Buying a Bass: A Checklist by No Treble Readers

Basses for sale

As the instrument that expresses your musical ideas, it’s important to choose a bass that fits you and your music. But with so many options available, what do you look for?

Active or passive electronics? Maple or rosewood fingerboard? How many strings? Which brand?

The choices can be daunting, and finding a worthy instrument can take some time. That’s why we’re kicking off our “Ask the Readers” column, with your opinions.

Before we polled No Treble readers, we got some expert insight from master luthier Pete Skjold of Skjold Design Guitars as to tips in buying your next bass. He shared five tips that he “learned the hard way” when shopping for a new axe:

  1. Always make sure the bass is set up properly before the bass leaves the store and before you purchase it. In other words, make sure the truss rod is functioning properly and that you can adjust the saddles at the bridge to get the action where you want it. If this sounds like tech talk and doesn’t make much sense, then that brings me to my second tip.
  2. Always bring a more experienced player with you to shop for basses. It is important to have someone with experience on your side to determine the condition of a particular instrument. More experienced players and buyers will often have gone thru several more basses than you and can help steer you in the right direction. If you can’t get someone to go with you ask an instructor what he or she recommends based on your budget and needs. They will have a good insight as to where you are in the process and what might be best for your level.
  3. Always find out what a particular store’s return policy is. In the event you get the bass home and realize it isn’t for you, know what options you have for a refund or exchange. Never purchase a bass sight unseen if there is a no refund, no return policy with it. This is just asking for trouble.
  4. Make a list of what you really want this instrument to do musically. If you are doing a Larry Graham tribute album you might want to stay away from that Gibson EB-O or Hofner violin bass. Some basses are just better suited for certain styles of music. Know what those are and stick to the ones that match what you want to play.
  5. You don’t have to spend a small fortune to get a great bass. With proper set-up even budget basses can be made to play as well as many higher end models. That’s why tip #1 is so important. Save as much as you can, hit relatives up in advance to help contribute to the cause (a couple months before your birthday) and do the best with the most money you can but search out the deals too. You may find a great trade in or vintage bass that would be much more if purchased new so keep your eyes out for those deals hanging in the back of the shop.

Among those in the No Treble community, there were several common factors to finding a bass worth buying, though not everyone agreed on the answer.

Here are your responses to what you look for in a bass.

Brand

When it comes to brand, we know better than to make any claims. But No Treble readers (like all of us), have their preferences.

Trevor Litteral said the first thing he looks for when it comes to brand is “The Fender logo,” while Joshua Carmichael said “First thing- Not Fender.”

Dale Carter asks, “Does it have Sting Ray or Sadowsky written on it?”, while David Daw asks, “Is it a MTD?”

Feel/Playability

Feel and playability matter a ton, and we weren’t surprised to see this response was common.

Jay Michael may have said it best: “Before ANY-thing else: Hold her. If she doesn’t feel good to hold, why would I take her home? Oh sure, she might be gorgeous, talk a good game by sounding perfect… but If I’m going to cuddle with her all night, she had better feel juuuuust right!”

Christopher J. Cassisi had a simple, yet practical view: “Feel first and then tone. [I] don’t care what it looks like or who makes it. As long as it plays nice and sounds cool I will like it.”

Eric Fortner shared, “if it doesn’t feel right in my hands the rest won’t matter.” And then he offered an interesting take: “Then check out tone [with the bass] unplugged, then plugged in.”

James Kelley said it happens fast: “You can tell right away if it feels/fits right.”

Price

Unfortunately, price matters for most of us.

Aaron Gibson asks himself a practical question first: “Do I have any money in my checking account?”

Of course, price doesn’t mean everything, as Thom Miecznikowski points out: “It’s been my experience that price has very little to do with what makes a good instrument.”

Adam Hollingsworth suggests establishing the financial part before you start looking. “Get a budget and stick to it,” he offers. “View some in that price range. Choose two or more to try. Feel the weight and the way it’s set up. Make sure the hand slides easily on the neck and that it’s comfortable. Decided? Now work a deal with the store, and extras are good!”

Tone

“I put it on, unplugged up against my body and play it,” Thom Miecznikowski said. “If I can feel the resonance in my upper body, it’s a good bass.”

