Bass Guitar is a commonly spoken phrase used to refer to the electric bass and horizontal acoustic basses, a stringed instrument similar in design to the electric guitar, but larger in size, commonly fretted and sometimes fretless and with a lower range. It is directly evolved from —and inspired by—the double bass, a member of the violin family, and shares things in common with a range of bass instruments.
The long-established manufacturers of electric basses have never used "bass guitar" to label their instruments. It could be argued that "bass guitar" originated in retail catalogues and the phrase has since gained popular currency among the masses.
The electric bass is the standard bass instrument in many musical genres, including country, jazz, many flavors of rock and roll, soul, funk, and modern orchestral music.
As with the electric guitar, vibrations of the metal strings create electrical signals in electromagnetic sensors called pickups. The signals are then amplified and played through a speaker. Various electronic components, and the configuration of the amplifier and speaker, can be used to alter the basic sound of the instrument.
The modern bass player has a wide range of choices when choosing an instrument, for example:
- Number of strings (and tuning): Leo Fender's classic design had four strings, tuned E, A, D, G (with the fundamental frequency of the E string vibrating at 41.3 Hz). Modern variants include:
- Five strings (normally B, E, A, D, G but sometimes E, A, D, G, C)
- 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). Basses with seven, eight or even more strings are also available.
- Double and triple courses of strings (eg, a 12 string bass might be Eee Aaa Ddd Ggg, with standard pitch strings supported by two strings an octave higher)
- Tenor bass: A, D, G, C
- Piccolo bass: e, a, d, g (an octave higher than standard tuning—same as the bottom four strings of a guitar)
- Various uses of detuners, which allow one or more strings to be easily adjusted while playing (most commonly used to give the option of dropping the E string down to D on a four string bass)
- Pickups—the earliest basses had a single split passive magnetic pickup. Modern choices include:
- Active or passive electronics (active circuits use a battery to boost the signal)
- Pickup type
- Pickup position (near the bridge or further towards the neck for a fatter sound)
- Multiple pickups, giving more tonal variation
- Non-magnetic systems, eg. piezos or the innovative new Lightwave systems (these allow the bassist to use non-metallic strings)
- Body shape and colour
- A wide range of coloured finishes or exploiting the amazing variety of natural wood forms
- Different body shapes (affecting weight, balance and aesthetics)
- Headed and headless (with tuning done at the bridge) designs
- Scale Length
- Standard 34 inch length (distance from bridge to nut)
- Long Scale, 35 or 36 inches in length
- Short Scale, down to 30 inch scale lengths. Most notable Paul McCartney's 1962 Höfner Violin Bass ("Beatle Bass").
Add in the factors of amplification and effects units and the electric bass has an overwhelming amount of tonal flexibility.
As with any instrument, the electric bass can be played in a number of styles. Players such as Paul McCartney tend to favor a subdued, melodic approach, while Les Claypool of Primus and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers favor a funky "slap and pop" approach in which notes and percussive sounds are created by slapping the string with the thumb and release strings with a snap. Many artists, such as Pino Palladino utilize a fretless bass guitar for the smoothness of its slide and unique tone.
The slap and pop method was pioneered by Larry Graham in the 1960s. Graham's unique sound gained a broad audience when it appeared in the 1970 Sly and the Family Stone song "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)". In the 1970s Stanley Clarke developed Graham's technique further, adding the popping and speed that are a hallmark of contemporary playing.
An even later development is the two-handed tapping style, where both hands play notes by tapping the string to the fret. This makes it possible to play contrapuntally, or to play complicated chords and arpeggios. Since this makes the bass take up a large part of the aural spectrum, it is mostly used by bass players who act as the lead in their music. Notable examples are Stuart Hamm, whose music is Metal-oriented, and Michael Manring, who has a more jazzy / new age style. Manring occasionally plays on two (or even three) basses at the same time, much like Stanley Jordan on guitar. However, as a more traditional bass player, Jeff Berlin, has noted: no bass player was ever hired for his two_hand tapping skills.
Most bassists prefer to pluck the notes with the fingers but some also use plectra (also called picks). This often varies according to the musical genre—very few funk bassists use plectrums, while they are almost de rigueur for punk rock. Using a plectrum typically gives the bass a brighter, more punchy sound, while playing with one's fingers makes the sound more soft and round.
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.
Bass players like Chris Squire, Michael Balzary (a.k.a Flea) and John Entwistle have been revolutionary by taking a more important, leading, complicated role and making the instrument a more important and recognised one, a trend that caught on in bands that followed them.
Famous or notable bassists include:
- Michael Balzary a.k.a "Flea" (bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, incorporates fingerstyle funk, slap, and punk styles)
- Aston Barrett * Brian Bromberg (Jazz fusion)
- Jack Bruce (vocalist in Cream, pioneered a melodic, contrapuntal approach)
- Cliff Burton (late Metallica bassist, who along with Steve Harris and others pioneered complex bass lines in metal music)
- Alain Caron (bassist in Uzeb, 6 string, fretless)
- Jack Casady (free-form jazz-rock in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna—true progenitor of "jam-bands")
- Kim Clarke (bassist in Defunkt, seamless switching between fingerstyle funk and slap)
- Stanley Clarke (seminal work in Jazz fusion in 1970's)
- Les Claypool (of Primus, slap bass in hard rock, inspired by Geddy Lee and Larry Graham)
- Bootsy Collins (pioneering funk bassist)
- Rick Danko - one of the leaders in jazz/rock bass playing style. Bass player, guitarist and vocalist for "The Band".
