The electric bass is derived from the upright double bass which is such an enormous instrument that it’s difficult to transport, and it’s also pretty quiet compared to some instruments. The electric bass solved the transport and volume problems, but then went on to evolve into an instrument in its own right. It’s a great instrument to learn and you can probably become good enough to play in a band more quickly than with most instruments.
The set up of your bass is just as important as it is on the guitar. Adjustments like the action – how close the strings are to the neck, the intonation – whether the string saddles are adjusted correctly, are all vitally important to the playability of the instrument. It’s also important to keep the electronics in good order and free from pops, crackles and cut-outs. As always, if there’s a problem, deal with it straight away, before it becomes a crisis. Your local guitar shop will get your bass set up for for a very reasonable cost.
There are two main techniques for playing the electric bass; finger style and with a pick. Finger style is undoubtedly the most versatile method as you have four fingers to use (usually), whereas you can only hold one pick at a time (also usually). Some of the great finger style players are Jaco Pastorius, John Pattitucci from the world of Jazz, and Billy Sheehan and Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris from the world of rock.
However, plectrum players can achieve techniques that finger players can’t, and they get a sharper, more defined attack to the note. JJ Burnel, Chris Squire and Paul McCartney all use a pick to play bass. It really is a matter of personal preference which you choose but it’s good to nail both techniques if you can. That way you’ll be open to more varied gigs.
Then there’s ‘slap’ bass playing. This is a very percussive and rhythmic technique that involves strapping the bass very high on the body and using a distinctive, thumbing and popping hand technique to obtain notes. The true master of this is Mark King of Level 42. Many players utilise elements of slap and pop in their playing, even though their technique is mainly finger style. Combining the two can sound really cool.
Some bass guitars have ‘active’ circuitry added. This means that a small electronic circuit has been added to the pickup system that gives the bass higher output and greater tonal control. This can result in a great-sounding instrument but beware! That electronic circuit needs a battery to power it, so somewhere on the bass is a battery compartment, batteries run out of juice – and it’s rarely at a convenient time. The truth is that the battery in an active instrument lasts a very long time, but you need to have a spare or two stashed in your kit. It’s also important to unplug the instrument when you’re not using it, the battery’s only being used when there’s a cable in the jack socket.
Bass guitar string sets have less strings, and use much heavier gauges, but the names still follow much the same logic as guitar strings. The gauges of a typical set of four Rotosound bass strings would be,
Some bass guitars have five strings. They have a low B string which is usually 0.125 or 0.130 gauge, and there are also six-string basses which have an additional top C string, usually 0.030 or 0.035.