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  Selecting & Setting Up a Bass Guitar & Amp

A good instrument is extremely important for developing finger dexterity and proper technique on the bass guitar.

If you are considering a bass guitar purchase, please talk to me before you do so.  There is a wide variety of quality in each price range.

GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT BASSES

There are several features of bass guitars that you need to choose between:


4 vs 5 string

For beginners I strongly recommend a 4 string bass.  They are easier to learn on than 5 strings are, and the necks are a lot narrower and easier to play.


Single Coil vs Humbucker Pickups


Single coils are generally brighter and sound great for slapping but they pick up all sorts of noise from fluorescent lights, cell phones, etc.  Humbuckers are quieter and fatter sounding.  For beginners I generally recommend humbuckers.


Passive vs Active Electronics


Passive means you can turn down the volume and treble but you canít boost anything.  Active has a battery powered electronic circuit that gives you more powerful tone controls.  Active doesnít cost much more than passive, so I generally recommend active.


Neck Width


I personally prefer a narrow neck, but some people prefer a wider neck.  You should select a neck width that feels good to your hands and fingers.


Scale (neck length)


Iím not a big fan of short scale basses except for young children.  All the basses I play and recommend are 34Ē scale.


Fretted or Fretless

For beginners I recommend fretted basses.


Weight and Balance


This is a personal preference.  How does the bass feel to you?


Acoustic Electric vs Electric


"Electric" bass guitars look like electric guitars (solid body with pickups).  They sound better for most styles of music: rock, jazz, country, etc.  "Acoustic electric" bass guitars look like acoustic guitars (bulky hollow body with a spruce top with a hole in the middle.)  They are useful for folk and acoustic music, and they have the advantage that you can hear the sound without plugging them into an amp, so they are nice for practicing.  I generally recommend electricís because of the quality / price ratio is higher.

RECOMMENDED BASSES

There are several good basses in the $300-400 price range.  The three brands in this range most recommended on bass forums are the Ibanez SR series, Yamaha TRBX series, and Cort Action series.  All three of these basses are four string, 34" scale, with humbucker pickups, active electronics, and narrow necks.  If you want a Fender Jazz style bass (single coil, passive electronics, wider neck, punchy sound) in this price range, the Squier Classic Vibe (CV) 60ís Jazz bass is supposed to be pretty good.  Personally, however, my favorites are the Ibanez SR300 (or SR300M) (below left) and the Yamaha TRBX304 (below right).  Both of these basses feature a slim laminated 5-piece neck, good sounding humbucker pickups, active electronics with excellent tone controls, nice looking solid hardwood bodies with sculpted edges and deep cutaways, straight string pulls between the nut and the tuners, die cast tuners, and die cast bridges.  The Ibanez is a little lighter and sleeker, and is great for women and young players.  The Yamaha has excellent balance and excellent quality.  With decent strings on them, both of these basses sound great and play like butter.  (Irv owns the Yamaha and uses it as his primary bass.  Several of my students own the Ibanez, and it looks and sounds fantastic.)






SET UP IS CRITICAL

There are three adjustments that are critical to make the bass easy to play easily and sound good.  The first is the truss rod adjustment.  This adjusts the curve of the neck.  If the neck doesnít have enough curve, the strings will buzz on the frets.  If it has too much curve, it will be hard to play in the upper part of the neck.  The truss rod is different on different basses.  Irv can show you how to adjust the truss rod on your bass.

The second is individual string height adjustment.  This allows for fine tuning of string height for each string individually, whereas the truss rod adjusts them all together.  Again, if a string is too far away from the fretboard, the bass will be hard to play and painful for the fingers.  If it is too close, it will buzz.  Irv can also help you with this.

The third is individual string length adjustment.  It is important that this adjustment be correct or the bass will be out of tune with itself.  There is a procedure for adjusting/tuning strings that Irv can show you.  If you change string gauges or types, or adjust the truss rod, the string lengths will need to be re-done.

