The bass guitar (or simply bass) is a plucked string instrument similar in appearance and construction to an electric or an acoustic guitar, except with a longer neck and scale length, and typically four to six strings or courses. Since the 1960s, the bass guitar has largely replaced the double bass in popular music.
|Other names||Bass, electric bass guitar, electric bass|
|Classification||String instrument (fingered or picked; strummed)|
|Inventor(s)||Paul Tutmarc, Leo Fender|
(a standard tuned 4-string bass guitar)
The four-string bass is usually tuned the same as the double bass, which corresponds to pitches one octave lower than the four lowest-pitched strings of a guitar (E, A, D, and G). It is played primarily with the fingers or thumb, or striking with a pick. The electric bass guitar has pickups and must be connected to an amplifier and speaker to be loud enough to compete with other instruments.
According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, an "Electric bass guitar [is] a Guitar, usually with four heavy strings tuned E1'–A1'–D2–G2." It also defines bass as "Bass (iv). A contraction of Double bass or Electric bass guitar." According to some authors the proper term is "electric bass". Common names for the instrument are "bass guitar", "electric bass guitar", and "electric bass" and some authors claim that they are historically accurate.
The bass guitar is a transposing instrument, as it is notated in bass clef an octave higher than it sounds, to reduce the need for ledger lines in music written for the instrument, and simplify reading.
In the 1930s, musician and inventor Paul Tutmarc of Seattle, Washington, developed the first electric bass guitar in its modern form, a fretted instrument designed to be played horizontally. The 1935 sales catalog for Tutmarc's company Audiovox featured his "Model 736 Bass Fiddle", a solid-bodied electric bass guitar with four strings, a 30 1⁄2-inch (775-millimetre) scale length, and a single pickup. The use of a guitar's body shape made the instrument easier to hold and transport than existing stringed bass instruments. The addition of frets enabled bassists to play in tune more easily than on fretless acoustic or electric upright basses. Around 100 were made during this period. Audiovox also sold their “Model 236” bass amplifier.
Around 1947, Tutmarc's son Bud began marketing a similar bass under the Serenader brand name, advertised in the nationally distributed L. D. Heater Music Company wholesale jobber catalogue of 1948. However, the Tutmarc family inventions did not achieve market success.
In the 1950s, Leo Fender and George Fullerton developed the first mass-produced electric bass guitar. The Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company began producing the Precision Bass, or P-Bass, in October 1951. The bass from a simple un-contoured "slab" body design and a single coil pickup similar to that of a Telecaster, to something more like a Fender Stratocaster, with a contoured body design, edges beveled for comfort, and a split single coil pickup.
The Fender Bass was a revolutionary instrument for gigging musicians. In comparison with the large, heavy upright bass, which had been the main bass instrument in popular music from the early 20th century to the 1940s, the bass guitar could be easily transported to shows. When amplified, the bass guitar was also less prone than acoustic basses to unwanted audio feedback.
In 1953, Monk Montgomery became the first bassist to tour with the Fender bass guitar, in Lionel Hampton's postwar big band. Montgomery was also possibly the first to record with the bass guitar, on July 2, 1953, with the Art Farmer Septet. Roy Johnson (with Lionel Hampton), and Shifty Henry (with Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five), were other early Fender bass pioneers. Bill Black, who played with Elvis Presley, switched from upright bass to the Fender Precision Bass around 1957. The bass guitar was intended to appeal to guitarists as well as upright bass players, and many early pioneers of the instrument, such as Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, and Paul McCartney were originally guitarists.
Also in 1953, Gibson released the first short-scale violin-shaped electric bass, with an extendable end pin so a bassist could play it upright or horizontally. Gibson renamed the bass the EB-1 in 1958. In 1958, Gibson released the maple arched-top EB-2 described in the Gibson catalogue as a "hollow-body electric bass that features a Bass/Baritone pushbutton for two different tonal characteristics". In 1959, these were followed by the more conventional-looking EB-0 Bass. The EB-0 was very similar to a Gibson SG in appearance (although the earliest examples have a slab-sided body shape closer to that of the double-cutaway Les Paul Special). Whereas Fender basses had pickups mounted in positions in between the base of the neck and the top of the bridge, many of Gibson's early basses featured one humbucking pickup mounted directly against the neck pocket.
