There has never been a better time to pick up one of the best bass guitars for a number of reasons, but chiefly because players have never had so much choice, such high quality instruments to choose from and, most importantly, so many great deals on great gear.
Whether you’re looking for a funkifiable four-string bass to put some bounce in your slap, or a more understated instrument for old-school jazz fingerstyle, there is no shortage of options – and, crucially, options at every price point.
That invites its own pressures, of course. Just how do you choose the right one for you? Well, no one said it’s going to be easy, but as with buying any instrument, once you've done your due diligence, weighed up the countervailing benefits of the spec, the right guitar will speak to you.
In this guide we’ll be looking at basses from Fender, Yamaha, Ernie Ball Music Man and others, each offering excellent value and playability in their price range, but with basses for all budgets.
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The next generation of Fender’s American-built Precision, the Fender American Ultra Precision Bass, is a doozy. With an Ultra Noiseless Vintage Jazz Bass single-coil in the bridge and its split-coil counterpart in the middle, the American Ultra P-Bass is one hugely versatile instrument. The new Modern D neck profile feels incredible, complementing a newly contoured body for a truly superlative playing experience.
Yamaha has really nailed the ability to make super-playable instruments at accessible prices and yet the really gorgeous Yamaha BB435 5-string is remarkable. The build is solid, with the six-bolt miter neck joint doing a pretty good job of imitating a neck-through, and you can get all kinds of tones out of the ever-reliable P/J pickup combo.
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All basses are not created equal. You’ve got short scale vs long scale and four-string vs five- or six-string bass guitars, and that’s before we get to the theological schism with the electronics: active vs passive. Maybe we should start there.
Passive vs active bass guitar
What’s the difference? Well put simply, passive basses have no onboard preamp and so their output is generated 100 percent by their pickups. The controls on a passive bass can only attenuate the master tone and volume of the instrument. The active bass has an onboard preamp, typically powered by a 9V or 18V battery. This preamp boosts the pickup’s signal and the bass’s EQ can be used to cut or boost frequencies. You’ll typically have a 2- or 3-band EQ that gives you a little more control over your tones.
There are other differences, too. The onboard preamp of active basses can compress your tone slightly, whereas those dynamics remain up for grab on a passive bass. As to which is better, there is no right or wrong answer; whatever sounds best to you is best, and that’s all there is.
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More than a feeling?
Indeed, what feels like the best bass guitar for you is what’s best, too. How a bass feels can be a question of scale. Short-scale basses – such as the Mustang we list below here – can be more approachable from a playing point of view, especially from guitarists who wish to take part in the rhythm section for the first time.
There is a shorter space between frets, the neck is – by definition – shorter. Again, hi, guitarists, it will feel more manageable, and yet there are some studio cracks – such as Justin Meldal-Johnsen whose Mustang we’ve listed here – who prefer the tone, which, courtesy of the shorter string length is darker, and with a bass guitar that means more low-end. That can make all the difference in the mix.
Otherwise, consider 34” to be the industry standard, with basses such as the Squier Jaguar Classic Vibe coming in somewhere down the middle with 32” scales.
Best bass guitars: tonewoods
As for tonewoods, with bass, the world is your oyster. In terms of pushing instrument design forward, bass manufacturers have been early adopters of alternative tonewoods to the ash/alder/mahogany paradigm. Of course, you’ll find these here, too, but also more exotic choices such as ovangkol, bubinga and panga panga – each with their own frequency response.
Which of these basses is right for you, only you can answer that. But the only question you need ask yourself when you pick it up and play it is, ‘Does it make me want to play it all the time?’ That’s what we are all looking for, a bass that makes you want to play it.
We've rounded up our favorites right now, and listed them in price order to make it easier to find the right one for your budget. Our price comparison widgets will display the best prices you'll find online, too.
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Say you were blindfolded and thrown into the bass section of your local music store and asked to retrieve the first bass you found, chances are you will return with something inspired by the Jazz Bass.
Since it was first introduced – disingenuously billed as the “two-pickup Precision” – in 1960, the Jazz Bass has inspired countless imitators, and has consistently been tweaked and revised by Fender through the ages. There’s a reason for this; the design looks cool and it works. The Classic Vibe Jazz Bass is based on those original ‘60s models, and Fender’s entry-level brand Squier will give you a supremely comfortable ride and some uncannily vintage tones and plenty of change from 500 bucks.
