The electric bass guitar (also called electric bass, or simply bass) is a stringed instrument played primarily with the fingers (either by plucking, slapping, popping, or tapping) or using a pick. The bass is similar in appearance and construction to an electric guitar, but with a larger body, a longer neck and scale length, and usually four strings tuned to the same pitches as those of the double bass, or one octave lower in pitch than the four lower strings of a guitar (E, A, D, and G). Since the 1950s, the electric bass guitar has largely replaced the double bass in popular music. The bass guitar provides the low-pitched basslines and bass runs in many different styles of music ranging from rock and metal to blues and jazz. It is also used as a soloing instrument in jazz, fusion, Latin, funk, and rock styles.
A wide variety of different options are available for the body, neck, pickups, and other features of the bass. Instruments handmade by highly skilled luthiers are becoming increasingly available. Bass bodies are typically made of wood although other materials such as graphite (for example, some of the Steinberger designs) have also been used. While a wide variety of woods are suitable for use in the body, neck, and fretboard of the bass guitar – the most common type of wood used for the body is alder, for the neck is maple, and for the fretboard is rosewood. Other commonly used woods include mahogany, maple, ash, and poplar for bodies, mahogany for necks, and ebony for fretboards.
The choice of body material and shape can have a significant impact on the timbre of the completed instrument as well as on aesthetic considerations. 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 several artificial materials such as luthite. The use of artificial materials allows for unique 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 changes the tone and resonance of the instrument. Acoustic bass guitars are typically equipped with piezoelectric or magnetic pickups and amplified.
Bass guitar necks, which are longer than regular electric guitar necks, are generally made of maple. More exotic woods include bubinga, wenge, ovangkol, ebony and goncalo alves. Graphite or carbon fiber are used to make lightweight necks and, in some cases, entire basses.
Exotic woods are used on more expensive instruments: for example, the company 'Alembic' is associated with the use of cocobolo as a body material or top layer because of its attractive grain. Warwick bass guitars are also well-known for exotic hardwoods: most of the necks are made of ovangkol, and the fingerboards wenge or ebony. Solid bubinga bodies are also used for tonic and aesthetic qualities.
The "long scale" necks used on Leo Fender's basses, giving a scale length (distance between nut and bridge) of 34", remain the standard for electric basses. However, 30" or "short scale" instruments, such as the Höfner Violin Bass, played by Paul McCartney, and the Fender Mustang Bass are popular, especially for players with smaller hands. While 35", 35.5" and 36" scale lengths were once only available in "boutique" instruments, in the 2000s, many manufacturers have begun offering these lengths, also called an "extra long scale." This extra long scale provides a higher string tension, which yields a more defined tone on the low "B" string of 5- and 6-stringed instruments (or detuned 4-string basses).
Strings and tuning
The standard design for the electric bass guitar has four strings, tuned E, A, D and G, in fourths such that the open highest string, G, is an eleventh (an octave and a fourth) below middle C, making the tuning of all four strings the same as that of the double bass. This tuning is also the same as the standard tuning on the lower four strings on a 6-string guitar, only an octave lower. String types include all-metal strings (roundwound, flatwound, groundwound, or halfwound), metal strings with different coverings, such as tapewound and plastic-coatings. The variety of materials used in the strings gives bass players a range of tonal options.
In the 1950s, bassists often used flatwound strings with a smooth surface, which had a smooth, damped sound reminiscent of a double bass. In the 1960s and 1970s, roundwound bass strings similar to guitar strings became popular. Roundwounds have a brighter timbre with greater sustain than flatwounds. Flatwounds are still used by some bassists who want a more 'vintage' or Motown-style sound.
A number of other tuning options and bass types have been used to extend the range of the instrument. The most common are:
Four strings with alternate tunings to obtain an extended lower range.
Five strings usually tuned B-E-A-D-G, which provides the extended lower range of "drop tuning" or other down-tunings. Another common tuning used on early 5 string double basses is E-A-D-G-C, known as "tenor tuning". This is still a popular tuning for jazz and solo bass. Other tunings such as C-E-A-D-G are used though rare. The 5th string provides a greater lower or upper range than the 4-string bass, and gives access to more notes for any given hand position.
