DDV Music - Music Information and Education

Bass Guitar

Martin EB18 Bass Guitar in flight case
Martin EB18 Bass Guitar in flight case

The electric bass guitar (also called electric bass or simply bass) is an electrically amplified plucked string instrument. It is similar in appearance to an electric guitar but has a larger body, a longer-scale neck, and, usually, four strings (compared to six on an electric guitar) tuned an octave lower in pitch. Electric basses may be fretted or fretless, but fretted basses are far more common in most popular music settings. There are also hollow-bodied acoustic bass guitars.

Since the 1950s the electric bass has largely replaced the double bass in popular music as the instrument that provides the low-pitched bassline(s) and bass runs. The electric bass is used as a soloing instrument in jazz, fusion, Latin, and funk styles, and bass solos are sometimes performed in other genres.


1920s prototypes

In the 1920s and early 1930s, several early prototypes of electric double basses were developed. Even though these instruments had electric pickups, they were still variants of the double bass, because they were unfretted and played vertically. The Audiovox Manufacturing Company in Seattle, Washington had an upright solidbody electric bass on the market by February 1935, designed by Paul Tutmarc, a musician, instrument maker, and amplifier designer.

1930s: Fretted basses

Subsequently, Paul Tutmarc developed a guitar-style electric bass instrument that was fretted and designed to be held and played horizontally. Audiovox's sales catalogue of 1935-6 listed what is probably the world's first fretted, solid body electric bass that is designed to be played horizontally - the Model #736 Electric Bass Fiddle. The change to a "guitar" form made the instrument easier to hold and transport; the addition of guitar-style frets enabled bassists to play in tune more easily (which also made the new electric bass easier to learn).

1950s and 1960s: Fender Bass

A self-taught electrical engineer named Leo Fender developed the first mass-produced electric bass in the 1950s. His Fender Precision Bass became a widely-copied industry standard. The Precision Bass evolved from a simple, uncontoured 'slab' body design with a single piece, four-pole pickup to a contoured body design with beveled edges for comfort and a single "split coil pickup" (staggered humbucker).

In 1960, Fender introduced the Fender Jazz Bass, which became an industry standard. The jazz bass featured two single-coil pickups, one close to the bridge and one in the Precision bass' position, each with separate volume and tone controls. As well, the neck was more narrow at the nut than the Precision bass (1 1/2" vs 1 3/4"). Pickup positions on other manufacturers' basses are often referred to as "P" or "J" position pickups, in reference to Precision and Jazz basses. During the 1960s, Fender also produced a six-string bass, the Fender VI, although it was tuned higher than a modern six-string bass.)

Following Fender's lead, other companies such as Gibson, Danelectro, and many others started to produce their own version of the electric bass. Some, like the Rickenbacker 4000 series, became identified with a particular style of music. Rickenbackers became identified with progressive rock bassists.

1970s: Boutique Basses

In 1971 Alembic established the template for what would subsequently be known as "boutique" or "high end" electric basses. These expensive, custom-tailored instruments featured unique designs, premium wood bodies chosen and hand-finished by master craftspeople, onboard electronics for preamplification and equalization, and innovative construction techniques such as multi-laminate neck-through-body construction and graphite necks. Alembic and another "boutique" bass manufacturer, Ken Smith, both produced 5-string basses with a low "B" string in the mid-1970s. Ken Smith also developed and marketed the first wide-spacing six-string electric bass.


The instrument is called a "bass guitar"(pronounced "base"), "electric bass guitar," "electric bass," or simply "bass."

In the 1950s and 1960s, the term "Fender bass" was widely used to describe the bass guitar, due to Fender's early dominance in the market for mass-produced bass guitars. However, the term "electric bass" began replacing "Fender bass" in the late 1960's, as evidenced by the title of Carol Kaye's popular bass instructional book in 1969 (How To Play The Electric Bass) and the use of the term "electric bass" by US musicians' unions.

Design considerations

"Headless" Steinberger bass.
Headless" Steinberger bass

Musicians have embraced a wide variety of different electric bass designs, which include a huge variety of options for the body, neck, pickups, and other features. Musicians have become open minded towards the new technologies and approaches to musical instrument design that have developed for the electric bass. As well, instruments handmade by highly-skilled masters of the craft of lutherie (guitar-making) are becoming an increasingly popular choice for professional and highly-skilled amateur bassists. These developments have given the modern bass player a wide range of choices when choosing an instrument. Design options include:


Bodies are typically made of wood although other materials such as graphite (for example, some of the Steinberger designs) have also been used. A wide variety of woods are suitable - the most common include alder, mahogany and ash, and bubinga. The choice of body material and shape can have a significant impact on the timbre of the completed instrument as well as aesthetic considerations. Other design considerations include:

  • A wide range of colored or clear lacquer, wax and oil finishes exploiting the amazing variety of natural wood forms
  • Various flat and carved industrial designs for different types of both traditional and exotic woods, large percentage of luthier-produced unique instruments (affecting weight, balance and aesthetics)
  • Headed and headless (with tuning carried out using a special bridge, mainly manufactured by Steinberger and Hohner) designs
  • Several artificial materials developed especially for instrument building, most notable being luthite
  • Unique production techniques for artificial materials, including die-casting for cost-effective complex body shapes

One further variable is the solidity of the body. Most basses have solid bodies but variations include chambers for increased resonance or to reduce weight. Basses are also built with entirely hollow bodies, which changes the tone and resonance of the instrument and allows performers to practice without an amplifier.