A number of other companies also began manufacturing bass guitars during the 1950s: Kay in 1952, Hofner and Danelectro in 1956, Rickenbacker in 1957 and Burns/Supersound in 1958. 1956 saw the appearance at the German trade fair "Musikmesse Frankfurt" of the distinctive Höfner 500/1 violin-shaped bass made using violin construction techniques by Walter Höfner, a second-generation violin luthier. The design was eventually known popularly as the "Beatle Bass", due to its endorsement and use by Beatles bassist Paul McCartney. In 1957, Rickenbacker introduced the model 4000,the first bass to feature a neck-through-body design in which the neck is part of the body wood. The Fender and Gibson versions used bolt-on and glued-on necks.
With the explosion of the popularity of rock music in the 1960s, many more manufacturers began making electric basses, including Yamaha, Teisco and Guyatone. Introduced in 1960, the Fender Jazz Bass, initially known as the "Deluxe Bass", was intended to accompany the Jazzmaster guitar. The "J-bass" featured two single-coil pickups, one close to the bridge and one in the Precision bass's split coil pickup position. The earliest production Jazz basses had a "stacked" volume and tone control for each pickup; this was soon changed to the familiar configuration of a volume control for each pickup, and a single passive tone control.
The Jazz Bass's neck was narrower at the nut than the Precision bass — 1 1⁄2 inches (38 mm) versus 1 3⁄4 inches (44 mm) — allowing for easier access to the lower strings and an overall spacing and feel closer to that of an electric guitar, allowing trained guitarists to transition to the bass guitar more easily. Another visual difference that set the Jazz Bass apart from the Precision is its "offset-waist" body.
Pickup shapes on electric basses are often referred to as "P" or "J" pickups in reference to the visual and electrical differences between the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass pickups. In the 1950s and 1960s, all bass guitars were often called the "Fender bass", due to Fender's early dominance in the market.
Providing a more "Gibson-scale" instrument, rather than the 34 inches (864 mm) Jazz and Precision, Fender produced the Mustang Bass, a 30-inch (762 mm) scale-length instrument. The Fender VI, a 6 string bass, was tuned one octave lower than standard guitar tuning. It was released in 1961, and was briefly favored by Jack Bruce of Cream.
Gibson introduced its short-scale 30 1⁄2-inch (775 mm) EB-3 in 1961, also used by Bruce. The EB-3 had a "mini-humbucker" at the bridge position. Gibson basses tended to be smaller, sleeker instruments with a shorter scale length than the Precision; Gibson did not produce a 34-inch (864 mm)-scale bass until 1963 with the release of the Thunderbird, which was also the first Gibson bass to use two humbucking pickups in a more traditional position, about halfway between the neck and bridge.
In 1971, Alembic established what became known as "boutique" or "high-end" electric bass guitars. These expensive, custom-tailored instruments, as used by Phil Lesh, Jack Casady, and Stanley Clarke, featured unique designs, premium hand-finished wood bodies, and innovative construction techniques such as multi-laminate neck-through-body construction and graphite necks. Alembic also pioneered the use of onboard electronics for pre-amplification and equalization. Active electronics increase the output of the instrument, and allow more options for controlling tonal flexibility, giving the player the ability to amplify as well as to attenuate certain frequency ranges while improving the overall frequency response (including more low-register and high-register sounds). 1973 saw the UK company Wal begin production of a their own range of active basses. In 1974 Music Man Instruments, founded by Tom Walker, Forrest White and Leo Fender, introduced the StingRay, the first widely produced bass with active (powered) electronics built into the instrument. Basses with active electronics can include a preamplifier and knobs for boosting and cutting the low and high frequencies.
In the mid-1970s, Alembic and other high-end manufacturers, such as Tobias, began offering five-string basses, with a very low "B" string. In 1975, bassist Anthony Jackson commissioned luthier Carl Thompson to build a six-string bass tuned (low to high) B0, E1, A1, D2, G2, C3, adding a low B string and a high C string. These five- and six-string "extended-range basses" would become popular with session bassists, reducing the need for re-tuning to alternate detuned configurations like "drop D", and also allowing the bassist to play more notes from the same fretting position with fewer shifts up and down the fingerboard, a crucial benefit for a session player sightreading basslines at a recording session.
In the 1980s, bass designers continued to explore new approaches. Ned Steinberger introduced a headless bass in 1979 and continued his innovations in the 1980s, using graphite and other new materials and (in 1984) introducing the TransTrem tremolo bar. In 1982, Hans-Peter Wilfer founded Warwick, to make a European bass, as the market at the time was dominated by Asian and American basses. Their first bass was the Streamer Bass, which is similar to the Spector NS. In 1987, the Guild Guitar Corporation launched the fretless Ashbory bass, which used silicone rubber strings and a piezoelectric pickup to achieve an "upright bass" sound with a short 18-inch (457 mm) scale length. In the late 1980s, MTV's "Unplugged" show, which featured bands performing with acoustic instruments, helped to popularize hollow-bodied acoustic bass guitars amplified with piezoelectric pickups built into the bridge of the instrument.