Six strings are usually tuned B-E-A-D-G-C. The 6-string bass is a 4-string bass with an additional low "B" string and a high "C" string. While much less common than 4- or 5-string basses, they are still used in Latin, jazz, and several other genres, as well as in studio work where a single instrument must be highly versatile. Alternate tunings for 6-string bass include B-E-A-D-G-B, matching the first five strings of an acoustic or electric guitar, and EADGBE, completely matching the tuning of a 6-string guitar but one octave lower allowing the use of guitar chord fingerings. Rarer but not unheard of are EADGCF and F#BEADG, providing a lower or higher range in a given position while maintaining consistent string intervals.
Detuners, such as the Hipshot, are mechanical devices operated by the right or left-hand thumb that allow one or more strings to be quickly detuned to a pre-set lower pitch. Hipshots are typically used to drop the "E"-string down to "D" on a four string bass.
Most electric bass guitars use magnetic pickups. The vibrations of the instrument's metal strings within the magnetic field of the permanent magnets in magnetic pickups produce small variations in the magnetic flux threading the coils of the pickups. This in turn produces small electrical voltages in the coils. These low-level signals are then amplified and played through a speaker. Less commonly, non-magnetic pickups are used, such as piezoelectric pickups which sense the mechanical vibrations of the strings. Since the 1990s, basses are often available with battery-powered "active" electronics that boost the signal and/or provide equalization controls to boost or cut bass and treble frequencies.
"P-" pickups (the "P" refers to the original Fender Precision Bass) are actually two distinct single-coil halves, wired in opposite direction to reduce hum, each offset a small amount along the length of the body so that each half is underneath two strings. Less common is the single-coil "P" pickup, used on the 1951 Fender Precision bass
"J-" pickups (referring to the original Fender Jazz Bass) are wider eight-pole pickups which lie underneath all four strings. J pickups are typically single-coil designs, but because one is wired opposite to the other, when used at the same volume they have hum canceling properties.
Humbucker (dual coil) pickups, are found in Gibson, Music Man and other basses. They have two signal producing coils which are reverse wound around opposed polarity magnets. This significantly reduces noise from interference compared to single coil pickups. Humbuckers also often produce a higher output level than single coil pickups.
"Soapbar" Pickups get their name due to their resemblance to a bar of soap and originally referred to the Gibson P-90 guitar pickup. The term is now also used to describe any pickup with a rectangular shape and no visible pole pieces. They are commonly found in ERB basses. EMG now makes a Soapbar pickup that has both a single coil and a humbucker in the same pickup. The player switches between the two by pulling or pushing on the volume knob.
Many basses have just one pickup, typically a "P" or soapbar pickup. Multiple pickups are also quite common, two of the most common configurations being a "P" near the neck and a "J" near the bridge (e.g. Fender Precision Bass Special, Fender Precision Bass Plus), or two "J" pickups (e.g. Fender Jazz). The placement of the pickup greatly affects the sound, with a pickup near the neck joint thought to sound "fatter" or "warmer" (the bass frequencies being dominant) while a pickup near the bridge is thought to sound "tighter" or "sharper" (providing a larger amount of treble). Usually basses with multiple pickups allow blending of the output from the pickups, providing for a range of timbres. Sound demos for six variations of P-J pickup settings on the Fender Aerodyne Jazz Bass illustrate this concept.
Piezoelectric pickups are non-magnetic pickups that produce a different tone, often similar to that of an acoustic bass, and allow bassists to use non-ferrous strings such as nylon, brass or even silicone rubber. Piezoelectric pickups use a transducer crystal to convert the vibrations of the string into an electrical signal.
Optical pickups are another type of non-magnetic pickup. They use an 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 lack high frequencies, they are commonly paired with piezoelectric pickups to fill in the missing frequencies. The Lightwave company builds basses with optical pickups.
Amplification and effects
Like the electric guitar, the electric bass guitar is always connected to an amplifier for live performances. Electric bassists use either a "combo" amplifier, which combines an amplifier and a speaker in a single cabinet, or an amplifier and a separate speaker cabinet (or cabinets). In some cases when the bass is being used with large-scale PA amplification, it is plugged into a "DI" or "direct box", which routes their signal directly into a mixing console, and thence to the main and monitor speakers. For some recordings, the electric bass is recorded without the use of an amplifier and speakers by connecting the bass with the mixing board using a "DI", while the musician listens to the sound of the instrument through headphones.