Since the size of the resonant chamber for acoustic bass guitars is much smaller than the resonant chambers of other acoustic bass instruments such as the double bass or the guitarron, acoustic bass guitars cannot produce much unamplified volume; as such acoustic bass guitars are typically equipped with piezoelectric or magnetic pickups and amplified.

Strings and tuning

The standard design electric bass has four strings, tuned E, A, D, G (with the fundamental frequency of the E string set at 41.3 Hz, the same as the lowest string on the double bass). This tuning is the same as the standard tuning on the lower four strings on a 6-string guitar, only an octave lower. The materials used in the strings gives bass players a range of tonal options. String types include all-metal strings (roundwound, Flatwound), metal strings with different coverings, such as tapewound and plastic-coatings, and non-metal strings made of nylon.

Note positions on a right-handed 4-string bass
Note positions on a right-handed 4-string bass

As performers sought to expand the range of their instruments, a range of other tuning options and bass types has been used. The most common include:

  • Four strings with alternate tunings to obtain an extended lower range. Tunings such as "B, E, A, D" (this requires a low "B" string in addition to the other three "standard" strings), "D, A, D, G" (a "standard" set of strings, with only the lowest string detuned), and "D, G, C, F" or "C, G, C, F" (a "standard" set of strings, all of which are detuned) give bassists an extended lower range. These options are sometimes used by players who do not like the "feel" of the thicker, heavier 5-string neck, or by bassists who do not have access to a 5-string bass.
  • Five strings (normally B, E, A, D, G but sometimes E, A, D, G, C). The 5-string bass with a low "B" provides added lower range, as compared with the 4-string bass. As well, it gives a player easier access to low notes when playing in the higher positions. The resultant tone of the instrument is usually "thicker," as the fatter strings give fewer harmonics. This is particularly the case for notes on the low "B" string.
  • Six strings (B, E, A, D, G, C or B, E, A, D, G, B - although E, A, D, G, B, E has also been used). While six-string basses are much less common than 4- or 5-string basses, they are used in Latin, jazz, and several other genres. Bassists using six-string basses include New Order's Peter Hook and Dream Theater's John Myung.
  • Detuners, one of which is sold under the name Hipshot, are mechanical devices operated by the left-hand thumb that allow one or more strings to be detuned to a lower pitch. Hipshots are typically used to drop the "E"-string down to "D" on a four string bass). More rarely, some bassists (e.g., Michael Manring) will add detuners to more than one string, to enable them to detune strings during a performance and have access to a wider range of chime-like harmonics.

Less commonly, bassists use other types of basses or tuning methods to obtain an extended range. Instrument types or tunings used for this purpose include:

  • Eight-, 10-, and 12-string basses with double or triple courses of strings, as compared with their 4-, 5-, and 6-string counterparts. An 8-string bass would be strung Ee, Aa, Dd, Gg, while a 12-string bass might be tuned Eee Aaa Ddd Ggg, with standard pitch strings augmented by two strings an octave higher.
  • Guitar-tuned bass (4-string): the D, G, B, E, tuning has the same note names as the first (e.g., from highest to lowest) four strings of a guitar, although they are pitched two octaves lower.
  • Tenor bass: A, D, G, C
  • Piccolo bass: e, a, d, g (an octave higher than standard bass tuning--the same as the bottom four strings of a guitar)
  • Sub-contra bass: C#, F#, B, E ("C#" being at 18 Hz and the "E"- string being the same as the "E"-string found on standard basses). To amplify the low pitches of this instrument, a subwoofer capable of extended low-range reproduction is needed.
  • Extended range 11-string basses which go from a low "C#" up to a high Eb (one semitone below a guitar's high E). Eleven-string basses are uncommon and are typically custom built instruments. Al Caldwell, Jean Baudin (of the band Nuclear Rabbit), and Garry Goodman (from The Neilson-Goodman Project) play 11-string basses.