During the 1990s, as five-string basses became more widely available and more affordable, an increasing number of bassists in genres ranging from metal to gospel began using five-string instruments for added lower range—a low "B" string. As well, onboard battery-powered electronics such as preamplifiers and equalizer circuits, which were previously only available on expensive "boutique" instruments, became increasingly available on mid-priced basses. From 2000 to the 2010s, some bass manufacturers included digital modelling circuits inside the instrument on more costly instruments to recreate tones and sounds from many models of basses (e.g., Line 6's Variax bass). A modelling bass can digitally emulate the tone and sound of many famous basses, ranging from a vintage Fender Precision to a Rickenbacker. However, as with the electric guitar, traditional "passive" bass designs, which include only pickups, tone and volume knobs (without a preamp or other electronics) remained popular. Reissued versions of vintage instruments such as the Fender Precision Bass and Fender Jazz Bass remained popular among new instrument buyers up to the 2010s. In 2011, a 60th Anniversary P-bass was introduced by Fender, along with the re-introduction of the short-scale Fender Jaguar Bass.
Bass bodies are typically made of wood, although other materials such as graphite (for example, some of the Steinberger designs) and other lightweight composite materials have been used. While a wide variety of woods are suitable for the body, neck, and fretboard, the most common woods used are those used for solid-body electric guitars: alder, ash or mahogany for the body, maple for the neck, and rosewood or ebony for the fretboard. For tonal or aesthetic reasons, luthiers more commonly experiment with different woods on basses than with electric guitars, and less-common woods like walnut and figured maple, as well as exotic woods like bubinga, wenge, koa, and purpleheart, are often used as accent woods in the neck or on the face of mid- to high-priced production basses. More expensive basses often feature exotic woods. For example, Alembic uses cocobolo as a body or top layer material because of its attractive grain. Warwick bass guitars are well known for exotic hardwoods, making most necks out of ovangkol, and fingerboards from wenge or ebony. Some makers use solid bubinga bodies for their tonal and aesthetic qualities.
Other design options include finishes, such as lacquer, wax and oil; flat and carved designs; luthier-produced custom-designed instruments; headless basses, which have tuning machines in the bridge of the instrument (e.g., Steinberger and Hohner designs) and artificial materials such as luthite and ebonol. The use of artificial materials allows for production techniques such as die-casting, to produce complex body shapes.
While most basses have solid bodies, they can also include hollow chambers to increase the resonance or reduce the weight of the instrument. Some basses are built with entirely hollow bodies, which change the tone and resonance of the instrument. Acoustic bass guitars have a hollow wooden body constructed similarly to an acoustic guitar, and are typically equipped with piezoelectric or magnetic pickups and amplified.
A common feature of more expensive basses is "neck-through" construction. Instead of milling the body from a single piece of wood (or "bookmatched" halves) and then attaching the neck into a pocket (so-called "bolt-on" design), neck-through basses are constructed first by assembling the neck, which may comprise one, three, five or more layers of wood in vertical stripes, which are longer than the length of the fretboard. To this elongated neck, the body is attached as two wings, which may also be made up of several layers. The entire bass is then milled and shaped. Neck-through construction advertisements claim this approach provides better sustain and a mellower tone than bolt-on neck construction. While neck-through construction is most common in handmade "boutique" basses, some models of mass-produced basses such as Ibanez's BTB series also have neck-through construction. Bolt-on neck construction does not necessarily imply a cheaply made instrument; virtually all traditional Fender designs still use bolt-on necks, including its high-end instruments costing thousands of dollars, and many boutique luthiers such as Sadowsky build bolt-on basses as well as neck-through instruments.
The number of frets installed on a bass guitar neck may vary. The original Fender basses had 20 frets, and most bass guitars have between 20 and 24 frets or fret positions. Instruments with between 24 and 36 frets (2 and 3 octaves) also exist. The "long scale necks" on the first Fender basses—34 inches (864 mm) — set the standard for electric basses, although 30-inch (762 mm) "short scale" instruments, such as the Höfner 500/1 and the Fender Mustang Bass are common. While 35-inch (889 mm), 35 1⁄2-inch (902 mm), and 36-inch (914 mm) scale lengths were once only available in "boutique" instruments, these "extra long" scale lengths became somewhat more common in the 2000s. This extra-long scale provides a higher string tension, which may yield a more defined, deep tone on the low "B" string of five- and six-stringed instruments (or detuned four-string basses).
