Buying Advice - Bass Guitar Advice
(Please note: the following information is for
guidance purposes, and you should always verify that a piece of gear
is suited to your specific needs.)
Don't get blinded by that lovely finish!
Bass guitars (like guitars) in many ways
are like cars. Their appearance
is a major factor in your buying decision. But also like cars, especially
for the first-time buyer, there are far more important factors to
know about in order to ensure you buy a bass guitar that is both properly playable
and that stays in tune, enabling you to make progress with it. The
unfortunate reality is that a lot of entry-level (and some
not so entry-level!) basses are so poorly set up that
they will make you feel that learning to play is just too
difficult. The problem is, without experience, how do you know whether
you are buying a playable instrument or just something that looks nice
hanging up in the music shop? An experienced player can make a poor
bass guitar seem reasonably playable, but the same bass could end up
defeating the beginner's attempts to learn. So here are some
basic pointers about what qualities a viable bass guitar should have.
Make sure the bass guitar has been properly "set-up"
For a bass to play at its best and to be as easy
as possible to play it needs to be
properly "set-up". This can be split into two key areas,
"intonation" and "action".
Correct intonation means the bass plays in tune both with itself
and with other tuned instruments all the way up the neck, i.e.
although the open strings might be properely tuned, you may find
that when you play higher up the neck it is no longer in tune
either with itself or other instruments. Good action means that
the strings are set close enough above the frets to make them easy
to hold down, but without causing unwanted buzzing of the strings
against the frets under the vibrating portion of the strings.
Some budget instruments have a nice finish but in reality are so poorly
put together that they can never be properly set-up, check before buying.
To check intonation, play an open string and listen to the note carefully, then
play the same string again, fretted at the 12th fret (this usually has a
double dot marker on the fingerboard just before it). This note
should be exactly the same but an octave higher than the open string note.
You can also then play the "harmonic" note at the 12th fret
(to do this place your finger lightly on the string directly above
the 12th fret without pushing it down to the fret, play the string
and it should ring), it should have the same pitch as the fretted
note at the 12th fret. If you can hear a difference in pitch then the
intonation is out and needs correcting.
The action is affected by three key factors:
saddle-height and nut-height.
Firstly, a bass guitar's neck should have a very slight curvature in it in such
a way that when you hold the low "E" string down both at
the first fret (F) and at the highest fret on the same
string with your other hand, the middle of that stretch of string
should be about half a millimetre above the frets. This curvature
can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the guitar's
"truss rod" - best left to a guitar tech as over tightening
can result in a broken truss rod and/or a ruined neck.
On budget basses you may find that half a millimetre causes too
much fret buzz and may it need to be a little more, a top quality
bass could be less as the alignment of the frets will have greater precision.
String saddle-height can offset this buzzing
to a certain extent. Adjusting this will provide the best string
to fret angle, with the same aim of to keeping the string-height as
low as possible whilst being just high enough to eliminate fret buzz.
To get the best possible action from a bass you need to have the
optimum combination of neck curvature and bridge/saddle height.
Nut-height is the third factor affecting the action.
The nut is the piece of (usually) plastic or brass that holds the strings
in place at the head end of the neck. If the string channels are
the right depth the strings should be less than half a millimetre
above the first fret, on a quality instrument they could be almost
touching the first fret. It should be quite easy to hold a string
down on the first fret. If you
have to push the strings down a long way here then the string height
all the way along the neck will be higher than it needs to be,
making the bass more difficult to play and making learning
seem that bit more challenging.
Come back soon for:
- active or passive
- maple, rosewood or ebony - what difference does it make?
How many strings
- four, five or six?
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