STRINGS

The brand and type of strings you put on your bass make a HUGE difference to the sound.  Some of the differences between various types of strings include:


Roundwound vs Flatwound


All bass strings consist of a long straight wire, around which another wire is wound.  If the wound wire is round, it is called roundwound.  If the wound wire is flat, it is called flatwound.  Roundwounds are brighter have have more harmonics, and are generally better for rock, pop, and country.  Flatwounds are smooth and silky to the touch, but they are much duller sounding, and are generally used for jazz.


Steel vs Nickel


The type of metal that the wound wire is made of makes a significant difference.  Steel is very bright sounding.  Nickel has a smoother sound and doesnít wear out your frets as fast.


Coated vs Noncoated


Uncoated bass strings generally last 3-6 months before they start sounding dull.  This dulling of sound is caused by oxidization and by oil, sweat, and grime from your hands getting into the windings and in the tiny space between the windings and the core wire.  Coated strings last longer because they help prevent contaminants from seeping through.


Gauge


Thick gauge strings (.045-.130) sound fat but are harder to play.  Thin gauge strings (.040-.095) are easier on the fingers but a little wimpy sounding.  I generally recommend mid gauge strings, which are .045-.065-.085-.105 (45 is the thinnest string which is G, 65 is D, 85 is A, and 105 is the thickest string which is E).


For most basses, I highly recommend Elixir Nanoweb ELX_14077 strings.  These are roundwound, nickel plated, nanoweb coated, medium gauge strings that have a nice sound and last longer than any other string.

AMPS

All bass players need some kind of an amp.  Real bass amps that have enough power to use for performing are quite large and quite expensive.  Decent ones cost more than most basses do. There are several brands that are excellent.  If this is the route you want to take, I recommend that you take your bass to Guitar Center and play through a bunch of them until you find one you like.

Fortunately, there is no need to spend that kind of money for a beginner student.  Several less expensive alternatives are available.


If you have a decent sound system on your computer, one option is to not buy an amp at all, and just plug the bass into your computer.  This way, you can play along with mp3ís and YouTube videos.  Youíll need a 1/4Ē male mono (TS) to 1/8Ē male mono (TS) cord to plug into the bass on one end and the computer microphone input jack on the other.  You can pick up such a cord at Radio Shack.  You'll also need software that allows the sound from the microphone input to go directly to the speakers.  (For Mac, there is a free downloadable app called ďLine InĒ that does the job perfectly.  Iím not sure for Windows.)

Another option is there are little 8Ē bass amps for $100-150 that are OK for practicing but they are somewhat shallow sounding and they wonít work for performance.

My personal recommendation for beginners is the ION Block Rocker Explorer Sound System, available at Samís Club for $150.  This little amp has a surprisingly good sound, a built in FM radio, Bluetooth capability to play songs from your phone or tablet, an input jack for your bass (a standard guitar cord fits; you can purchase such a cord at KSM Music), a 1/8Ē input jack for non-Bluetooth mp3 and CD players, and a built-in rechargeable lead acid battery that allows you to take it to the beach or whatever and play for several hours without AC power.  It even has a USB port for charging your phone.  Itís not very loud, but it sounds pretty good.  (This is the amp that Irv uses in his teaching studio.)

ACCESSORIES

Tuner
Every student needs a tuner.  If you have an acoustic-electric bass guitar, they usually have built-in tuners.  Most electric basses donít have a built-in tuner.  The best, most accurate, and easiest to use tuners for electric bass guitars are in-line tuners that you plug your bass into.  Some of these are floor mounted, and others are hand held.  (NOTE: clip-on headstock tuners work OK for guitars but not so well for basses.)

Guitar Strap
Beginners generally donít need a guitar strap because they usually practice sitting down, but youíll eventually want a strap.  Because basses are heavier than guitars, I recommend that you get a padded strap.  The rule for bass straps is: comfort is more important than looks.

Case or Bag
You will need some kind of protection for your bass guitar to transport it.  Gig bags will work OK if you are careful.  Some of the better quality gig bags have thick padding and offer more protection.  Or, for a little more money, you can get a soft shell case.  Hard shell cases are expensive and generally arenít worth the cost for inexpensive beginner basses.

Tools
For changing strings, I recommend a handy tool: the Planet Waves Bass Pro Winder.  It has a winder and a string clipper all in one tool.


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