Various electronic bass effects such as preamplifiers, "stomp box"-style pedals and signal processors and the configuration of the amplifier and speaker can be used to alter the basic sound of the instrument. In the 1990s and early 2000s, signal processors such as equalizers, distortion devices, and compressors or limiters became increasingly popular additions to many electric bass players' gear.
Sitting or standing
Most bass players stand while playing, although sitting is also accepted, particularly in large ensemble settings, such as jazz big bands, or in acoustic genres such as folk music. It is a matter of the player's preference as to which position gives the greatest ease of playing, and what a bandleader expects. When sitting, right-handed players can balance the instrument on the right thigh, or like classical guitar players, the left. Balancing the bass on the left thigh positions it in such a way that it mimics the standing position, allowing for less difference between the standing and sitting positions.
The electric bass guitar, in contrast to the upright bass (or double bass), is played in a similar position to the guitar; that is, it is held horizontally across the body. Notes are usually produced by pizzicato, in which the strings are plucked by the index and middle fingers (and sometimes with the thumb and ring fingers as well) or with a pick (or plectrum). Although the use of a pick is primarily associated with rock, picks are also used in other styles. Jazz bassist Steve Swallow uses a pick for upbeat or funky songs. Picks can be used with alternating downstrokes and upstrokes, or with all downstrokes for a more consistent attack. A bassist usually holds a pick in a fist like grip with the index and thumb. Also, usually the wrist is used, but sometimes for tremolo picking, and artist uses the whole arm (variations are endless). Some bassists use their fingernails to play flamenco-style, such as John Entwistle, Geddy Lee and Les Claypool. Lemmy from Motörhead is known for playing with a pick, and would go as far as to have the pick taped to his thumb prior to performances.
There are many varieties of picks available to a bassist, and usually one chooses one for comfort, or for tone. The norm, is to choose heavy picks that range from 1.14 mm – 3.00 mm (3.00 is unusual). Picks are made with all types of material for tone preference; a fine example would be felt picks, which are used to emulate the tone one gets from fingers.
Bassists trying to emulate the sound of a double bass sometimes pluck the strings with their thumb or fingers rather than a plectrum, and use palm-muting to create a short, "thumpy" tone. Sting performs using his thumb. James Jamerson, an influential bassist from the Motown era, played intricate bass lines using a single finger – his index finger, which he called "The Hook." Depending on where the string is plucked, different timbres are produced.
There are also variations in how a bassist chooses to rest the right-hand thumb (or left thumb in the case of left-handed players). A player may rest his thumb on the top edge of one of the pickups. One may also rest one's thumb on the side of the fretboard, which is especially common among bassists who have an upright bass influence. Some bassists anchor their thumbs on the lowest string and move it off to play on the low string. Alternatively, the thumb can be rested loosely on the strings to mute the unused strings.
Early Fender models came with a "thumbrest" attached to the pickguard, below the strings. Contrary to its name, this was not used to rest the thumb, but to rest the fingers while using the thumb to pluck the strings. The thumbrest was moved above the strings in 1970s models and eliminated in the 1980s.
"Slap and pop" and tapping
The slap and pop method, which is a mainstay of funk, uses tones and percussive sounds achieved by thumping (or "slapping") a string with the thumb and snapping (or "popping") a string or strings with the index or middle fingers. Bassists often interpolate left hand-muted "dead notes" between the slaps and pops to achieve a rapid percussive effect. Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station was an early innovator of the slap style, and Louis Johnson of the The Brothers Johnson is also credited as an early slap bass player.
Slap and pop style is also used by many bassists in other genres, such as rock (e.g., J J Burnel and Les Claypool) and fusion (e.g. Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten and Alain Caron). Slap style playing was popularized throughout the 1980s and early 1990s by pop bass players such as Mark King (from Level 42) and funk-rock bassists such as Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Alex Katunich (from Incubus). Wooten popularized the "double thump," in which the string is slapped twice, on the upstroke and a downstroke (for more information, see Classical Thump).
In the two-handed tapping style, bassists use both hands to play notes by rapidly pressing and holding the string to the fret. This makes it possible to play contrapuntal lines, chords and arpeggios. Some players noted for this technique include Billy Sheehan, Stuart Hamm, John Myung, Victor Wooten, Les Claypool, Michael Manring and the style's originator, John Entwistle. The Chapman Stick and Warr Guitars are string instruments that are designed to be played using two-handed tapping. Another rarely-used playing technique related to slapping is the use of wooden dowel "funk fingers", an approach popularized by Tony Levin.