Design considerations Edit
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 maple and ebony for fretboards.
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 (e.g. BassLab) 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 change the tone and resonance of the instrument. Acoustic bass guitars are typically equipped with piezoelectric or magnetic pickups and amplified.
Instruments handmade by highly skilled luthiers are becoming increasingly available. Exotic materials include woods such as bubinga, wenge, ovangkol, ebony and goncalo alves. Graphite composite is used to make lightweight necks 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).
Another design consideration for the bass is whether to use frets on the fingerboard. On a fretted bass, the frets divide the fingerboard into semitone divisions (as on a guitar). The original Fender basses had 20 frets, but modern basses may have 24 or more. Fretless basses have a distinct sound, because the absence of frets means that the string must be pressed down directly onto the wood of the fingerboard as with the double bass. The string buzzes against the wood and is somewhat muted because the sounding portion of the string is in direct contact with the flesh of the player's finger. The fretless bass allows players to use the expressive devices of glissando, vibrato and microtonal intonations such as quarter tones and just intonation.Some bassists use both fretted and fretless basses in performances, according to the type of material they are performing, as with Pino Palladino, whose performance on the fretless bass during the 1980s made him a highly desirable session player backing high profile musicians that included Eric Clapton, and David Gilmour. However, the late 1990s showed a shift toward fretted basses as well, as he branched out into a wide variety of genres. While fretless basses are often associated with jazz and jazz fusion, bassists from other genres use fretless basses, such as metal bassist Steve DiGiorgio and Colin Edwin of modern/progressive rock band Porcupine Tree.
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.
The standard design for the electric bass guitar has four strings, tuned E, A, D and G, in fourths such that the open highest string, G, is an eleventh (an octave and a fourth) below middle C, making the tuning of all four strings the same as that of the double bass. This tuning is also the same as the standard tuning on the lower four strings on a 6-string guitar, only an octave lower. String types include all-metal strings (roundwound, flatwound, groundwound, or halfwound), metal strings with different coverings, such as tapewound and plastic-coatings. The variety of materials used in the strings gives bass players a range of tonal options. 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 four, five, or six strings:
- Four strings with alternate tunings to obtain an extended lower range. Tuning in fifths eg. CGDA gives an extended upper and lower range.>
- Five strings usually tuned B-E-A-D-G, which provides extended lower range. Five string basses tuned to B-E-A-D-G (and sometimes A-D-G-C-F) are often used in contemporary rock and metal alongside seven string guitars, baritone guitars, and otherwise downtuned instruments. Another common tuning used on early five-string basses is E-A-D-G-C, known as "tenor tuning". This is still a popular tuning for jazz and solo bass. Other tunings such as C-E-A-D-G are used though rare. The fifth string provides a greater lower range (if a low B is used) or a greater upper range (if a high C string is added) than the 4-string bass, and gives access to more notes for any given hand position. The earliest five string was created by Fender in 1965. The Fender Bass V had the E-A-D-G-C tuning, but was unpopular. The common low B five string was created by Alembic for Jimmy Johnson as a custom instrument, and later Yamaha offered the first production model as the BB5000 in 1984.
- Six strings are usually tuned B-E-A-D-G-C. The 6-string bass is a 4-string bass with an additional low "B" string and a high "C" string. While much less common than 4- or 5-string basses, they are still used in Latin, jazz, and several other genres, as well as in studio work where a single instrument must be highly versatile. Alternate tunings for 6-string bass include B-E-A-D-G-B, matching the first five strings of an acoustic or electric guitar, and EADGBE, completely matching the tuning of a 6-string guitar but one octave lower allowing the use of guitar chord fingerings. Rarer tunings such as EADGCF and F#BEADG provide a lower or higher range in a given position while maintaining consistent string intervals. The original six-string bass was created by Danelectro in 1958, as a guitar tuned down an octave (EADGBE). These earlier instruments had a sound similar to an electric guitar tuned an octave below instead of a bass sound. In the 70's, Anthony Jackson worked with Carl Thompson and (later) Fodera-Smith to create the Contrabass guitar, which evolved to the modern six-string bass (BEADGC).