Uwe Forschner agrees with Eric Fortner: “First I play it without amp, check the feel, hold it, look at the quality of work, hear the wood resonating. Then I plug in an amp like a Tecamp Puma, very neutral sounding. With that I check out how it sounds, checking out different pickup configurations. If possible, I play it with a band. The first impression is the most important one, if it does not feel right, it can’t be ‘the bass.’”

Lyall Storey’s criteria is “Tone first, Comfort second, looks third… all else is irrelevant. If it sounds great, hangs well and looks great why not buy it?”

Ryan Brown focuses on tone control. “I really like to be able to manipulate things from the bass.”

Strings
Oh boy. The endless debate. We’ll just share readers’ preferences.

Jason Vorherr and others go traditional, saying “4 Strings.”

Jeff Lieby goes beyond the string count, saying “at least 5 strings, 34″ scale, nice strong neck, and versatile electronics. Those are my must haves.”

Travis Bazanele does too: “I prefer neck-through, active electronics with EQ boost/cut, and as many strings as possible.”

Anthony Shagg Larch is among the “more is better” crowd, saying “At least a 6-string as of right now, active pickups, any fretboard but maple, 24 frets, at least 35” scale, and non-Indonesian hardware.”

Construction

John Howery has a 5-point inspection when it comes to construction: “1) Is it neck-through construction? I prefer neck-through but will consider the right bolt-on. 2) Must be 5-string. 3) Woods used in body, neck & fretboard. 4) Aesthetics – Shape of body & access to all frets. 5) Pick ups & electronics”

Mohammed Darras starts with the wood selection: “Alder body, Maple Neck, Rosewood Fingerboard, doesn’t matter whether it’s J, P or P/J. For the bridge, I don’t care as long as I’m replacing it with a Leo Quan Badass II.”

Jeff Martin agrees that a great bass with some less than optimal hardware or electronics won’t ulimately matter: “Quality of the body and play ability. I can change out the electronics.”

Electronics

Yet another in the never-ending bass debate.

Chris Peplinski has a strict policy: “No Active Electronics…”

Will Brown goes a bit beyond that: “Passive pickups, classic Fender style, and it just has to feel right.”

Visual Appeal

When it comes to looks, Samuel Horner issues a warning: “Don’t be drawn in by how it looks… simple is always better.”

Michael Kenny has more of a love-at-first-sight method, and backs up his stance: “At the risk of sounding shallow, the first thing is looks. Hear me out: Tone, balance, spacing, etc. are all very important to me, but my first consideration stems from advice my father would give to his customers when they were buying a car from him. If people were torn between choosing the car they wanted and a second less expensive choice he would point out that they aren’t saving money, they’re wasting every dime they spend because every time they see that car in the driveway they are going to absolutely hate it. So if I don’t absolutely fall in love the moment I see a bass my money stays in my pocket rather than my wasting it on something I’m going to resent every time I pick it up.”

Neil VanderWerf agrees with Michael, saying he sees what what his “initial attraction from across the room” will be.

Weight

Last but far from least among the feedback we received was the weight of the thing.

Michael Bellenir’s offered our favorite take on the subject of weight: “I cannot and do not want to play a 3 hour gig with a boat anchor hanging from my shoulders. A few people boast how much they love 10 lb basses. Good for you!”

Alexander Martin points out weight isn’t the only thing here: “Weight and balance are a huge issue, same with the feel of frets and neck. Overall tone next. Then looks of course. Sound is so low because although it is what you buy the instrument for, it is the most flexible thing about it.”

Thanks to everyone who submitted feedback for this piece. But it doesn’t stop here:

What do you look for when buying a bass? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Leave a Reply to Bill Mcclure Cancel reply

  1. I’ve always said that playability is the main factor in buying any instrument, strings, pickups and preamps can be changed but when you need to start attacking the wood you should probably try another bass.

    Saying that, I bought a Warwick thumb because of it’s tone. The neck is huge, beyond huge, huge to the point of considering getting a luthier to trim some of the depth out of the neck. And it weighs a ton. But the tone… the tone is ridiculously good, the tone I’ve always wanted. I put up with the impraticalities for how that bass sounds.

  2. This is a full ball of wax. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences. If you are just starting out, then I recommend staying away from anything close to a “boutique” bass. Start with the Fenders. Usually for most people, the standard Fender jazz works really well. Lots of tone variation, easy to play neck. The MIM is the standard and can usually be found at a good price. Watch for the quality – it isn’t consistent on these. The American standard is much more consistent, generally speaking but, in my opinion, hardly worth the extra money. A P-bass is a good alternative but doesn’t have the tonal variation of a jazz.

