The bass guitar 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,, which also corresponds to one octave lower in pitch than the four lower strings of a guitar (E, A, D, and G). In order to avoid the excessive use of ledger lines, bass guitar is notated in bass clef an octave higher than the sound it makes (as is the double bass). Like the electric guitar, the electric bass guitar is usually plugged into an amplifier and speaker for live performances.
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, to a lesser degree, in rock styles.
Monk Montgomery was the first bass player to tour with the Fender bass guitar, with Lionel Hampton's postwar big band. Roy Johnson, who replaced Montgomery in Hampton's band, and Shifty Henry with Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five, were other early Fender Bass pioneers. Bill Black, playing with Elvis Presley, adopted the Fender Precision Bass around 1957.
Following Fender's lead, Gibson released the violin-shaped EB-1 Bass in 1953, followed by the more conventional-looking EB-0 Bass in 1959. As with Fender's designs, Gibson relied heavily upon an existing guitar design for this 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. The EB-3, introduced in 1961, also had a "mini-humbucker" at the bridge position. Gibson basses also tended to be smaller, sleeker instruments; Gibson did not produce a 34" scale bass until 1963 with the release of the Thunderbird, which was also the first Gibson bass to utilize dual-humbucking pickups in a more traditional position, about halfway between the neck and bridge.
A small number of other companies also began manufacturing bass guitars during the 1950s: Kay in 1952, and Danelectro in 1956; Rickenbacker and Höfner also produced models. With the explosion of the popularity of rock music in the 1960s many more manufacturers began making bass guitars.
First introduced in 1960, The Fender Jazz Bass was known as the Deluxe Bass and was meant to accompany the Jazzmaster guitar. The Jazz Bass (often referred to as a "J-bass") featured two single-coil pickups, one close to the bridge and one in the Precision bass' split coil pickup position, and was designed by Leo Fender to be an easier bass for a guitarist to play than the existing Precision Bass, due to the narrower nut (noted later). The earliest production 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' neck was narrower at the nut than the Precision bass (1½" versus 1¾").
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. Fender also began production of the Mustang Bass; a 30" scale length instrument used by bassists such as Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads ("P" and "J" basses have a scale length of 34", a design echoed on most current production electric basses of all makes).
In the 1950s and 1960s, the bass guitar was often called the "Fender bass", due to Fender's early dominance in the market for mass-produced bass guitars. The term "electric bass" began replacing "Fender bass" in the late 1960s, however, as evidenced by the title of Carol Kaye's popular bass instructional book in 1969 How to Play the Electric Bass The instrument is also referred to as an "electric bass guitar", "electronic bass", or simply "bass".
In 1971, Alembic established the template for what would subsequently be known as "boutique" or "high end" electric bass guitars. These expensive, custom-tailored instruments featured unique designs, premium wood bodies chosen and hand-finished by highly skilled luthiers, onboard electronics for preamplification and equalization, and innovative construction techniques such as multi-laminate neck-through-body construction and graphite necks. In the mid-1970s, Alembic and other "boutique" bass manufacturers such as Tobias, and Ken Smith produced 4- string basses and 5-string basses with a low "B" string. In 1975, bassist Anthony Jackson commissioned luthier Carl Thompson to a 6-string bass tuned (low to high) B, E, A, D, G, C.
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. As well, the onboard battery-powered electronics such as preamplifiers and equalizer circuits, which were previously only available on expensive "boutique" instruments, became increasingly available on modestly priced basses.
In the 2000s, some bass manufacturers included digital modelling circuits inside the instrument to recreate tones and sounds from many models of basses (e.g., Line 6's Variax bass). Traditional bass designs such as the Fender Precision Bass and Fender Jazz Bass remain popular in the 2000s; in 2006, a 60th Anniversary P-bass was introduced by Fender, along with the introduction of the Fender Jaguar Bass.
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 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 necksand, 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 tonal 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).
The first fretless bass guitar was made by Bill Wyman in 1961 when he converted an inexpensive Japanese fretted bass by removing the frets. The first production fretless bass was the Ampeg AUB-1 introduced in 1966, and Fender introduced a fretless Precision Bass in 1970. In the early 1970s, fusion-jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius created his own fretless bass by removing the frets from a Fender Jazz Bass, filling the holes with wood putty, and coating the fretboard with epoxy resin.
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. Tapewound (double bass type) and flatwound strings are sometimes used with the fretless bass so that the metal string windings will not wear down the fingerboard. Some fretless basses have fingerboards which are coated with epoxy to increase the durability of the fingerboard, enhance sustain and give a brighter tone. Although most fretless basses have four strings, five-string and six-string fretless basses are also available. Fretless basses with more than six strings are also available as "boutique" or custom-made instruments.
In the 1950s, bassists mostly 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, though flatwounds also continue to be popular. Roundwounds have a brighter timbre with greater sustain than flatwounds.
A number of other tuning options and bass types have been used to extend the range of the instrument. The most common are:
Extended Range Basses (ERBs) are basses with 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, or 12 strings which are not doubling unisons or octaves. The 7-string bass (B-E-A-D-G-C-F) was built by luthier Michael Tobias in 1987. This custom instrument commissioned by bassist Garry Goodman was the first example of a bass with more than six single course strings. Goodman developed a special playing technique requiring seven or more strings. Conklin builds 8- and 9-string basses. The Guitarbass is a 10-string instrument with four bass strings (tuned E-A-D-G) and six guitar strings (tuned E-A-D-G-B-E). Luthier Michael Adler built the first 11-string bass in 2004 and completed the first single-course 12-string bass in 2005. Adler's 11- and 12-string instruments have the same range as a grand piano. The Adler 12-string has the same range as the Bösendorfer 290 grand piano with 97 notes. This was made possible by Goodman developing an Ab4 string for the 32" scale. Sub-contra basses, such as C#-F#-B-E ("C#" being at 17.32 Hz) have been created ..