- Detuners, such as the Hipshot, are mechanical devices operated by the thumb on the fretting hand that allow one or more strings to be quickly detuned to a pre-set lower pitch. Hipshots are typically used to drop the "E"-string down to "D" on a four string bass.
Some bassists have used other types of tuning methods to obtain an extended range or other benefits such as providing multiple octaves of notes at any given position, as well as a significantly larger tonal range. Instrument types or tunings used for this purpose include basses with fewer than four strings (1-string bass guitars, 2-string bass guitars, 3-string bass guitars (E-A-D);) alternate tunings (e.g., tenor bass, piccolo bass, and guitar-tuned basses) and 8, 10, 12 and 15-string basses, which are built on the same principle as the 12-string guitar, where the strings are grouped into "courses" tuned in unison or octaves, to be played simultaneously.
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 instrument, which was commissioned by bassist Garry Goodman, was an early example of a bass with more than six single course 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. Sub-contra basses, such as C#-F#-B-E ("C#" being at 17.32 Hz) have been created. Ibanez had released SR7VIISC in 2009, featuring a 30" scale and narrower width, and tuned as B-E-A-D-G-C-E; the company dubbed it a cross between bass and guitar. Yves Carbonne developed 10 and 12 string fretless sub-bass guitars.
Playing techniques Edit
Sitting or standing
Most bass players stand while playing, although sitting is also accepted, particularly in large ensemble settings, such as jazz big bands or in acoustic genres such as folk music. It is a matter of the player's preference as to which position gives the greatest ease of playing and what a bandleader expects. When sitting, right-handed players can balance the instrument on the right thigh or like classical guitar players, the left. Balancing the bass on the left thigh usually positions it in such a way that it mimics the standing position, allowing for less difference between the standing and sitting positions. Balancing the bass on the right thigh provides better access to the neck and fretboard in its entirety, especially lower frets.
In contrast to the upright bass (or double bass), the electric bass guitar is played horizontally across the body, like an electric guitar. When the strings are plucked with the fingers (pizzicato), the index and middle fingers (and sometimes with the thumb, ring, and pinky fingers as well) are used. James Jamerson, an influential bassist from the Motown era, played intricate bass lines using only his index finger, which he called "The Hook." There are also variations in how a bassist chooses to rest the right-hand thumb (or left thumb in the case of left-handed players). A player may rest his thumb on the top edge of one of the pickups or on the side of the fretboard, which is especially common among bassists who have an upright bass influence. Some bassists anchor their thumbs on the lowest string and move it off to play on the low string. Alternatively, the thumb can be rested loosely on the strings to mute the unused strings.
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) 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.
The slap and pop method, or "thumbstyle", most associated with funk, uses tones and percussive sounds achieved by striking, thumping, or "slapping" a string with the thumb and snapping (or "popping") a string or strings with the index or middle fingers. Bassists often interpolate left hand-muted "dead notes" between the slaps and pops to achieve a rapid percussive effect, and after a note is slapped or popped, the fretting hand may cause other notes to sound by using "hammer ons", "pull offs", or a left-hand glissando (slide). Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station was an early innovator of the slap style, and Louis Johnson of the The Brothers Johnson is also credited as an early slap bass player.
Slap and pop style is also used by many bassists in other genres, such as rock (e.g., J J Burnel and Les Claypool), metal (e.g. Eric Langlois, Martin Mendez, Fieldy and Ryan Martinie), and fusion (e.g. Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten (performing with Dave Matthews Band and Bela Fleck), 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 rock bassists such as with Pino Palladino (currently a member of the John Mayer Trio and bassist for The Who), 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 pick (or plectrum) is used to obtain a more articulate attack, for speed, or just personal preference. Although the use of a pick is primarily associated with rock, picks are also used in other styles. Jazz bassist Steve Swallow uses a pick for upbeat or funky songs. Picks can be used with alternating downstrokes and upstrokes, or with all downstrokes for a more consistent attack. The pick is usually held with the index and thumb, with the up-and-down plucking motion supplied by the wrist (one exception is tremolo picking, in which the whole arm is used to play a note very rapidly). Some bassists use their fingernails to play flamenco-style, such as Geddy Lee, Cliff Burton, Les Claypool, Mike Dirnt, and Stanley Clarke.
