Choosing A Bass: A How To Guide

Q: I’m thinking of buying a new bass. What do you look for when instrument shopping?

A: There’s so much that can go into the consideration of a new instrument. The obvious things are: Cost, Function (is this your “do it all” bass, or for recording, or a good slap bass?)

It’s good to do a lot of research to explore what your options are in any given price range. Many fall into the trap of thinking they need a boutique bass to get great tone or feel. These days, there are a ton of Korean and Japanese basses that both feel and sound wonderful for under a thousand dollars or so.

I’ll give you some things to consider and categorize them by cost:

1) Cheapest possible bass: You know that you may sacrifice tone and/or feel in order to get something in your budget. It might be a good idea to scour Craigslist, Talkbass forums and used gear stores to see if you can score anything worth really buying. I’d definitely do this before just going to Guitar Center and buying the cheapest Mexican Jazz bass you can find.
Also remember, everything is upgradeable!
I would worry about the feel of the bass more than the tone, initially You can always upgrade the electronics and do it cheaper than getting it re-fretted, replacing necks, etc.. Make sure they will allow you (or get their tech to accomodate you) to tweak the action a little bit to make sure you can get the string height where you may want it and get it feeling good without excessive fret buzz and dead notes. Make sure the neck is fairly straight and that the neck sits well on the body.
These basses can often feel quite nice with a little bit of home repair, as well. Wish the pickups were higher so it felt better under your right hand? Take it off and put some foam underneath it.
Over time, a cheap bass can sound and feel great with the gradual upgrades (pickups, pre-amps, bridges, tuners, etc…)

2) Mid-level bass ($800 – $1,500): Man, I’ve played some pretty cheap basses off the shelf that are astounding. Make sure to check into any foreign built versions of boutique basses. I had a Lakland Skyline (Korean) that KILLED. Also, Ken Smith Designs (K.S.D which is a Korean Ken Smith) sound and feel awesome. Many of the great builders who cannot meet the demand are introducing basses where the bodies and necks are built in Korea and shipped to the states where they are fitted with the same electronics and built by the same team as the higher end models that cost 3 times as much. Just make sure to check them out a bit before buying as the consistency isn’t always there.

Also, this is where scouring the used basses on the market can really help. I’ve bought basses over the years for under $1,500 that would’ve cost me double that if I had bought new. I don’t mind a few dings.. my bass is going to be used… A LOT.

If you’re more of a player than a polisher, go used. Just make sure that they will let you check it out first or, if being shipped, will allow you a 24 period to really check it out and send it back (at YOUR expense) if it’s thrashed.

Again, if it feels perfect but doesn’t sound quite right, it might be worth consulting a tone guru and changing pickups and/or preamps. The right feeling instrument is more rare than a good sounding one (in my opinion anyway).

3) Boutique bass ($3,000 and up): This is where you’re having something built for you (there are some builders that charge this much for basses they just ship to stores like Fodera’s, etc.. make sure the bass you are buying is really worth the money. Don’t just spend extra money for the brand name!! A custom job is always better than an off the shelf version as it’s built for YOUR needs.

When ordering a custom bass there are a few things I look for.

1) The Luthier must be attentive and give me the due attention to warrant me giving him thousands of dollars and waiting a year or more for my instrument! If they rush you into a decision or have hardly talked to you about styles, tonal preferences, etc.. before pushing for you to make a decision? You might want to look elsewhere.

At the same time, spending big money doesn’t give you license to drive them nuts with daily emails and phone calls. Once you have decided and what will be built, let them build it! They will ALWAYS take longer than was expected but building a high quality instrument by hand is incredibly time consuming and you are not their only customer.