The vibrations of the instrument's metal strings within the magnetic field of the permanent magnets in the pickups, produce small variations in the magnetic flux threading the coils of the pickups. This in turn produces small electrical voltages in the coils. These low-level signals are then amplified and played through a speaker. Less commonly, non-magnetic pickups are used, such as piezoelectric pickups which sense the mechanical vibrations of the strings. Since the 1990s, basses are often available with battery-powered "active" electronics that boost the signal and/or provide equalization controls to boost or cut bass and treble frequencies.

"P"-style split pickups
"P"-style split pickups

Pickup types

  • "P-" pickups (the "P" refers to the original Fender Precision bass) are actually two distinct single-coil halves, wired in opposite direction to reduce hum, each offset a small amount along the length of the body so that each half is underneath two strings.
  • "J-" pickups (the "J" refers to the original Fender Jazz bass) are wider single-coil pickups which lie underneath all four strings.
  • Soapbar pickups, found, for example, in MusicMan basses, are the same height as a J pickup, but about twice as wide (much like an electric guitar's humbucker). The name comes from the rectangular shape being similar to a bar of soap.

Pickup configuration

  • Many inexpensive basses (as well as older/vintage basses) have just one pickup, typically a "P" or "J" pickup. However, multiple pickups are also quite common, the two most common configurations being a "P" near the neck and a "J" near the bridge (e.g. Fender Precision Deluxe), or two "J" pickups (e.g. Fender Jazz).
  • For single pickup systems, the placement of the pickup greatly affects the sound, with a pickup near the neck joint thought to sound "fatter" or "warmer" while a pickup near the bridge is thought to sound "tighter" or "sharper." Some basses use more unusual pickup configurations, such as a Humbucker and "P" pickup (found on some Fenders), Stu Hamm's "Urge" basses, which have a "P" pickup sandwiched between two "J" pickups, and some of Bootsy Collins' custom basses, which had as many as 5 J pickups.

Non-magnetic pickups

  • Piezoelectric pickups are non-magnetic pickups that allow bassists to use non-metallic strings such as nylon strings. Piezoelectric pickups sense the vibrations of the string, as transmitted to the pickup through the basses' wooden body. Since piezoelectric pickups are based on the vibration of the strings and body, they can be prone to feedback "howls" when used with an amplifier, especially when higher levels of amplification are used.
  • Optical pickups such as Lightwave Systems pickups are another type of non-magnetic pickup. Optical pickups are expensive and rarely used, apart from a small number of professional bass players who require the advantages offered by optical pickups: no noise (e.g., hum) or feedback problems, even at high levels of amplification.
Amplification and effects

Electric bass players use either a 'combo' amplifier, so-named because it combines an amplifier and a speaker in a single cabinet or an amplifier and a separate speaker cabinet (or cabinets).

Various electronic components such as preamplifiers and signal processors, and the configuration of the amplifier and speaker, can be used to alter the basic sound of the instrument. In the 1990s and early 2000s, signal processors such as equalizers, distortion devices, and compressors or [limiter]s became increasingly popular additions to many electric bass players' gear, because these processors give players additional tonal options.


The frets divide the fingerboard into semitone divisions, although fretless basses are also widely available. The original Fender basses had 20 frets.

Fretless basses

Fretless basses have a distinctive sound that is created because the absence of frets means that the string is pressed down directly onto the wood of the fingerboard and buzzes against it as with the double bass. The fretless bass allows players to use the expressive devices of glissando and microtonal intonations such as quarter tones and just intonation. Fretless basses are mostly used in jazz and jazz fusion music. Nonetheless, bassists from other genres use fretless basses, such as thrash metal/death metal bassist Steve DiGiorgio. Some bassists use both fretted and fretless basses in performances, according to the type of material they are performing.

Fusion virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, who brought the fretless bass into the spotlight, used a fretless bass that he created by removing the frets from a fretted bass and filling in the grooves, a method that is still used by some bass players. Some fretless basses have 'fret lines' inlaid in the fingerboard as a guide, while others only use guide marks on the side of the neck. Strings wound with tape or coated in epoxy are sometimes used with the fretless bass so that the metal string windings will not wear down the wooden fingerboard.

Playing styles

Sitting or standing

Most bass players stand while playing, although sitting is also accepted, particularly in large ensemble settings (e.g., jazz big band) or acoustic genres such as folk music. It is a matter of the player's preference as to which position gives the greatest ease of playing, and what a bandleader expects. When sitting, the instrument can be balanced on the right thigh, or like classical guitar players, the left. Balancing the bass on the left thigh positions it in such a way that it mimics the standing position, allowing for less difference between the standing and sitting positions.

Plectra vs. fingers or thumb

The electric bass, in contrast to the upright bass (or double bass), is played in a similar position to the guitar, held horizontally across the body. Notes are usually produced by plucking with the fingers or with a plectrum (often called pick).

