The bass guitar is one of the most important instruments in modern music, whether it’s laying down a sympathetic foundation or taking a more prominent lead role.
The old saying says that bass players are failed guitarists, but anyone who has spent some time playing bass will know that it’s an instrument with a character all of its own that should be treated as such.
While the bass guitar and the electric guitar share a lot of similarities in terms of construction, it’s still important to know what all the parts of your bass do and why they’re there!
We’re going to take you through the bass guitar from end to end, looking at each part in isolation and explaining what they do.
Let’s start with the largest and most obvious part of the bass guitar.
The body is one of the two main physical sections of the instrument. It functions as the mounting point for the lion’s share of the hardware of the bass; the bridge, pickups, and all of the electronics live on and in the body.
However, it’s not just a functional foundation for other parts. The body also determines three very important factors in any bass guitar; the sound, the feel, and the look.
The material that the body of a bass guitar is made out of is an important contributor to the overall tone of the instrument. Different woods emphasise different resonant frequencies and provide differing levels of sustain.
Classic guitar-making woods like ash, alder, and mahogany are commonly used in bass guitar bodies, but in some high-end builds you’ll find exotic, heavy woods like bubinga which have an almost unreal sustain.
Every tonewood weighs a different amount, which can be an important consideration when buying a bass. Not everyone wants to strap a slab of bubinga or mahogany around their neck for long periods of time!
Also playing into the weight of the bass is how the body is constructed. Most bass guitars are solid-body, but there are hollow- or semi-hollow basses available as well, which are lighter in the body for obvious reasons.
The body of a bass guitar can come in almost any shape though there are some classics that function as the template for a lot of basses on the market, those being the Fender Precision and Jazz Bass shapes.
The shape of the body influences how comfortable the bass is to play, with different contours suiting different players. You can only find your perfect shape by trying them out!
The body shape also plays a big part in determining the style of the bass. If you’re into a vintage vibe, then your classic Fender or Gibson shapes are a great starting point, or you could plump for iconic shapes like the Rickenbacker or Hohner Violin bass.
If you’re looking for a more modern look, Warwick and Ibanez shapes are a good direction to go.
The same also goes for finishes, with many brands offering classic and retro colors along with natural wood finishes for a more modern look that appeals to a lot of jazz, R&B and metal players.
Let’s move on to the hardware mounted on the body, starting with the bridge.
This is one of the two anchor points for your strings, the other being the tuners on the headstock. As well as providing a secure foundation for the strings, the bridge also plays an important role in the intonation of the bass.
A correctly intonated instrument is perfectly in tune wherever you play on the fretboard, whereas an incorrectly intonated one may be in tune in some positions but sharp or flat in others.
Intonation is adjusted using the bridge saddles, which are the parts that the string ‘breaks’ over. They are adjustable with screws that allow them to move forwards or backwards in tiny increments.
The saddles are also height adjustable, which allows you to fine-tune the action of your instrument, or the height of the strings from the fretboard.
A higher action means less fret buzz, but it also means you have to apply more pressure to get the string to contact the fretboard. Lower action is generally desirable for easier playing.
Pickups are super-important on a bass guitar. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to get the sound of your strings to an amplifier. To put it simply, a pickup is a magnet that creates a field above it, which the strings vibrate in.
The pickup is wound with conductive wire that transforms this physical vibration into electrical energy, which is the signal that you route out of the guitar into your amp. Pretty smart physics, right?
Pickups are generally rectangular and have little metallic circles on top. These are called pole-pieces, and they are what shapes the magnetic field. Some pickups don’t have visible pole pieces.
Pickups are also very important in shaping the overall tone of your bass. A Fender Precision Bass has one pickup that gives its specific tone, whereas the Jazz Bass has two, one closer to the bridge and one closer to the neck, which give different tonal characteristics.
A P/J bass has a Precision-style pickup and a Jazz-style bridge pickup. Then there’s the active-versus-passive debate.
Active pickups have an onboard preamp and powered circuitry, making them more powerful, but some players feel they lack the vintage warmth of passive pickups. Whatever your desired bass sound, there’s a pickup out there to suit you.
Tone And Volume Controls
You’ll see a couple of little knobs on the body of a bass guitar. These are volume and tone knobs.
They control how much of the signal from the pickup is being sent to the output, and (in the case of most passive tone circuits) how much of the treble end of that signal is being sent.
If you turn down the volume, as you’d imagine, you turn down the loudness of the sound. If you turn down the tone, you get a progressively less and less bright sound.
Depending on the pickup configuration and wiring of the circuit you may find you have more or fewer knobs to work with, but they all function in the same way.
You’ll see a little socket on your bass’ body, which is the output jack. This is where you plug the lead in. They are positioned in different places on different models of bass guitar, and there are advantages and disadvantages to all of the positionings.
