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Bass guitar

The electric bass guitar is a stringed instrument similar to an electric guitar but larger in size and with a deeper tone. It is also closely related to the double bass and performs a similar musical role to that instrument. It is widely used in many musical genres, including rock and roll, heavy metal, jazz, funk, country, and disco.

Like the electric guitar, the vibrations of the string cause an electrical signal to be created in sensors called pickups, which are amplified and played through a speaker. Various electronic components, and the configuration of the amplifier and speaker, can be used to alter the sound of the instrument.

The first mass produced electric bass was developed by Leo Fender, a well-known guitar manufacturer, as experiments with upright basses with pickups did not work very well at the time. Fender's Precision Bass was first sold in 1951. Pictures of these first basses can be viewed at the Fender website (www.fender.com). The change to the guitar form factor and the addition of frets made the instrument much easier to play.

From this first bass, other companies such as Gibson, Danelectro[?], and many others started to produce similar and sometimes, very dissimilar instruments. These basses were not only a way to leave the "dog house" at home (an affectionate term used by bassists to describe an upright bass), but to also bring the bassists further up front in the band mix, both visually and audibly. This work has been continued and many companies and individual luthiers[?] have joined the quest to take Leo Fender's original dream and idea to new levels.

The acoustic bass guitar (ABG) is similar to an acoustic guitar with a large, hollow body that is clearly audible without amplification. However, they are relatively quiet compared most other acoustic instruments and many ABGs retain pickups to enable them to function with louder ensembles while still maintaining some of the acoustic characteristics of the sound. See the The Violent Femmes first album for an example of acoustic bass playing in modern rock music.

Table of contents

Design Considerations

The modern bass player has a wide range of choices when choosing an instrument, for example:

  • How many strings (and what tuning)? Leo Fender's classic design had four strings, tuned E, A , D, G (with the fundamental 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)
    • More than six strings!
    • 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)
    • Any other tuning, including mechanisms such as hipshot detuners that allow changes during the course of one song.
  • Pickups - the earliest basses had a single split passive magnetic pickup. Modern choices include:
    • Active or passive (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)
    • More than one pickup, 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
  • Frets

Add in the factors of amplification and effects units and it's easy to see why some bassists suffer from what is known as GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) ;-)

Playing Styles

Many artists, such as Pino Palladino[?] utilize a fretless bass guitar for the smoothness of its slide and unique tone. 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.

The slap and pop[?] method was invented by Larry Graham in the 1960s. Grahm'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.

Many players prefer to pluck the notes with the fingers, but for fast play (such as that required for punk rock) a pick is sometimes used.

Influential Bassists

The following bassists are among those who have contributed to the developing role of the bass guitar:

Influential Manufacturers

The following manufacturers are among those that have produced widely regarded models of bass guitar:

Related Instruments



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