Make sure that the luthier discovers what you need in some of these areas:

  • Scale length
  • Woods (for tone, not only aesthetics), pickups and pre-amp combinations (passive and/or active)
  • Fret size
  • String spacing
  • Tone! (It’s a good idea to send the builder some MP3’s of tonal examples as reference. The word “fat” or “round” may mean two different things to either of you, but a recording really gets the point across)
  • Body shape (do you sit when you play? some basses do not sit well on the leg)
  • Balance points (is it neck heavy?)
  • Weight
  • Do you use super low action?
  • How hard do you pluck?
  • Ramps?
  • Is the neck radiused or flat?
  • Are the pickups radiused or flat?

Basically, if it’s being built to spec, you want the luthier to really challenge you to tell them what your needs really are!

Don’t just say you want Anthony Jackson’s bass unless your technique and tonal esthetic really lead you in that direction. (I love his playing and I think his bass is stunning, but I couldn’t play that bass for the life of me. It hurts me physically to play with that spacing and scale length). Therefore I’d be a fool to plunk down $9k for one and I know a few who have done just that, simply because it’s an amazing looking Fodera! That’s the wrong reason to buy a bass. I also know guys who play similar Fodera’s and it suits them perfectly. I’m just saying you need to explore that before spending that kind of dough!)

Smaller scale builders are sometimes better equipped to really give you what you want and need than the bigger dogs if you really want something unique to your playing style.

In summary, I guess I would just say to make sure and check your motivations before throwing down the cash. Think about the sound and function of the bass and what style of bass your technique warrants both now and in the future as you reach your stylistic goals. You need something that feels right to you and sounds the way you want it to sound.

When the sound you desire comes out of those speakers, it doesn’t matter how much money you spent or didn’t spend, if you have wooden pickup covers or whether there’s an $8,000 dragon inlay on the fretboard. Whether it costs $300 and looks like hell or whether you traded your car and two basses for it and it inspires awe in every woodworker that walks by… when it sounds right and it speaks to you, that is all that matters and you’ll play better because of it. Trust me!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to Dave Cancel reply

  1. The only advice I can give is PLAY IT! You can take 10 identical P basses and 9 can play like crap and the one left is “IT”! You can change the sound, but you can’t change the “feel”. It doesn’t matter if its a $50 special or a $20000 collectors item, it needs to play perfect for you! I have the same bass from 1978 I assembled, and over the years it has gone through many changes, but it has the feel and sound I was looking for. A Phil Kubicki neck with a Shecter pbass body and Bill Lawrence pickups, it is still my main workhorse and sweet sounding beast that I love!

  2. Del

    I don’t think you can really go wrong with an American Precision or Jazz Bass. How many of us are of a level of playing that we really need a bass built for us? Jaco wasn’t, he did his own. Was Jimi’s, Stratocaster built by the custom shop or just off of the shelf? Why have a cusom shop bass or guitar just to play in clubs and bars. If you have the money, sure go for it but otherwise use your head.

  3. Excellent advice! It’s my experience that quality basses are available at every price point. Being a musician is not just for rich people :)

  4. I would not dismiss a Mexican Jazz or P bass. I have had several over the years and one of my favorites is Mexican Jazz that I use constantly now. I picked it up locally from a Craigslist ad for less than $200. It needed quite a bit of setup work and that is the caveat – many times with a used bass, extensive setup is needed. I can do all my own setup work and that makes the used option at any price level practical. I am also blessed to be within 2 miles of Roscoe Guitars and I have known Keith for a very long time. Of course, I also have a couple of his basses.

  5. Man, you’re right on with almost all of this, and this is almost certainly how I choose my basses when I go to purchase. I also make sure to play it extensively multiple times on DIFFERENT days! If I really start to dig it, I’ll talk to a salesman tell him what’s up and then come back in a couple of days to try it again just to make sure the thing still sounds as sweet as it did when I had it. Also, although feel is most certainly the first element that I look for in a bass because of the technology in tone-shaping these days, I do try to play the bass through a similar amp set-up or at least amp manufacture if possible just to make sure it still really sounds as good as I want it to.

    Love these write-ups man!

    Best regards,