The most important thing is to always be careful when the bass is plugged in. If you crunch a plugged in bass against something solid you could break the lead, the output jack, or even the body if you do it hard enough.
Most bass guitars have a pickguard, which is the plastic shape attached to the body under the strings and around the pickups. This prevents scratch damage to the body if you are playing the bass with a pick, hence the other common name of scratchplate.
Neck and Fretboard
Moving along to the next big part of the bass guitar, let’s take a look at the neck. This is where a whole lot of the action happens, in that the neck is where you actually choose which notes you’re generating.
The neck of a bass is longer than that of a regular guitar, and generally a good deal thicker too.
Made of a range of different woods, with alder, ash, and mahogany being commonplace choices, and fitted with a fretboard, often ash, rosewood, or other more exotic woods like ebony, the way the neck feels is very important in your choice of bass as a player.
One thing that bass guitars sometimes have that regular electric guitars tend not to is a fretless neck.
This is a neck without the fret wires (the metal lines across the neck of the bass that delineate the notes) making it more like the neck on an upright bass or violin.
This permits smooth, organic playing that some players have made a real feature out of, and also changes the tone of the bass to something woodier due to there being no metallic vibration in the fretted sound.
To an inexperienced bass player transitioning to fretless can be a challenge due to the lack of position markers, but it’s a great way to add something interesting to your playing and a fantastic challenge as a musician.
At the top of the neck there is a little raised ridge called the nut. The nut is traditionally made from bone, but is often nowadays plastic, synthetic bone, or graphite.
The nut keeps your strings aligned, and also helps create the correct break angle, or the angle at which they meet the tuners. This helps to prevent undue stress on the strings and therefore cut down on breakages.
Within the neck there is a metal rod, sometimes two, called the truss rod. The truss rod provides additional strength against the forward flexing force of the strings, and can be adjusted to make sure that the neck stays true and isn’t bowed by that force.
Adjustments are made by turning a bolt at the junction of the neck and headstock.
At the top of the neck, you’ll find the headstock. This is the piece of wood that the tuners are mounted to.
Some headstocks have all of their tuners on one side, like the classic Fender arrangement, whereas others have them arranged on either side, or in the case of Musicman basses and some other brands a combination of the two.
There are arguments that the different placements have an effect on tuning stability, with the two-either-side arrangement being more stable, but it’s not something that has a particularly huge impact if the rest of the instrument is set up properly and is really more of a matter of personal taste.
The big keys and winders on the headstock are the tuners, tuning pegs, or tuning machines. These are used to adjust the tuning of the bass to ensure that it is harmonized with the other instruments you are playing with.
They are larger on a bass than on a regular guitar due to the amount of force required to hold the larger strings in tune and to make adjustments easily.
If you tried to tune a bass with tuning pegs the same size as those on a Stratocaster, you would have a real struggle on your hands!
This brings us to the last part of the bass, which is the strings. Much longer and thicker than guitar strings, bass strings are designed to be rugged and dependable.
They come in two main varieties, roundwound or flatwound. With roundwound strings, which are the most commonly used today, the wire wrap around the core has a round profile, which you can feel under your fingers.
Flatwounds use a flat wrap wire, which produces a smooth surface. Roundwound strings have more presence and top end, which is why they are the strings of choice for most rock, pop, punk, and metal bass players.
Flatwounds have a fuller bottom end and more low mids, and are generally sought after by jazz, R&B, and reggae players. It’s really a matter of personal preference though, and you may find that your perfect tone doesn’t lie where you originally thought!
Outside of roundwounds and flatwounds, you can also find tapewound strings. These are effectively flatwounds but the outer wrap is not a metal wire, but instead a material like nylon.
These produce a rubbery, flexible sound and are even slicker than flatwounds, and are often used by hip-hop, dub, and soul players for extra-warm, pliable tone.
Frequently Asked Questions
Now you’ve got a bit more knowledge about the parts of a bass guitar, but you might still have some questions. After all, there’s a bunch to learn! Here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions about the bass guitar, all in one handy place.
What Is Different About A Bass Guitar?
Besides being bigger, the most important difference is the pitch of the two instruments. The bass guitar sounds notes an octave lower than a standard guitar, which makes it perfect for anchoring harmony in a huge range of musical styles.
The bass is also used as a lead instrument at times, but its general role is supportive.
Who Invented The Bass Guitar?
Leo Fender is popularly credited with inventing the bass guitar in 1951.
He built upon designs that had been emerging since the 1930s as players tried to find ways to electrify their basses, and with his first design created the prototype of almost every bass guitar that’s in production today.
How Many Frets Does A Bass Guitar Have?
The standard number of frets for a bass is 20, though you’ll find models available with more.
While some people are of the opinion that there’s no money above the seventh fret, there are plenty of players who use the full range of the bass for higher supporting parts, melody, and even chord playing.