It’s a great deal. The tones are on-the-money as far as the Jazz Bass goes – thumping, in your face, but elastic and alive – and the controls that offer a wide sweep of tones.
Read the full Squier Classic Vibe '60s Jazz Bass review
The BB435 nails that vintage-modern vibe, and like all great instruments it has a timeless quality, capable of holding its own in any company. Now, Yamaha does a very neat line in pro basses – the BBP35 is an exceptional top-line version of the BB435 that we’d recommend in a heartbeat – but this is an exceptionally priced instrument.
The BB435 is an absolute hoot to play, lively, dynamic, and it has a fuss-free control system where a master tone serves both pickups and you can adjust the balance via independent volume controls. There are certainly more detailed onboard EQ shaping options on a bass guitar, but few as simple or elegant.
The BB435 would make a superlative choice for any player looking for their first five-string. The low B string is tight. The build is exceptional throughout – this is a bolt-on but the six-bolt miter neck joint is so strong you might swear it’s a string-through. This allied to the clever 45-degree string-through bridge helps set the BB435 apart.
Some bassists just can’t get on with the Thunderbird. There is a lot of shape going on. Some say it can be a little imbalanced, prone to neck tilt. But if you love it, you love it; and there’s really nothing quite like it, with its dual-humbuckers providing all kinds of thumping low-end radness and the mahogany winged, neck-through body rounding it all out.
And, furthermore, it’s very cool, played by the likes of Kim Gordon, Krist Novoselic, and John Entwistle. This Epiphone reproduction of the Gibson ‘Bird ($2,299) hits all the right notes, stylistically and tonally.
There’s a pair of Epiphone ProBucker Bass #760 Humbuckers to bring the thunder, a good and clubby ‘60s style neck profile, and the ‘reverse’ body shape is there to be swung around. It’s probably not a slap bass (though we’d say you can play anything on anything; it’s always the chops that count), but for rock and roll, blues, punk, filling the pocket full of eighth notes with a little overdrive, there’s nothing better.
As the name suggests, the Tribute L-2000 is a replica of its Leo Fender-designed namesake that debuted in 1980. What blew minds then and still does is the switching system. There’s a trio of knobs, a trio of toggle switches, and a cornucopia of tone options to be had here – toggle between active and passive modes, between neck, middle or both humbuckers, and series/parallel mode. This jemmies open the sonic possibilities even before you get to the two-band EQ.
If the switching and EQ controls seem a little esoteric at first – and you’ll have a fun time finding the sweet spot – the performance of this modestly priced four-string puts it firmly in the workhorse category.
The hardware won’t let you down. The Saddle-Lock bridge is a Leo design, neat, sturdy, and a solid platform. The tuners are open-backed, old-school. But it’s the pickups and electronics that people will ask you about after the show. Those US-made G&L MFD humbuckers are overwound with a ceramic core and they’re powerful. And they’ve got individually adjustable pole pieces, just in case the switches and EQ didn’t present enough choice.
The Stiletto Studio 6 challenges the notion that the six-string bass can feel a little intimidating, that it’s perhaps a niche instrument, with an exclusive price tag to boot. Sure, a nut width of 54mm might bring tears to an avowed four-stringer’s eyes, but the neck’s thin C profile is shallow enough to ease you in and help adjust to all that extra fretboard territory.
What will you use it for? Well the six-string format makes possible all kinds of progressive and outré jazz-funk styles, and the EMG 45Hz humbucker pairing and comprehensive 3-band EQ let you dial in pretty much whatever you want. Scoop the mids for some effervescent slap, or boost them and the treble for some really up-front, bass-as-a-lead instrument tones.
The extra jumbo frets reward a light touch and the neck-through build, which sees the neck dissolve into the body, leaves a heel that offers zero resistance to your reaching the summit of that fretboard. The build quality is what we would expect from a South Korean Schecter, i.e. tip-top, and it ain’t light but the balance feels pretty much bang on.
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We never had the Fender Mustang down as a do-it-all bass but it’s telling that Justin Meldal-Johnsen swears by his ’67 Mustang as his number one bass. Meldal-Johnsen is a renowned session player who has played with Nine Inch Nails, Garbage and Beck – and there is not really a Venn Diagram you can draw with much overlap between those.