- Donald "Duck" Dunn - pioneering soul bassist for the Mar-Keys, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, and the Blues Brothers, heard on large numbers of Stax recordings
- John Entwistle (innovator of hard rock w/ The Who, lead bass lines, 8 string bass)
- Alex Fenn (electric jazz bass player who plays a 1976 Fender Mustang Bass)
- Billy Gould (Faith No More)
- Larry Graham (originator of 'slap bass' technique)
- Steve Harris (Iron Maiden bassist and songwriter, lead bass lines and a very pronounced bass presence overall)
- Peter Hook (bassist with Joy Division, later New Order; distinctive, melodic basslines, almost taking over the role of lead guitar at some times)
- Andy Rourke (bassist with The Smiths, known for his "song within a song" basslines)
- Anthony Jackson (pioneer on the six string bass, work with Chick Corea, Chaka Khan, O'Jays, Quincy Jones)
- Rick James (renowned funk bassist)
- James Jamerson (speed, accuracy, and relative complexity of his Motown work was widely influential)
- Louis Johnson (pioneer of the slapping technique, work with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones)
- John Paul Jones (legendary bassist of Led Zeppelin whose driving, complex basslines inspired many future players)
- Lemmy Kilmister (the legendary and influentual bassist and singer of Motörhead)
- Abraham "Abe" Laboriel (important LA session player, known for his work with Koinonia)
- Steve Lawson (exploiting looping technology for solo bass performances)
- Geddy Lee (inspired a generation of rock musicians with complex, aggressive bass playing as a member of Rush)
- Phil Lesh (classical influences on rock; improvisation)
- Tony Levin (known for playing the Chapman Stick as well as conventional bass guitar in the studio and with bands including King Crimson and Peter Gabriel)
- Michael Manring (innovative work with multiple alternate tunings)
- Mark King (bassist with Level 42, known for his very fast slapping techniqes, also sang at the same time)
- Paul McCartney (melodic lines)
- Marcus Miller (work with jazz giants like Miles Davis and solo work)
- John Myung (of Dream Theater, noted for incredible speed and virtuosity, pioneer of bass tapping technique)
- Pino Palladino (fretless playing)
- Jaco Pastorius (widely regarded as the greatest electric bassist of all time, pioneer of fretless bass, fingerstyle funk, harmonics)
- Dave Pegg (British folk-rock bassist who brought fluidity to the genre's bass style: also played rock with Jethro Tull)
- Tom Petersson (12 string bass)
- Mike Rutherford (who switched instruments during concerts, from bass guitar to bass pedal synthesizer and 12 string guitar and back, sometimes in the course of a single song, in his early career with Peter Gabriel and Genesis)
- Billy Sheehan (rock bass virtuoso, known for wild playing style such as tapping and harmonics bending etc.)
- Sting (understated, melodic parts in support of his songs with The Police and later solo career)
- Chris Squire (innovator of progressive rock with Yes, speed-picking melodic style on trademark Rickenbacker 4001)
- John Taylor (influential funky bass for Duran Duran)
- Sid Vicious (bassist for punk rock band Sex Pistols, could play (albeit not well) while jumping up and down)
- Mike Watt (unpredictable bassist for The Minutemen)
- Gary Willis (one of the finest post-Jaco bassists, known for his playing with Tribal Tech as well as his solo work)
- Doug Wimbish (pioneer of hip hop bass playing, worked with Sugarhill Gang, Living Colour, Mick Jagger, Joe Satriani)
- Victor Wooten (especially his double thumbing technique)
The following manufacturers are among those that have produced widely regarded basses:
- Carl Thompson
- Ernie Ball
- F Bass  (http://www.fbass.com/)
- Fodera  (http://www.fodera.com/)
- Hamer (known for 12 string bass guitars)
- Hohner (known for headless instruments)
- Ken Bebensee
- Ken Smith
- Kubicki  (http://www.kubicki.com/)
- Leduc Guitars  (http://perso.wanadoo.fr/leduc/Gb/index.htm)
- Modulus Guitars  (http://www.modulusguitars.com/v2/)
- Music Man, an offshoot of Ernie Ball  (http://www.ernieball.com/mmonline/)
- Pedulla  (http://www.pedulla.com/)
- Rob Allen
- Sadowsky  (http://www.sadowsky.com/)
- Tobias  (http://www.gibson.com/products/tobias/index.asp)
- Warrior Instruments  (http://www.warriorinstruments.com)
- Warwick Gmbh  (http://www.warwickbass.com/)
- Washburn  (http://www.washburn.com/)
- The history of guitar-like instruments from 1900 B.C. through modern times is summarized at Classical Guitar Illustrated History (http://www.classicalguitarmidi.com/history/guitar_history.html)
- Basstopia (http://www.basstopia.com/) - features bass news, a bass tab search, and other resources for bassists.
- The Bass Guitar Scale Page (http://www.angelfire.com/id/bass/) - has free lessons on standard and exotic bass scales.