"P-" pickups (the "P" refers to the original Fender Precision Bass) are actually two distinct single-coil pickups. Each is offset a small amount along the length of the body so that each half is underneath two strings. The pickups are reverse-wound with reversed magnetic polarity to reduce hum. 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. As with the halves of the P-pickups, the J-pickups are reverse-wound with reverse magnetic polarity. As a result they have hum canceling properties when used at the same volume, with hum cancellation decreasing when the pickups are used at unequal volume and altogether absent when each pickup is used individually.
Humbucker (dual coil) pickups have two signal producing coils which are reverse wound around opposed polarity magnets (similar in principle to the two individual J-pickups). 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. A pickup near the neck joint emphasizes the fundamental and low-order harmonics and thus produces a deeper, bassier sound, while a pickup near the bridge emphasizes higher-order harmonics and makes a "tighter" or "sharper" sound. Usually basses with multiple pickups allow blending of the output from the pickups, with electrical and acoustical interactions between the two pickups (such as partial phase cancellations) allowing a range of tonal effects. Sound demonstrations of the tonal effects of varying blends of the P and J pickups are demonstrated at the following link
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. Recording may use a microphone setup for the amplified signal or a direct box feeding the recording console. The performer or producer may also use a blend of the miked and direct signals.
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.
The string can be plucked at any point between the bridge and the point where the fretting hand is holding down the string; different timbres are produced depending on where along the string it is plucked. Some players are known for plucking near the bridge where the string is most taut, such as jazz fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius, whereas other bassists prefer the "looser" part of the string nearer to the fingerboard.
Bassists trying to emulate the sound of a double bass sometimes pluck the strings with their thumb and use palm-muting to create a short, "thumpy" tone. The late Monk Montgomery (who played in Lionel Hampton's band), Bruce Palmer (who performed with Buffalo Springfield), Sting and progressive rocker Geddy Lee use thumb downstrokes. The use of the thumb was acknowledged by early Fender models, which came with a "thumbrest" or "Tug Bar" attached to the pickguard below the strings. Contrary to its name, this was not used to rest the thumb, but to provide leverage while using the thumb to pluck the strings. The thumbrest was moved above the strings in 1970s models and eliminated in the 1980s.
There are many varieties of picks available, but due to the thicker, heavier strings of the electric bass, bassists tend to use heavier picks than those used for electric guitar, typically ranging from 1.14 mm – 3.00 mm (3.00 is unusual). Different materials are used for picks, including plastic, nylon, and felt, all of which produce different tones. Felt picks are used to emulate a fingerstyle tone.
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). A rarely-used playing technique related to slapping is the use of wooden dowel "funk fingers", an approach popularized by Tony Levin.
The fretting hand can add vibrato to a plucked or picked note, either a gentle, narrow vibrato or a more exaggerated, wide vibrato with bigger pitch variations. For fretted basses, vibrato is always an alternation between the pitch of the note and a slightly higher pitch. For fretless basses, the player can use this style of vibrato, or they can alternate between the note and a slightly lower pitch. While vibrato is mostly done on "stopped" notes--that is, notes that are pressed down on the fingerboard--open strings can also be vibratoed by pressing down on the string behind the nut. As well, the fretting hand can be used to "bend" a plucked or picked note up in pitch. To create the opposite effect, a "bend down", the string is pushed to a higher pitch before being plucked or picked and then allowed to fall to the lower, regular pitch after it is sounded. More rarely, a bassist may use a tremolo bar-equipped bass to produce the same effect.
In addition to pressing down one note at a time, bassists can also press down several notes at one time with their fretting hand to perform a chord. While chords are used less often by bassists than by electric guitarists, a variety of chords can be performed on the electric bass, especially with instruments with higher ranges such as six-string basses. Another variation to fully pressing down a string is to gently graze the string with the finger at the harmonic node points on the string, which creates chime-like upper partials. Glissando is an effect in which the fretting hand slides up or down the neck. A subtle glissando can be performed by moving the fretting hand without plucking or picking the string; for a more pronounced effect, the string is plucked or picked first, or, in a metal or hardcore punk context, a pick may be scraped along the sides of the strings.
The fretting hand can also be used to sound notes, either by plucking an open string with the fretting hand, or, in the case of a string that has already been plucked or picked, by "hammering on" a higher pitch or "pulling off" a finger to pluck a lower fretted or open stringed note. Jazz bassists use a subtle form of fretting hand pizzicato by plucking a very brief open string grace note with the fretting hand right before playing the string with the plucking hand. When a string is rapidly hammered on, the note can be prolonged into a trill.
In the 1970s, electric bass was used by the American conductor- composer Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) for his MASS, 1971). American jazz pianist Dave Brubeck used bass guitar for his 1971 piece Truth Has Fallen. Russian and Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke used the instrument for his epic Symphony no. 1, 1972. In 1977, David Amram(born 1930) scored for electric bass in En memoria de Chano Pozo. Amram is an American composer known for his eclectic use of jazz, ethnic and folk music.
In the 1980s and 1990s, electric bass was used in works by Hans Werner Henze (El Rey de Harlem, 1980; and Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, 1981), Harold Shapero, On Green Mountain (Chaconne after Monteverdi), 1957, orchestrated 1981; Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint (1987), Wolfgang Rihm (Die Eroberung von Mexico, 1987-91), Arvo Pärt (Miserere, 1989/92), Sofia Gubaidulina (Aus dem Stundenbuch, 1991), Giya Kancheli (Wingless, 1993), John Adams (I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, 1995; and Scratchband, 1996/97), and Michael Nyman (many works for the Michael Nyman Band).