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 evolved from —and inspired by—the double bass, a cousin of the violin and viola da gamba, 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 necessity for a louder individual bass instrument can be traced back to the 1920's. Jazz combos had double basses accompanying banjos, brass and woodwind sections, pianos, and drums. Simply being heard was hard, and transporting a double bass was even harder.
The design that would attract bass players was an electric bass that was a compact, fretted instrument one could hold and play horizontally. This was achieved by a musician/teacher/instrument & amplifier maker named Paul H. Tutmarc, of Audiovox in Seattle, Washington.
Tutmarc had an upright solidbody electric bass on the market as early as February 1935. But it is the #736 Electronic Bass advertised in 1937 that was probably the world’s first fretted solid body electric bass played horizontally and pioneered the modern bass configuration. The change to the guitar form and the addition of frets made the instrument much easier (and more precise) to play. Unfortunately, the Audiovox company were ultimately not successful and folded around 1950.
The first mass-produced electric bass was developed by innovator and manufacturer Leo Fender in the early 1950s. Fender trained as an accountant and was a self-taught electrical engineer who started repairing radios and built P.A. systems before getting into the electronics and amplification of electric instruments. Interestingly, Leo Fender could not even play guitar or bass, by his own admission "not a note".
The Fender Precision Bass was first offered in 1951. Named for the exact intonation a player could achieve with its fretted neck, the Precision Bass was equipped with a single piece, four-pole pickup, and a simple, uncontoured 'slab' body design. In 1954 the body was contoured with beveled edges for comfort. In 1957, the pickup was changed to a single "split pickup" (staggered) design. The pickguard also underwent a radical change, as did the headstock.
This 1957 design has remained as the standard electric bass, and is still widely available. Another industry standard, the similar, but more highly-engineered Fender Jazz Bass, was introduced in 1960.
Following Fender's lead, other companies such as Gibson, Danelectro, and many others started to produce their own version of the electric bass. The upright double bass became functionally obsolete in most kinds of popular music, allowing bassists to move further up front in the band mix, both visually and audibly. Innovations and refinements continue through to the present day.
Although the classic 4-String Fender bass designs remain a popular choice amongst player and hybrid basses are sometimes cringed upon, general open-mindedness towards new technologies and musical instrument design as well as appreciation for unique luthery in bass playing community give the modern bass player a wide range of choices when choosing an instrument. Design options include:
- 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, an 8-string bass would be strung Ee, Aa, Dd, Gg while a 12 string bass might be Eee Aaa Ddd Ggg, with standard pitch strings augmented 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, one octave lower)
- 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 coil, later split coil magnetic pickup. Modern choices include:
- Active or passive electronics (active circuits use a battery to boost the signal)
- Magnetic pickup type (single coil, split coil, dual coil "humbucker", triple coil "humbucker")
- 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 optical systems (by Lightwave Systems) allowing the bassist to use non-metallic strings
- Body shape, production technique, material and color
- A wide range of colored or clear lacquer, wax and oil finishes exploiting the amazing variety of natural wood forms
- Various flat and carved industrial designs for different types of both traditional and exotic woods, large percentage of luthier-produced unique instruments (affecting weight, balance and aesthetics)
- Headed and headless (with tuning done at the bridge) designs
- Several artificial materials developed especially for instrument building, most notable being luthite
- Unique production techniques for artificial materials, including die-casting for cost-effective complex body shapes
- Scale length
- Standard 34 inch (864 mm) length (distance from bridge to nut )
- Long scale, 35 or 36 inches (889 or (914 mm) in length
- Short scale, down to 30 inch (762 mm) scale lengths. Most notable Paul McCartney's 1962 Höfner Violin Bass ("Beatle Bass").
- Variable scale length systems developed for more balanced string tension and response, especially for basses with five or more strings. Most notable design Novax Fanned Fret System.
Add in the factors of amplification and effects units and the electric bass has an overwhelming amount of tonal flexibility.
The fretted acoustic bass is similar to an acoustic guitar with a large, hollow body that is clearly audible without amplification. However, they are relatively quiet compared to most other acoustic instruments, and many guitar-style modern acoustic basses are equipped with pickups to enable them to function with louder ensembles, while still maintaining some of the acoustic characteristics of the sound. See the Violent Femmes' first album for an example of acoustic bass playing in modern rock music.
