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?”

“Go ahead.”

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.

True Detective

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.

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.

Hard-Boiled Hardware

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.”

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