So what makes the Mustang so special? Well the 30” scale makes for one incredibly accessible little bass. It might feel a little short to some, but if you have recently moved onto bass from guitar this will feel incredible.
And it sounds great, too. There is just volume and tone, but there is plenty of range on that tone pot, and the custom-wound Seymour Duncan split-coil is an excellent all-rounder, putting a little teeth and hair onto the Mustang’s tone, a vintage passive voice that holds its own in a band setting. The thumb rest will come in handy too for those who do their picking up by the neck. It’s almost like having a neck pickup…
As you might expect from the SR Premium line, the SR2405W is a meticulous bass that feels stage-ready out of the box, and it is well-tooled to make full use of your stage and studio time.
First off, it is so playable, with a whip-quick neck that’s a joy to breeze along – its profile offers ample compensation for the nut width (45mm) to accommodate that fifth string. This is a smart choice for the gigging bassist and especially for those whose style is that bit more effervescent. The slap players will find a lot of funk-ready tones here, with the 3-band EQ and pickup pan offering a panoramic vista of Planet Tone.
Okay, so the SR2405W is a bass you’d think twice about playing down the local dive bar for it has a finish that deserves a cordon sanitaire and 24/7 security to protect against dings and theft. When the inevitable ding comes it will be painful. But just plug it in and play again; that’ll bring the smile back to your face. And the price? Well, it ain’t nothin’ but Ibanez has stacked the features high on this.
The American Ultra Series’s approach presents a more evolutionary than revolutionary approach to modernising Fender’s top-line US-built instruments, and we think they found the sweet spot. Take this Precision Bass. It is unmistakably a P-Bass; the classic silhouette is present and correct. You’ve got a choice of an alder body or ash, retro pick-guards in three-ply mint green or 4-ply tortoiseshell.
But with a new Modern D neck profile, the 10-14” compound radius fingerboard, HiMass bridge, lightweight tuners and a newly designed preamp, it’s an altogether more contemporary proposition.
The American Ultra body is also more heavily contoured across the back, with a newly sculpted heel allowing a free pass to the upper frets. The Ultra Noiseless pickups are an excellent pairing also, with the punchier Vintage Jazz single-coil in the bridge position offering a nice counterpoint to the rounded warmth of that middle position split-coil.
It ain’t cheap but the smart new finishes, the player-friendly amendments (improvements?) to an all-time classic and the tones are worth it.
Read the full Fender American Ultra Precision Bass review
Since its introduction in 1976, the Music Man StingRay has come to define the company’s bass-making. It is the most-recognisable model – well, the Bongo might be more of a head-turner, but this is the one that made it famous.
As with all of the designs that Leo Fender had a hand in, there is an understated brilliance and a sense of practicality – and it’s a bolt-on construction, too. Hey, when you get it right first time, why change? Now, the StingRay does not come cheap but that outlay goes into the fine details; the stainless steel frets, the compensated nut, the finish, the wood choice, and the pickups and electronics.
Here you can pretty much do anything. You’ve got a pair of redesigned humbuckers, an 18-volt preamp and 3-band EQ for some of the fattest bass tones you could imagine, or some of the sharpest, or with a midrange upper-cut that could draw blood. The StingRay welcomes all styles. Its neck is on the fat side but make no mistake, this plays perfectly.
People often talk about the Warwick growl and, really, it is officially a thing and a joy to behold. There’s an upfront, pugnacious quality to the active MEC J-Style pickups that, should you turn it up loud enough, will deliver all the thunder you need for rock settings.
But the Thumb is a triumph of modern bass design that plays the percentages. Some might decry the 2-band EQ – many players want explicit control over the mids and that’s cool – but if you think of the balance control between both pickups as an auxiliary mids control you will find all the control you need. There is also a push-pull on the volume control to bypass the active electronics for another range of passive tones. Very cool.
The build is exceptional, as you’d expect from Warwick’s Teambuilt Pro Series, and the balance between the long-scale neck and compact, ergonomic body is really a kind of magic.
Oh, and the body and neck is ovangkol – a sustainable tonewood introduced by Taylor that sounds somewhere between rosewood and koa – and the BO of the name stands for bolt-on. So yeah, there really is no need to keep your distance.