While electric bass guitars are traditionally fretted instruments, fretless basses are used by some players to achieve different tones. Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman is sometimes identified as the first to make a fretless bass. In 1961, he converted a used UK-built Dallas Tuxedo bass by removing the frets and filling in the slots with wood putty. Wyman used it to record songs such as "Paint It, Black" and "Mother's Little Helper" in 1966.
In 1966, Ampeg introduced the AUB-1, the first production fretless bass. Fender followed with a fretless Precision Bass in 1970. Some fretless basses have "fret line" markers inlaid in the fingerboard as a guide, while others only use guide marks on the side of the neck. In the early 1970s, fusion-jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius coated the fingerboard of his de-fretted Fender Jazz Bass in epoxy resin, allowing him to use roundwound strings for a brighter sound without damaging the fretboard.
Strings and tuning
Traditional electric bass guitars have four strings, tuned the same as double basses: E1–A1–D2–G2. However, now there are many options, with five-, six-, and more string designs, with many approaches to tuning. In addition to traditional flatwound strings, choices now include various windings and materials.
Pickups and amplification
- "Precision" pickups (as introduced with the Fender Precision Bass) or "P-style" are two single-coil pickups, each offset a small amount along the length of the body so that each half is underneath two strings. The pair is considered a single pickup, as they are wired together in a humbucking configuration, greatly reducing noise from nearby electronic equipment and mains power. (Less common is the "single-coil P" pickup, as used on the original 1951 Precision bass. This is also known as the 'Vintage P' due to it being found on old vintage basses made before the invention of the split coil pickup. The "single-coil P" pickup is also used in the reissue and the Sting signature model.) P-style pickups are generally placed in the "neck" or "middle" position, but they are occasionally placed in the bridge position, or between two Jazz-style pickups.
- "Jazz" pickups (as introduced with the Fender Jazz Bass) or "J-style", are wide eight-pole pickups that lie underneath all four strings. J pickups are typically single-coil designs, though there are a large number of humbucking designs. Traditionally, two of them are used, one near the bridge and another closer to the neck. As with the halves of P-pickups, the J-type pickups are wired in a humbucking manner so that, when used together, mains noise is greatly eliminated. J-type pickups tend to have a lower output and a thinner sound than P-type pickups. Many bassists combine a 'J' pickup at the bridge and a 'P' pickup at the neck and blend the two sounds.
- Dual coil "humbucker" pickups each have two signal-producing coils. Humbuckers also produce a higher output level than single-coil pickups, though many dual-coil pickups are marketed as retrofits for single-coil designs like the J pickup and advertise a similar output and tonal character to the stock single-coils. Dual coil pickups come in two main varieties; ceramic or ceramic and steel. Ceramic-only magnets have a relatively "harsher" sound than their ceramic and steel counterparts, and are thus used more commonly in heavier rock styles (heavy metal music, hardcore punk, etc.).
- A variant bass humbucker is used on Music Man basses; it has two coils, each with four large polepieces. This style is known as the "MM" pickup.. The most common configurations are a single pickup at the bridge, two pickups similar in placement to a Jazz Bass, or an MM pickup at the bridge with a single-coil pickup (often a "J") at the neck. These pickups can often be "tapped", meaning one of the two coils can be essentially turned off, giving a sound similar to a single-coil pickup.
The use of non-magnetic pickups allows bassists to use non-ferrous strings such as nylon, brass, polyurethane and silicone rubber. These materials produce different tones and, in the case of the polyurethane or silicone rubber strings, allow much shorter scale lengths.
- Piezoelectric (or "piezo") pickups (also called "piezo" pickups) use a transducer to convert vibrations in the instrument's body or bridge into an electrical signal. They are typically mounted under the bridge saddle or near the bridge and produce a different tone from magnetic pickups, often similar to that of an acoustic bass. Piezo pickups are often used in acoustic bass guitars to allow for amplification without a microphone.
- Optical pickups use an infrared LED to optically track the movement of the string, which allows them to reproduce low-frequency tones at high volumes without the "hum" or excessive resonance associated with conventional magnetic pickups. Since optical pickups do not pick up high frequencies or percussive sounds well, they are commonly paired with piezoelectric pickups to fill in the missing frequencies.
Amplification and effects
Similar to the electric guitar, the typical electric bass guitar requires an external amplifier in order to be heard in performance settings. Additionally, various electronic effects, such as preamplifiers, "stomp box"-style pedals and signal processors are available to allow for further shaping of the sound.
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