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.
The fretting hand—the left hand for right-handed bass players and the right hand for left-handed bass players — is used to press down the strings to play different notes and shape the tone or timbre of a plucked or picked note. The fretting hand can be used to change a sounded note, either by fully muting it after it is plucked or picked to shorten its duration or by partially muting it near the bridge to reduce the volume of the note, or make the note die away faster. The fretting hand is often used to mute strings that are not being played and stop the sympathetic vibrations, particularly when the player wants a "dry" or "focused" sound. On the other hand, the sympathetic resonance of harmonically-related strings may be desired for some songs, such as ballads. In these cases, a bassist can fret harmonically-related notes. For example, while fretting a sustained "F" (on the third fret of the "D" string), underneath an F major chord, a bassist might hold down the "C" and low "F" below this note, so that their harmonics will sound sympathetically.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 two-handed tapping styles, bassists use both hands to play notes on the fretboard by rapidly pressing and holding the string to the fret. Instead of plucking or picking the string to create a sound, in this technique, the action of striking the string against the fretboard is used to create the sound. Since two hands can be used to play on the fretboard, this makes it possible to play interweaving contrapuntal lines, to simultaneously play a bassline and a simple chord, or play chords and arpeggios. Bassist John Entwistle of The Who would tap percussively on the strings, causing them to strike the fretboard with a twangy sound to create drum-style fills. Some players noted for this technique include Billy Sheehan, Stuart Hamm, John Myung, Victor Wooten, Les Claypool, and Michael Manring. The Chapman Stick and Warr Guitars are string instruments that are designed to be played using two-handed tapping.
Pedagogy and training Edit
Of all of the genres, jazz and the mainstream commercial genres (rock, R&B, etc) have the most established and comprehensive systems of instruction and training for electric bass. In the jazz scene, teens can begin taking private lessons on the instrument and performing in amateur big bands at high schools or run by the community. Young adults who aspire to becoming professional jazz bassists or studio rock bassists can continue their studies in a variety of formal training settings, including colleges and some universities.
Several colleges offer electric bass training in the US. The Bass Institute of Technology (BIT) in Los Angeles was founded in 1978, as part of the Musician's Institute. Chuck Rainey (electric bassist for Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye) was BIT's first director. BIT was one of the earliest professional training program for electric bassists. The program teaches a range of modern styles, including funk, rock, jazz, Latin, and R&B.The Berklee College of Music in Boston offers training for electric bass players. Electric bass students get private lessons and there is a choice of over 270 ensembles to play in. Specific electric bass courses include funk/fusion styles for bass; slap techniques for electric bass; fingerstyle R&B; 5 & 6-string electric bass playing (including performing chords); and how to read bass sheet music.
In Canada, the Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning offers an Advanced Diploma (a three-year program) in jazz and commercial music. The program accepts performers who play bass, guitar, keyboard, drums, melody instruments (e.g., sax, flute, violin) and who sing. Students get private lessons and perform in 40 student ensembles.
Although there are far fewer university programs that offer electric bass instruction in jazz and popular music, there are some universities which offer Bachelor's degrees (B.Mus.) and Master of Music (M.Mus.) degrees in jazz performance or "commercial music", in which electric bass can be the main instrument. In the US, the Manhattan School of Music has a jazz program leading to B.Mus. and M.Mus degrees which accepts students who play bass (double bass and electric bass), guitar, piano, drums, and melody instruments (e.g., sax, trumpet, etc.).
As well, there are a variety of other training programs such as jazz or funk summer camps and festivals, which give students the opportunity to play a wide range of contemporary music, from 1970s-style jazz-rock fusion to 2000s-style R&B.
In other less mainstream genres, such as hardcore punk or metal, the pedagogical systems and training sequences are typically not formalized and institutionalized. As such, many players learn "by ear", by copying the basslines from records and CDs, and by playing in a number of bands. Even in non-mainstream styles, though, students may be able to take lessons from experienced players from these styles. As well, there are a range of books, playing methods, and, since the 1990s, instructional DVDs (e.g., on how to play metal bass).