A Guitarist's Guide to Choosing a Bass

There are plenty of reasons a guitarist might want to pick up the bass. Perhaps you've always been attracted to the deep and grumbling low-ends that you're guitar just can't hit, or maybe you'd like to add some flavor to a song you're writing and recording yourself. Or say you're a player like Tal Wilkenfeld, who started on guitar but always found herself using it to play funky bass lines.

Whatever your specific case may be, there are some things you should know before going straight out and buying that Jazz Bass you think you've always wanted:

  • First and foremost is the all-important decision between short-scale or long-scale bass guitars. Many guitarists just starting out are going to opt for a short-scale model (30 inches or less) because it's going to feel more familiar. A standard Fender Telecaster's scale length is 25.5 inches, for example, while most long-scale basses hover around 34 inches. Making such a large jump right away can mean extra arm strain that could otherwise be avoided by opting for a smaller model.

  • Yes, you can still use a pick. Angle your right hand upward to avoid accidental muting, and learn to love alternate picking. Pick closer to the neck for more of the body tones and closer to the bridge for brighter “punk” tones.

  • The bass is a foundational instrument, so work on finding the groove. Ideally, you’ll want to layer your lines in-between the other instruments, as opposed to stacking them on top. Think of yourself as a melodic drummer, with an emphasis on the work of the bass drum and snare.

  • Concerning your fretting hand, don’t play a bass like a guitar. Learn to pivot your fretting hand by placing your thumb in the center of the neck (sorry, no Hendrix thumb-fretting needed here). Use your first, second, and pinky fingers to fret. This will reduce the tension on your ligaments and wrist, leading to healthier playing habits over time.

Now that we’ve got the Carol Kaye-isms out of the way, it's time to talk about which bass model is right for you. As a guitarist, you'll want to find a bass that's comfortable and familiar to you and something that won't result in initial (or, potentially, chronic) hand fatigue. Switching right over to the clunkier classic basses can be a bold move, even if it looks like the bass of your dreams.

Because of this, we here at Reverb have decided to compile the best, fastest-playing first basses for guitarists looking to lay down the low-end.

Mustang-Style Basses

First on this list are the many variations of the Mustang bass, including the Musicmaster and Bronco models. Since their first release in 1964, Mustang-style basses have been a mainstays in popular music. Largely short-scale offsets, these things are simply fun, easy-to-play instruments, famously used by Rolling Stone Bill Wyman in his early days and Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth.

Aside from their playability (which is always important), the Mustang class of basses are eye-popping instruments, from the Vintage ‘60s Fender Mustang Bass to the Squier Vista Series Musicmaster bass. Unlike most types of basses, there is really a Mustang bass for everyone at every price, new or used.

SG-Style Basses

If you've spent any time playing SGs, these basses will make you feel right at home. They typically come in both short and standard scales and, like their 6-string brethren, pack a powerful sonic punch with a ton of low-end and thump. The first serious bass that I bought when transitioning over from guitar was a modern take on the Gibson EB-0, and it was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made as a musician.

The original EB-0 (released in 1959) featured a double-cutaway body styled after the Les Paul Junior of the same era. But post-1961, models of the EB-0 (with one pickup) and the EB-3 (same body, with dual pickups) feature the familiar horned cutaways of the classic SG body.

Epiphone has made more than a couple copies of the EBs, and most of them are worthy instruments. Even down to the Japan-made “lawsuit” SG basses out there, it’s really hard to find one that you won’t like if SGs are already your thing. If you love the early sounds of Cream’s Jack Bruce and mid-to-late-‘70s Bill Wyman, you can’t go wrong with an SG-style bass.

Bullet Basses

1983-4 Fender Squire Bullet Bass

While the Mustang bass has seen numerous reissues and remakes over the years, the one offering that has largely been left alone is the Bullet bass. Originally released by Fender as a replacement to the Mustang/Musicmaster basses, the Bullets offered a fairly interesting take on the traditional Fender bass for a new breed of beginners.

Offered in both full-scale and short-scale versions, Fender and Squier Bullets have become renowned and sought after for their optimal playability and style (the finishes age very tastefully). The earliest incarnations were made in the U.S., before transitioning over to the FujiGen factory in Japan for the Squier incarnations. While they were really only offered in the ‘80s, there’s a decent amount of them still around that can be had at a fair price.

Today, there are tons of Squier-made bass guitar models in this same vein if you're not captivated by the Bullet. The Squier Affinity series offers both a Precision and a Jazz model that are incredibly solid choices. And if you're looking for something funkier, check out the Squier SS Jaguar Special.

Viola/Violin-Style Basses

Next up are the viola/violin-style basses, or the "Beatle basses." Like the EB-0 series, these basses epitomize the idea of a fast-player. Tonally, a proper viola/violin bass will have a very round sound and “oomph” for days. Almost every model is short-scale, and unlike, say, a V bass, their small bodies won’t weigh you down.

The most famous and prized of these basses is the Hofner 500/1, made famous by Sir Paul McCartney. While most players can’t afford an original Hofner or even the McCartney reissue, there have been plenty of worthy Japan-made “lawsuit” copies over the years that can do the job without breaking the bank.

One in particular (that I personally own, perform, and record with) is the Univox ‘Lectra bass — a clone based off the Hofner. For a mere $400–$500, late-‘60s and ’70s Univox ‘Lectras (and other MIJ clones) can please you almost as much as a Hofner can, and perhaps even more-so when you remember all of the money that you saved. The necks are notoriously comfortable, allowing the most difficult lines to come off with ease.

But If you are looking to spend even less dough, Epiphone is currently making a 500/1 copy marketed as its "Viola" bass. Personally, I would recommend the ‘Lectra, as it has the same pickup/bass-boost switch layout as the original 500/1, but it all depends on your preference and the health of your pocketbook.

Flying V Basses

1981 Gibson Flying V Bass

These basses are perhaps the rarest on the list. And while V basses (if you can find them) are likely not the first choice of many guitarists-turned-bassists, they provide a very satisfying experience from a player’s perspective. Gibson, Epiphone, Dean, and even Kramer have had their own takes on the V bass. Generally having a larger body than others mentioned in this guide, most still maintain short scale lengths that will make any guitarist feel more at home.

All of that aside, based on the design alone, there’s something about playing a V bass that will remind you of playing guitar in a way that is very addicting. With that said, if you're solidly not a fan of the Flying V guitar design, you'll probably dislike a V-style bass no matter what. I'd suggest taking a walk on the wild side, though, and try on a V bass for size.

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