How to Buy a Bass Guitar: A Guide for the First-Time Buyer
Anatomy of a Bass
Body construction is the next feature to inspect. Key areas to focus upon include:
The neck pocket: This is where the neck attaches to the body on a bass with a bolt-on neck (if the neck is glued to the body or the bass has a neck-through-body design, move on to the next item!). The neck should fit snugly in the pocket, with little or no space between. If you can easily slide anything thicker than a business card between the neck and body, you may want to consider another instrument. Neck pocket gaps decrease harmonic overtones and sustain, resulting in dull, lifeless tone.
The finish: Check the paintjob for bubbles, dimples, “orange peel” and other defects. While an instrument with a poor paint job can still play and sound great, lack of attention to this detail often means that the overall construction is haphazard.
Body materials: The cheapest basses on the market are often constructed of a plywood “butcher block” amalgamation of wood pieces that are glued together, heavily sanded, and covered with a single-piece veneer and a heavy finish. “Some of those instruments can sound good, but it’s a crapshoot,” says Allen. “Usually the wood is too heavy and doesn’t resonate well because it is full of glue, which has no resonant frequency.”
Check manufacturer specs for details like a one-, two- or three-piece body. Don’t be fooled by terms like “solid” body or “wood” body, as this may not tell the whole story. While it’s getting more and more difficult to spot plywood construction, it’s often revealed when you look at the finish from a variety of angles. Look for uneven surfaces separated by straight lines, which are tell-tale signs that various pieces were glued together.
The next areas to examine are the instrument’s hardware and electronics. Inspect the bridge, tuners, pickups, controls, control plate/pickguard (if the bass has one) and string trees to see if they are aligned and attached properly. Make sure that none of the screws are stripped or inserted at odd angles.
Adjust the tuning pegs to see how they feel; they should turn smoothly with slight resistance. If they’re too stiff or too loose, the instrument will be difficult to tune properly. Lightly tug on the strings near the nut and the bridge—the strings should not pop out of place. If they pull out at the nut, the instrument may not be strung properly (which is easy to rectify) or the nut may be too shallow (which will cost you to fix). If the strings pull out at the bridge, the bridge saddles may be loose or cut too shallow. Avoid any instrument with strings that pop out of place, especially it you have an aggressive playing style.
Turn the knobs and flip the switches. The knobs should turn smoothly without too much or too little resistance. The switches should click into each setting firmly and you should easily be able to tell where they are set.
Listen Up, Wise-Guy
Now comes one of the most crucial tests of all—plugging in the bass to hear how it sounds. Don’t plug the bass into any old amp. Use an amp you already own or plan on buying. If you haven’t made any amp decisions yet, try the bass through a variety of models. An amp influences tone as much as the instrument itself, so if you’re auditioning the bass through a rig that’s different from what you’d normally use, the instrument could sound markedly different when you get it home.
Check out the controls once again. Turn the bass up to a decent volume and listen for scratchy, staticlike noises while you adjust the knobs and excessively loud pops or clicks while you flick the switches. If you hear these sounds you’ll need to replace the controls or find a better bass.
Set the amp to a comfortable volume and turn off any effects. Try all the different pickup and tone control settings. Play up and down the neck on each string. Does the bass sound warm, bright, dull or thin? Do you like the way it sounds? This is the most subjective part of the bass-buying process.
A thin-sounding bass could be perfect for a bassist who plays with a large ensemble of musicians because its tone occupies a specific range. A bass with huge tone may be better for a player in a power trio because it covers a wide tonal spectrum. It all depends on your personal preferences and needs. Don’t buy a bass with poor tone believing you can fix its sound with another amp, effects or EQ processors. The bass you buy should sound good from the start.
The Stuff Dreams are Made Of
By now you should be holding a good bass in your hands. But before you lay down your hard-earned cash, consider saving money a little longer until you can afford an even better model. “Don’t be afraid to spend more if an expensive instrument motivates you,” suggests Allen. “It’s a better investment to buy a bass that you really want to play instead of one that you just like a little. If you’re serious about playing, the extra cost will seem insignificant after you’ve owned the instrument a few years.”
Michael Tobias agrees. “You’re less likely to outgrow a more expensive instrument,” he says. “You could buy a cheaper bass with the intention of upgrading its hardware and electronics, but you’ll probably end up spending more money than if you just bought a better bass. Buy the best bass you can afford because it will last longer. You may find a great deal on a cheaper instrument, but if you don’t like it as much you’re not getting a deal. You’re the one who has to live with your buying decision, so be careful what you buy.”