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Encyclopedia > Bass guitarist
Fender Precision Bass

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.

Design considerations

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.

Playing styles

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.

Influential bassists

Famous or notable bassists include:

Influential manufacturers

The following manufacturers are among those that have produced widely regarded basses:

  • Alembic
  • Carvin
  • Carl Thompson
  • Danelectro
  • Ernie Ball
  • F Bass [1] (http://www.fbass.com/)
  • Fender
  • Fodera [2] (http://www.fodera.com/)
  • G&L
  • Gibson
  • Hamer (known for 12 string bass guitars)
  • Höfner
  • Hohner (known for headless instruments)
  • Ibanez
  • Ken Bebensee
  • Ken Smith
  • Kubicki [3] (http://www.kubicki.com/)
  • Leduc Guitars [4] (http://perso.wanadoo.fr/leduc/Gb/index.htm)
  • Modulus Guitars [5] (http://www.modulusguitars.com/v2/)
  • Music Man, an offshoot of Ernie Ball [6] (http://www.ernieball.com/mmonline/)
  • Pedulla [7] (http://www.pedulla.com/)
  • Rickenbacker
  • Rob Allen
  • Sadowsky [8] (http://www.sadowsky.com/)
  • Spector
  • Tobias [9] (http://www.gibson.com/products/tobias/index.asp)
  • Wal
  • Warrior Instruments [10] (http://www.warriorinstruments.com)
  • Warwick Gmbh [11] (http://www.warwickbass.com/)
  • Washburn [12] (http://www.washburn.com/)
  • Yamaha

Related instruments

External links

  • 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.

  Results from FactBites:
Jeff Howell ~ Bass Guitarist ~ Biography (635 words)
owell began his bass playing career as a teenager in upstate New York.
He played in several bands throughout his teen years and in the 80's, progressed to the Binghamton, NY based band, Acts.
It was a good band, but Jeff grew tired of the grind and returned to New York.
  More results at FactBites »



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