    In the cheaper basses, Ibanez makes a lot of good models under $500. Some of the best I’ve seen recently are the Dean Hillsboro basses. They have active electronics – no passive models. Active is good if you’re willing to work with the bass for the extra tonal possibilities. I generally don’t recommend active for a beginner – beginners need to learn tone shaping from the hands and not the bass or amp.

    One downside to the Fenders is that they usually have truly crappy strings on them. Be prepared to get a set of strings when you purchase a Fender. I usually recommend DR Strings because they are highly consistent and last forever, but GHS Boomers will do in a pinch.

  3. i’m a die hard fender precision nut . as far as i’m concerned they’re good for everything. plop a bridge pup in and you’re off.

  4. Playability and tone are king. Next is next is electronics – is there hum, do the controls actually do something. I also prefer a simple strightforward lay out with One, and only one volume knob. Contruction and finish – are there gaps or signs of sloppy workmanship. And, I also do not want to an albatross on my shoulder. Wood is also important, becasue as we know, each wood has its own characteristics. Price – not too cheap or too expensive. My next purchases will more than likely be in the $700 – $3000 range.

  5. A carpenter always has assorted tools to build the right foundation .. So bring the tools you need all you low note builders of song and groove

  6. This was a pretty ridiculous article. Who was this for?

  7. Everybody likes their on stuff best.. Me too! I have been playing a Status Graphite for 8 years.. But what I tell my students and anybody moving to their second or third bass. Do not buy a cheap bass. If you look at the life with an instrument 1500 is reasonable. Save! Don’t buy video games.. Make the sacrifice now.. Or you will end up buying another bass a year or so down the road..

  8. For me Feel is the most important.Followed closely by Electronics.I play a wide varitiy of styles and gigs so i prefer active basses,because i don`t always have my amp.In sone cases any amp! So active gives me some control over my tone at the bass! Last in the line is looks!

  9. There is no “best” bass. I have four basses which I use regularly but they are all very different. My primary and main bass is my Status Graphite Stealth 5 String. This is headless and entirely made of graphite. This will no doubt infuriate the purists who want a wood body and tone etc, however, it is a master of all tones, never goes out of tune, is built like the proverbial privy and will go in a guitar sized gig bag. I use this when I only have room for one bass (like when I’m using public transport) or when I need a five string. I really love this bass (as it was built to order) but mainly because of its flexibility.
    I also have a Fender Jazz (an American Special which I’ve modded) which I use extensively in the rock covers band I play in, and a Stingray, which, doesn’t suit the rock band, but suits soul and funk gigs and is unbeatable for that. There is nothing which beats the tone of a Jazz in a rock situation – even though I’ve tweaked mine with active pickups to boost the output, and the Stingray tone is…..well……a Stingray tone. If you’ve played one, you know.
    My last bass is a Status Fretless – which to be honest I’m unhappy with sound-wise, so I’m building a Jazz-based fretless to replace it.
    My advice is similar to those above, but
    1) Get the best you can afford – it is true that some lower price instruments punch way above their weight, but the longevity of the hardware and the neck could be called into question if used heavily. Also, if you decide that it isn’t for you, you’ve got a decent chance of making some reasonable money back if you have a “better” instrument.
    2) If you can, always play the actual instrument you are looking to buy. I bought my Jazz over the internet and was lucky, but mass produced instrument quality control can be patchy (even Fenders) and one bass may play completely differently to an identical model on the next shelf. I went through a rack of Stingrays before deciding on “the one”.
    3) Always budget for decent amplification. This is sometimes overlooked. You buy a fantastic bass but then have to use the battered amp in the corner of the rehearsal studio. Professional amps are still expensive but it isn’t hard to get a decent sounding amp for a reasonable price

  10. Feel & playability is crucial…you’re gonna have to live with this axe day in day out so you’re gonna wanna warm to it as soon as you hold it for the 1st time! Deffo set it up exactly to your preferences during shop testing.

  11. Tune it, play the crap out of it for 5 minutes then check the tuning. You will always need it to hold for at least the duration of a song (though a 45 minute set would be better)