How to Buy a Bass Guitar: A Guide for the First-Time Buyer
Gunther swung open my office door with a violent jolt and glared at me jealously. He wasn’t amused to see me sitting on the couch with a gorgeous blonde creature cradled in my arms.
“Ah, detective Watts,” he snarled, clenching a cigarette between his wolf-like teeth. “You found what I was looking for.”
I looked Gunther square in the eye as I slowly slid my hand along the supple curves of the blonde’s body. “Yeah, and you wouldn’t believe how cheap this one is,” I teased. “Here. Check it out yourself.”
Gunther’s greasy, greedy hands lustfully prowled the blonde’s body. “This feels good,” he growled like a warthog. “So gorgeous. Do you mind if I slap her?”
Gunther howled, wildly flailing his right hand like Rocky Marciano catching his wife in flagrante delicto. The veins in his left hand turned purple as he tightened his grip around the blonde’s neck. “That’s the kind of action I like!” he shouted. “Please. I’ve been looking for so long. Let me buy this one from you.”
I snatched the blonde beauty back into my arms and snapped at Gunther, “Cool it! I may be a private bass dick, but an old Chinese man once told me something I’ve never forgotten: ‘Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ Well, Gunther, today’s your lucky day. I’m going to show you how the catch the big fish.”
“But it’s so confusing,” Gunther whined. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Good basses are a dime-a-dozen in this two-bit town,” I replied. “Just follow my advice, and you’ll get a bass of your own that’s as sweet and sassy as this beautiful blonde. But this one’s mine.”
Finding a great bass doesn’t have to be a mystery. There are so many well-made, affordable basses on the market today that it’s never been easier to find a good instrument. But don’t just buy the first bass you get your hands on. There are still problems to be aware of and features to consider to insure that you get the best value and an instrument you’ll be happy playing for years to come.
Here are some guidelines to help you make the right decision.
Before you set foot in a store, you should have a clear idea of what you want. Doing research in advance will narrow down your options. Check out product reviews, ads, catalogs and manufacturer websites to become familiar with the features and specs of various models. Find out what your favorite bassists are playing. However, keep in mind that many players use modified custom shop axes that you won’t find on the racks at your local retailer.
Once you’ve pinpointed a few basses that appeal to you, learn all you can about them. What woods are they made of? What kind of pickups and electronics do they have? How long is the scale? The more familiar you are with specs, the easier it is to identify what features you like. It also will help you communicate your needs to a salesperson. For example, if you find the string spacing on a Precision Bass too wide for your hands, you’ll know to ask for a bass with a narrower fingerboard, like a Jazz Bass.
Never let your decisions be influenced exclusively by what your favorite players use, peer pressure or recommendations from a salesperson. You should love the instrument you’re going to buy, so don’t ignore your animal lust for a particular axe. “You have to have an emotional connection,” says bass maker Rob Allen of Rob Allen Guitars. “Choose a bass that you like to look at and always want to play. It’s a very personal decision, almost like choosing a mate.”
Once you have a good idea what you want, it’s time to visit a few stores and try out some basses. Once you’re in the store, focus on the basses within your price range, but don’t be afraid to try instruments beyond your budget. Trying a more expensive bass can give you a great perspective on how a well-crafted bass is supposed to look and feel.
Check out details like the fretwork, how the neck feels, what the finish looks like and how carefully the hardware is installed, and compare these features to the basses you can afford. If an instrument you’ve selected seems similar to a much more expensive axe, chances are it’s a great value.
Neck and Neck
Examine the neck first. Run your fretting hand along the neck and note how well it fits in your hand. Does the fingerboard feel too wide or narrow? Is it easy to play or do you struggle to fret notes? Don’t worry if you don’t know how to play or are just a beginner. If the instrument doesn’t feel comfortable in your hands it’s probably not right for you.
“Check how the instrument feels,” recommends MTD’s Michael Tobias. “If an instrument doesn’t play well from the start, chances are it never will. Have the salesperson make sure that the instrument is set up properly. If it isn’t, ask if the store can set it up for you.”
Try playing the bass both sitting down and standing up. Strap on the bass and release your hands. If the neck slides down and points to the ground, the neck is too heavy. While a bass with a heavy neck may be perfectly playable, it will cause muscle fatigue more quickly because your fretting hand is supporting the neck. Some body shapes don’t fit comfortably on your lap. If you plan on using the bass for practice or recording situations when you’ll be sitting down, you should consider another instrument.
Next, play notes on every fret on every string as well as the open strings to check for buzzing and dead spots. If you can’t play well, bring along a friend who plays or your bass instructor. If any open strings buzz but the buzzing disappears when you hold down that string at the first fret, the nut is probably cut too deep and will need to be replaced. Buzzing frets are sometimes caused by a bad setup, which you can easily fix, but they may also be caused by bad fretwork or a warped or twisted neck, which are very expensive to fix.
How can you determine if the neck is warped? A bass string at full tension forms a perfectly straight line, so you can use a string as a gauge. Press down the heaviest string so it touches the first and last frets simultaneously and note how the neck aligns with the string. A properly set up neck will have a slight curve, and the string will not touch the frets in between the first and last frets. If there is too much space between the string and frets—say, wider than the string itself—the neck has too much relief and the truss rod needs to be tightened.
If all the frets touch the string the neck may be perfectly straight, which is okay, or it could be bowed, which will cause the lower frets to buzz. In this case you’ll need to loosen the truss rod (allow only an experienced repairperson to adjust the truss rod). If the neck is bowed in an “s” shape (meaning some frets in the upper or lower section of the neck touch the frets, while the opposite side doesn’t touch the frets), the neck is badly warped or twisted, and you should look for another bass.