Picks also come in many shapes, sizes and thickness. This often varies according to the musical genre-very few funk bassists use plectrums, while they are widely found in punk rock and metal styles. Using a plectrum typically gives the bass a brighter, punchier sound, while playing with fingers makes the sound softer and round. Some bassists use their fingernails flamenco-style to provide some compromise between playing fingerstyle and using a pick.

Bassists trying to emulate the sound of a double bass will often pluck the strings with their thumb, and use their fingers to anchor their hand and partially mute the strings (partially muting the strings creates a short, "thumpy" tone for the notes which mimics the sound of an upright bass).

James Jamerson, one of the most influential bassists during the Motown era, was well-known for his work in many popular Motown songs. Jamerson played the bass with only his index finger (which gained him the nickname "The Hook") but created intricate bass lines that have proven challenging even for modern bassists using the more commonly used two-fingered (typically index and middle) technique.

Right hand support and position

Variations in style also occur in where a bassist rests his right-hand thumb. A player may rest his thumb on the top edge of one of the pickups. One may also rest his thumb on the side of the fretboard, which is especially common among bassists who have an upright bass influence. Also, bassists may simply anchor their thumbs on the lowest string (and move it off to play on the low string). This technique is known as the "floating thumb", and was previously popular mainly with bassists who played 5 or more string basses, but is now common for all bassists. Early Fender models also came with a "thumbrest" attached to the pickguard, below the strings. Contrary to its name, this was not used to rest the thumb, but to rest the fingers while using the thumb to pluck the strings. The thumbrest was moved above the strings in 70's models, and eliminated entirely in the 80's.

Downward stroke

This is a technique that consists in hitting the strings with continuous downward strokes with a plectrum at a very fast pace. This provides the continuous and repetitive sound of finger picking but with a punchy sound. This technique was used by Dee Dee Ramone of the early punk rock band The Ramones.

Striking or plucking position

Bassists also have different preferences as to where on the string they pluck the notes. While the influential bassist Jaco Pastorius and many with him preferred to pluck them very close to the bridge for a bright and sharp sound, many prefer the rounder sound they get by plucking closer to the neck, mostly near the neck pickup. Geezer Butler, among others, plucks the strings over the higher frets.

'Piano hammer' style

The "piano hammer-style" is a high-speed technique used of striking the bass string with the index finger. In this technique, the index hand is whipped towards the bass string then retracted quickly by pivoting of the wrist. The index finger snaps down and taps the string like a piano hammer. The result is a smooth dark tone which can be contrasted by "back-pedaling" the string with the tip of the finger in an upward pluck. Usually two fingers are required with this technique.

"Slap and pop," tapping, and related techniques

The slap and pop method, in which notes and percussive sounds are created by slapping the string with the thumb and releasing strings with a snap, was pioneered by Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone in the 1960s and early 1970s. Stanley Clarke and Louis Johnson further developed Graham's technique. Other notable slap and pop players include Mark King, Flea, Les Claypool, and Victor Wooten.

In the late 1980s, fusion bass player Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones developed the so-called "double thumb," in which the string is slapped twice, on the upstroke and a downstroke.

In the two-handed tapping style, both hands play notes by tapping the string to the fret, which makes it possible to play contrapuntally, chords and arpeggios. Players using this technique include Geddy Lee, Stuart Hamm, Roscoe Beck, Billy Sheehan, Victor Wooten, and Michael Manring.

Tony Levin, the bassist for King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, pioneered the use of wooden dowels affixed with velcro to the tips of the index and middle fingers and used to strike the strings of the bass.

Musical role

The electric bass is the standard bass instrument in many musical genres, including modern country, post-1970s-style jazz, many variants of rock and roll, metal, punk, reggae, soul, and funk. Even though the double bass is still the standard bass instrument in orchestral settings, some late-20th-century composers have used the electric bass in an orchestral setting. Modern bass playing draws on guitar and double bass for inspiration as well as an increasing vernacular of its own.

The bass may have differing roles within different types of music and the bassist may prefer different degrees of prominence in the music. Early uses of the electric bass saw bassists doubling the double bass part or replacing the upright bass entirely with their new, more portable and easily amplified instrument. By the 1960s, the electric bass had replaced the upright bass in most forms of popular music (although country music and jazz were an exception to this trend).

The switch to electric bass moved bassists more into the foreground of a band, in two senses.

  • From an aural perspective, electric bass tone can often "cut through" a live mix better. As well, electric basses can be amplified to very high levels without the problem of feedback "howls" that can plague upright bass players trying to amplify their instruments.
  • From a visual point of view, the switch to the electric bass allowed bassists much more freedom of movement on stage. The double bass sits on an endpin, and stands vertically, and players typically play in a single location for the duration of a song. However, the electric bass is smaller, and is held up with a strap, which allows the electric bassist to move about on the stage while playing, and get closer to other musicians or the audience.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Document License
It uses material from the Wikipedia article - Bass guitar