will produce a thinner but more articulate sound.
- If the pickup is thick (like soap bars), it produce a thicker but less articulate sound.
- Humbuckers are the pinnacle of thick pickups. They are very thick and full, but can get muddy very easily.
- Alnico magnets produce a traditional sound
- Ceramic magnets produce a modern, hi-fi sound
Therefore; you need to decide where the pickup(s) should be and how thick they need to be.
Luckily for us; the sweet spots for pickups and the ideal widths are determined a long time ago – mostly by Leo Fender. Here are some examples:
- In its default position, Jazz Bass neck pickup gives a deep, bassy sound; but is rarely used on its own. It is mainly there to blend with the bridge pickup.
- In its default position (60’s or 70’s), Jazz Bass bridge pickup gives a growly, honky, nasal sound made famous by Jaco Pastorius. The thin pickup gives a very articulate sound, ideal for soloing, tapping, chords or fast phrases. However; it can have a hard time supporting the low-end of a full band – therefore, it is usually mixed with the neck pickup.
- On MusicMan StingRay, Leo Fender attempted to solve this problem by placing a humbucker close to the bridge. Its position makes the sound trebly and barky, while its massive size makes the sound full as well. However; this configuration ends up producing a very scooped sound – meaning that it has a strong bass & treble response, but lacks mids. Good for slapping or aggressiveness, though.
- In its default position, the wide Precision Bass pickup produces a wide low-mid oriented frequency response. It is neither as deep nor as articulate as a Jazz Bass, but it occupies a naturally idle space in the audio spectrum and fills the low-end of loud or crowded bands beautifully – right between the kick and guitars – without clashing and fighting other instruments for sonic space.
Considering those classic examples;
|Neck humbucker||Gibson EB-2||Sub-bass||Muddiness|
|Neck + bridge single||Jazz Bass||Bass + high mids||Articulation|
|Mid humbucker||Precision Bass||Low mids||Groove |
Loud or crowded bands
|Bridge Humbucker||StingRay||Bass + treble||Slapping|
There are some basses with humbucker / single coil tap switches, which seem to be the best of both worlds; but there is a catch: Winding.
- Humbuckers contain 2x relatively under-wound single coil pickups, because under-winding is just enough. 2x over-wound pickups would end up in a muddy, non-articulate sound.
- Single coils have relatively over-wound pickups – that’s how they can sound full and strong despite being thin.
If your pickup is an humbucker (2x under-wound single coils) and you switch to single coil mode, you end up with a weak sound. If your pickups are over-wound single coils and you switch to humbucker mode, you end up with an over-emphasized muddy sound.
Different companies have different solutions to that problem; but be mindful that having a coil tap doesn’t always mean that you have an ideal humbucker + single coil instrument in one bass. More often than not, this switch comes with a compromise.
If that wouldn’t be the case, you wouldn’t see a humbucker-only or single-coil-only bass in the hands of pros, right?
There are countless electronic configurations for bass guitars, but they all break down into two categories.
Passive basses basically work without a battery. They have an open, natural sound; preferred by purists and many studio engineers. But that nice, smooth sound comes at a cost.
- You have very limited tone-shaping options on your bass – you can only cut the treble, mostly.
- Their high-impedance signal is very fragile – if the path from your bass to the amp is too long (due to long cables, pedals, etc); you may lose some of your top end frequencies. That’s why many passive bass players use buffers / DI boxes / etc. to preserve their signals.
- Some passive basses may not have enough output for some pedals / tube amps to work as intended, and may need an extra boost pedal.
Active basses need batteries to work. They have a compressed sound with a tighter bottom end; which may be preferred for a modern up-front sound. You usually get a boost / cut EQ on the bass itself for tone shaping purposes, and their low-impedance signal is not as fragile as passive basses. Cost?
- For better or worse, the signal output is colored by the preamp.
- If the battery dies, the bass goes silent.
- You can’t leave the jack in the bass or the battery dies quickly.
So, which one is good for whom?
- If you want a traditional, natural sound and don’t want to worry about the battery / preamp dying on you, get a passive bass.
- If you want a modern, colored sound and don’t mind battery management, get an active bass.
- If you need both, consider a bass with active / passive switching
Strings are one of the most significant components in sound-shaping; but luckily for us, they are relatively cheap and easy to change.
- Steel is stiffer, eat the frets faster and produce a very bright sound.
- Nickel is softer, eat the frets slower and produce a balanced sound.
- Flat-wound: Easy on fingers and frets, produces a dull, warm sound.
- Half-wound / ground-wound: The middle ground between round and flat wounds. They bring the best-or-worst-of-both worlds, depending on your point of view.
So, how to pick the right string?
Motown, blues, classic rock
Upright bass simulation
|Round-wound steel||Bright||Modern, trebly sound|
The right string strongly depends on your fingerboard material as well – we discussed this on the fingerboard section.
Finally, we are bringing all of the pieces together. Here are some sample builds that would serve its corresponding purpose well.
Obligatory components are marked with ❗️ . Suggestions are marked with ❔.
❗️Round steel strings
Bassy & trebly
❗️Single bridge pickup
❔Round nickel strings
|Upright simulation||❗️Thick neck|
|Pop / rock support||❗️Thick neck|
❗️Round nickel strings
Cuts through mix
|Pop / rock spotlight||❗️Thin neck|
❗️Neck + bridge pickup
❗️Round nickel strings
|Modern metal||❔Average neck|
❗️Round steel strings
Lots of top end
|Reggae / dub||❗️Thick neck|
Mind you that most of the tone comes from the hands. The instrument is supplementary.
This article hopefully also demonstrated why many pro players own more than one bass. Each configuration brings a unique set of characteristics; which would be ideal for some cases but inappropriate for some others.
Please be mindful that there are no rules in music. Whatever I wrote in this article, has been or will surely be falsified by some player(s) who succeeded by doing the exact opposite. The ideas discussed here are mostly traditional approaches, which are bound to be broken someday.
The purpose of music is the transmission of emotions. If you were successful, it means that your technique and gear were right.
Jim Lill ran a comprehensive test on guitars to see which components affect the sound the most, I recommend watching it.