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.
Variations in style also occur in where a bassist rests his thumb (if he does rest it at all...). One may rest his thumb on the side of the fretboard, which is especially common among bassist who have an upright bass influence. Also, bassists with more than 4 string basses, may utilize a low string which isn't often used, for thumb rest. By resting their thumb to anchor their hand while they use their index and middle fingers, bassists create a fuller and louder sound.
Interestingly, one of the greatest bassists ever, James Jamerson, well known for his work in many popular motown songs, played the bass with only his index finger, and many of his bass lines were more complex than some of the great modern bassists of today who use both their index and middle fingers.
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, Jaco Pastorius, and John Entwistle have been revolutionary by taking a more important, leading, complicated role and making the instrument a more important and recognized 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)
- Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath)
- 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)
- John Deacon (one of the most influential bassist for Queen)
- Mike Dirnt (bassist for Green Day)
- Kim Deal (bassist for The Pixies and The Breeders)
- 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
- Bernard Edwards founder member of Chic, whose Good Times is probably the most sampled/copied bass line ever
- 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)
- Matt Freeman (bassist for Rancid and Operation Ivy)
- Billy Gould (bassist for Faith No More)
- Larry Graham (originator of 'slap bass' technique)
- Colin Greenwood (the strong bass line behind Radiohead trademark sound)
- Steve Harris (Iron Maiden bassist and songwriter, lead bass lines and a very pronounced bass presence overall)
- Jimmy Haslip (plays with strings arranged "upside down")
- Peter Hook (bassist with Joy Division, later New Order; distinctive, melodic basslines, almost taking over the role of lead guitar at some times)
- 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)
- Mick Karn (bassist and multi-instrumentalist with the band Japan)
- Lemmy Kilmister (the legendary and influentual bassist and singer of Motörhead)
- Geoff Kresge (formerly of Tiger Army and AFI)
- Abraham "Abe" Laboriel (important LA session player, known for his work with Koinonia)
- Steve Lawson (exploiting looping technology for solo bass performances)
- Jimmy Lea original bassist with Slade, an excellent songwriter and bass / violin virtuoso
- 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)
- Ryan Martinie (bassist for Mudvayne, jazz lines in hard rock)
- Mark King (bassist with Level 42, known for his very fast slapping techniques, also sang at the same time)
- Paul McCartney (the legendary musician behind Beatles' melodic lines)
- Duff McKagen (former bassist for Guns N' Roses and now plays for Velvet Revolver)
- Marcus Miller (work with jazz giants like Miles Davis and solo work)
- Dee Murray (played on classic Elton John recordings, further developed style pioneered by McCartney)
- John Myung (of Dream Theater, noted for incredible speed and virtuosity, master of bass tapping technique)
- Jason Newsted (former bassist of Metallica from 1986-2001)
- Berry Oakley (of the Allman Brothers Band, compelling melodic lines underneath guitar solos)
- 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)
- Twiggy Ramirez (former bassist for heavy metal band Marilyn Manson, known for his very simple but definitive basslines, his sound is primarily gothic and during performances with Marilyn Manson he was noted for his unique hairstyle and wardrobe, often consisting of tattered dresses and a bass worn very low on its strap, close to his knees; he now plays for A Perfect Circle under his real name, Jeordie White; he used a 4 string Gibson Thunderbird IV Reverse bass while in Marilyn Manson)
- Brian Ritchie (bassist in Violent Femmes)
- Andy Rourke (bassist with The Smiths, known for his "song within a song" basslines)
- 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)
- Robert Trujillo (bassist for Infectious Grooves, Suicidal Tendencies, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica)
- Roger Waters (bassist, vocalist and songwriter for Pink Floyd (left the band in 1985))
- 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)
- Brian Wilson (sometime Beach Boys bassist)
- Doug Wimbish (pioneer of hip hop bass playing, worked with Sugarhill Gang, Living Colour, Mick Jagger, Joe Satriani)
- Victor Wooten (double thumbing technique)
- Steve DiGiorgio (using fretless guitar, he played in Death, Testament, Iced Earth, Vintersorg)
The following manufacturers are among those that have produced widely regarded basses: