The bass guitar (also called electric bass, or simply bass) is a stringed instrument played primarily with the fingers or thumb, by plucking, slapping, popping, strumming, tapping, thumping, or picking with a plectrum, often known as a pick.
The bass guitar is similar in appearance and construction to an electric guitar, but with a longer neck and scale length, and four to six strings or courses. The four-string bass, by far the most common, is usually tuned the same as the double bass, which corresponds to pitches one octave lower than the four lowest pitched strings of a guitar (E, A, D, and G). The bass guitar is a transposing instrument, as it is notated in bass clef an octave higher than it sounds (as is the double bass) to avoid excessive ledger lines. Like the electric guitar, the bass guitar has pickups and needs to be connected to an amplifier and speaker, which makes a sound loud enough to hear.
Since the 1960s, the bass guitar has largely replaced the double bass in popular music as the bass instrument in the rhythm section. While types of basslines vary widely from one style of music to another, the bassist usually plays a similar role: anchoring the harmonic framework and establishing the beat. Many styles of music include the bass guitar, including rock, heavy metal, pop, punk rock, country, reggae, gospel, blues, symphonic rock, and jazz. It is often a solo instrument in jazz, jazz fusion, Latin, funk, progressive rock and other rock and metal styles.
In the 1930s, musician and inventor Paul Tutmarc from Seattle, Washington, who was manufacturing lap steel guitars, developed the first electric string bass in its modern form, a fretted instrument designed to be played horizontally. The 1935 sales catalog for Tutmarc's electronic musical instrument company, Audiovox, featured his "Model 736 Bass Fiddle", a four-stringed, solid-bodied, fretted electric bass instrument with a 30 1⁄2-inch (775 mm) scale length. The adoption of a "guitar" form made the instrument easier to hold and transport than any of the existing stringed bass instruments. The addition of frets enabled bassists to play in tune more easily than on acoustic or electric upright basses. Around 100 of these instruments were made during this period.
Around 1947, Tutmarc's son, Bud, began marketing a similar bass under the Serenader brand name, prominently advertised in the nationally distributed L. D. Heater Music Company wholesale jobber catalogue of 1948. However, the Tutmarc family inventions did not achieve market success.
In the 1950s, Leo Fender, with the help of his employee George Fullerton, developed the first mass-produced electric bass guitar. Fender was the founder of Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, which made electric popular brands of electric guitars, basses and amplifiers. Fender's Fender Precision Bass, which began production in October 1951, became a widely copied industry standard for the instrument. The Precision Bass (or "P-bass") evolved from a simple, un-contoured "slab" body design and a single coil pickup similar to that of a Telecaster, to a contoured body design with beveled edges for comfort and a split single coil pickup.
The "Fender Bass" was a revolutionary new instrument for gigging musicians. In comparison with the upright bass, which had been the main bass instrument in popular music, folk and country from the early 1900s to the 1940s, the Fender bass could be easily transported to shows. It was also less prone to feedback when amplified, than acoustic bass instruments. In 1953 Monk Montgomery became the first bass player to tour with the Fender bass guitar, in Lionel Hampton's postwar big band. Roy Johnson, and Shifty Henry with Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five, were other early Fender bass pioneers. Bill Black, playing with Elvis Presley, switched from upright bass to the Fender Precision Bass around 1957. The bass guitar was intended to appeal to guitarists as well as upright bass players, and many early pioneers of the instrument, such as Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn, were originally guitarists.
Following Fender's lead, in 1953, Gibson released the first short scale violin-shaped electric bass with extendable end pin, allowing it to be played upright or horizontally. Gibson renamed the Electric Bass in 1958 to the EB-1.  Also in 1958 Gibson released the maple arched top EB-2 described in the Gibson catalogue as "A hollow-body electric bass that features a Bass/Baritone pushbutton for two different tonal characteristics". In 1959 these were followed by the more conventional-looking EB-0 Bass. The EB-0 was very similar to a Gibson SG in appearance (although the earliest examples have a slab-sided body shape closer to that of the double-cutaway Les Paul Special).
Whereas Fender basses had pickups mounted in positions in between the base of the neck and the top of the bridge, many of Gibson's early basses featured one humbucking pickup mounted directly against the neck pocket. The EB-3, introduced in 1961, also had a "mini-humbucker" at the bridge position. Gibson basses also tended to be smaller, sleeker instruments; Gibson did not produce a 34-inch (864 mm) scale bass until 1963 with the release of the Thunderbird, which was also the first Gibson bass to use dual-humbucking pickups in a more traditional position, about halfway between the neck and bridge. A number of other companies also began manufacturing bass guitars during the 1950s: Kay in 1952, Hofner and Danelectro in 1956, Rickenbacker in 1957 and Burns/Supersound in 1958.
1956 saw the appearance at the German trade fair "Musikmesse Frankfurt" of the distinctive Höfner 500/1 violin bass made using violin construction techniques by Walter Höfner, a second generation violin luthier. The instrument is often known as the "Beatle Bass", due to its endorsement and use by Beatles bassist Paul McCartney. In 1957 Rickenbacker introduced the model 4000 bass, the first bass to feature a neck-through-body design in which the neck is part of the body wood. The Fender and Gibson versions used bolt-on and glued-on necks.
With the explosion of the popularity of rock music in the 1960s, many more manufacturers began making electric basses, including the Japanese manufacturers Yamaha, Teisco and Guyatone. First introduced in 1960, the Fender Jazz Bass was known as the Deluxe Bass and was meant to accompany the Jazzmaster guitar. The Jazz Bass (often referred to as a "J-bass") featured two single-coil pickups, one close to the bridge and one in the Precision bass' split coil pickup position. The earliest production basses had a 'stacked' volume and tone control for each pickup. This was soon changed to the familiar configuration of a volume control for each pickup, and a single, passive tone control. The Jazz Bass' neck was narrower at the nut than the Precision bass — 1 1⁄2 inches (38 mm) versus 1 3⁄4 inches (44 mm) — allowing for easier access to the lower strings and an overall spacing and feel closer to that of an electric guitar, allowing trained guitarists to transition to the bass guitar more easily.
Another visual difference that set the Jazz Bass apart from the Precision is its "offset-waist" body. Pickup shapes on electric basses are often referred to as "P" or "J" pickups in reference to the visual and electrical differences between the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass pickups.
Fender also began production of the Mustang Bass; a 30-inch (762 mm) scale length instrument used by bassists such as Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones ("P" and "J" basses have a scale length of 34 inches (864 mm), a design echoed on most current production electric basses of all makes). In the 1950s and 1960s, the instrument was often called the "Fender bass", due to Fender's early dominance in the market. The Fender VI, a baritone guitar, was tuned one octave lower than standard guitar tuning. It was released in 1961, and was favored by Jack Bruce of Cream.
In 1971, Alembic established the template for what became known as "boutique" or "high-end" electric bass guitars. These expensive, custom-tailored instruments, as used by Phil Lesh, Jack Casady, and Stanley Clarke, featured unique designs, premium hand-finished wood bodies, and innovative construction techniques such as multi-laminate neck-through-body construction and graphite necks. Alembic also pioneered the use of onboard electronics for pre-amplification and equalization. Active electronics increase the output of the instrument, and allow more options for controlling tonal flexibility. Giving the player the ability to amplify as well as attenuate (turn down) certain frequency ranges while improving the overall frequency response (more low-register and high-register sounds). 1973 saw the UK company Wal begin production of a their own range of active basses, and In 1974 Music Man Instruments, founded by Tom Walker, Forrest White and Leo Fender, introduced the StingRay, the first widely produced bass with active (powered) electronics.
Specific bass brands/models became identified with particular styles of music, such as the Rickenbacker 4001 series, which became identified with progressive rock bassists like Chris Squire of Yes, and Geddy Lee of Rush, while the StingRay was used by funk/disco players such Louis Johnson of the funk band The Brothers Johnson and Bernard Edwards of Chic. The 4001 stereo bass was introduced in the late 1960s; it can be heard on from the Beatles "I Am The Walrus".
In the mid-1970s, Alembic and other boutique bass manufacturers, such as Tobias, produced four-string and five-string basses with a low "B" string. In 1975, bassist Anthony Jackson commissioned luthier Carl Thompson to build a six-string bass tuned (low to high) B0, E1, A1, D2, G2, C3. In comparison with a standard four-string bass, Jackson's six-string adds a low BB string and a high C string. These 5 and 6-string "extended-range basses" would become popular with session bassists as they reduced the need for re-tuning to alternate detuned configurations like "drop D", and also allowed the bassist to play more notes from the same position on the fretboard with fewer shifts up and down the fingerboard, a crucial benefit for a session player sightreading basslines at a recording session.
In the 1980s, bass designers continued to explore new approaches. Ned Steinberger introduced a headless bass in 1979 and continued his innovations in the 1980s, using graphite and other new materials and (in 1984) introducing the TransTrem tremolo bar. In 1982, Hans-Peter Wilfer founded Warwick, to make a European bass, as the market at the time was dominated by Asian and American basses. Their first bass was the Streamer Bass, which is similar to the Spector NS. In 1987, the Guild Guitar Corporation launched the fretless Ashbory bass, which used silicone rubber strings and a piezoelectric pickup to achieve a "upright bass" sound with a short 18-inch (457 mm) scale length. In the late 1980s, MTV's "Unplugged" show, which featured bands performing with acoustic instruments, helped to popularize hollow-bodied acoustic bass guitars amplified with piezoelectric pickups built into the bridge of the instrument.
During the 1990s, as five-string basses became more widely available and more affordable, an increasing number of bassists in genres ranging from metal to gospel began using five-string instruments for added lower range—a low "B" string. As well, onboard battery-powered electronics such as preamplifiers and equalizer circuits, which were previously only available on expensive "boutique" instruments, became increasingly available on mid-priced basses. From 2000 to the 2010s, some bass manufacturers included digital modelling circuits inside the instrument on more costly instruments to recreate tones and sounds from many models of basses (e.g., Line 6's Variax bass). A modelling bass can digitally emulate the tone and sound of many famous basses, ranging from a vintage Fender Precision to a Rickenbacker. However, as with the electric guitar, traditional "passive" bass designs, which include only pickups, tone and volume knobs (without a preamp or other electronics) remained popular. Reissued versions of vintage instruments such as the Fender Precision Bass and Fender Jazz Bass remained popular amongst new instrument buyers up to the 2010s. In 2011, a 60th Anniversary P-bass was introduced by Fender, along with the re-introduction of the short-scale Fender Jaguar Bass.
Bass bodies are typically made of wood, although other materials such as graphite (for example, some of the Steinberger designs) and other lightweight composite materials 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 types of wood used are similar to those used for electric guitars; alder, ash or mahogany for the body, maple for the neck, and rosewood or ebony for the fretboard. While these traditional standards are most common, for tonal or aesthetic reasons luthiers more commonly experiment with different tonewoods on basses than with electric guitars (though this is changing), and rarer woods like walnut and figured maple, as well as exotic woods like bubinga, wenge, koa, and purpleheart, are often used as accent woods in the neck or on the face of mid- to high-priced production basses and on custom-made and boutique instruments.
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 have a hollow wooden body constructed similarly to an acoustic guitar, and are typically equipped with piezoelectric or magnetic pickups and amplified.
Instruments handmade by highly skilled luthiers are becoming increasingly available in the 2010s. Exotic materials used in high-end instruments 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, Alembic uses cocobolo as a body or top layer material 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 use wenge or ebony. Solid bubinga bodies are also used for their tonal and aesthetic qualities.
A common feature of more expensive basses is "neck-through" construction. Instead of milling the body from a single piece of wood (or "bookmatched" halves) and then attaching the neck into a pocket (so-called "bolt-on" design), neck-through basses are constructed first by assembling the neck, which may comprise one, three, five or more layers of wood in vertical stripes, which are longer than the length of the fretboard. To this elongated neck, the body is attached as two wings, which may also be made up of several layers. The entire bass is then milled and shaped. Neck-through construction advertisements claim this approach provides better sustain and a mellower tone than bolt-on neck construction. While neck-through construction is most common in handmade "boutique" basses, some models of mass-produced basses such as Ibanez's BTB series also have neck-through construction. Bolt-on neck construction does not necessarily imply a cheaply made instrument; virtually all traditional Fender designs still use bolt-on necks, including its high-end instruments costing thousands of dollars, and many boutique luthiers such as Sadowsky build bolt-on basses as well as neck-through instruments.
The number of frets installed on a bass guitar neck may vary. The original Fender basses had 20 frets, and most bass guitars have between 20 and 24 frets or fret positions. Instruments with between 24 and 36 frets (2 and 3 octaves) also exist. Instruments with more frets are used by bassists who play bass solos, as more frets gives them additional upper range notes. When a bass has a large number of frets, such as a 36 fret instrument, the bass may have a deeper "cutaway" to enable the performer to reach the higher pitches. Like electric guitars, fretted basses typically have markers on the fingerboard and on the side of the neck to assist the player in determining where notes and important harmonic points are. The markers indicate the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th fret and 12th fret (the 12th fret being the octave of the open string) and on the octave-up equivalents of the 3rd fret and as many additional positions as an instrument has frets for. Typically, one marker is used for the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th fret positions and two markers are used for the 12th fret.
The long scale necks on Leo Fender's basses—with a scale length (distance between nut and bridge) of 34 inches (864 mm) — set the standard for electric basses, although 30-inch (762 mm) "short scale" instruments, such as the Höfner 500/1 "violin bass" played by Paul McCartney, and the Fender Mustang Bass are also common. Short scale instruments use the same E-A-D-G tuning as a regular long scale instrument. Short scale instruments are good choices for bassists with smaller hands, such as children or young teens who are just starting the instrument. While 35-inch (889 mm), 35 1⁄2-inch (902 mm), and 36-inch (914 mm) scale lengths were once only available in "boutique" instruments, in the 2000s (decade), many manufacturers began offering these "extra long" scale lengths. This extra long scale provides a higher string tension, which may yield a more defined, deep tone on the low "B" string of five- and six-stringed instruments (or detuned four-string basses).
Another design consideration for the bass is whether to use frets on the fingerboard. On a fretted bass, the metal frets divide the fingerboard into semitone divisions (as on an electric guitar or acoustic guitar). 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 with the fingers, 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 approaches such as glissando (sliding up or down in pitch, with all of the pitches in between sounding), and true vibrato (in which the player alternates adds expression to a note by rocking the finger which is stopping the note and raising or lowering the pitch slightly). Players may also play music utilising microtones, or temperaments other than equal temperament, such as just intonation.
While fretless basses are often associated with jazz and jazz fusion, bassists from other genres have used fretless basses, such as Freebo (country), Rick Danko (rock/blues), Rod Clements (folk), Steve DiGiorgio (metal) and Colin Edwin (modern/progressive rock). Some bassists alternate between fretted and fretless basses in performances, according to the type of material or tunes they are performing, e.g., Pino Palladino or Tony Levin.
The first fretless bass guitar was made by Bill Wyman in 1961 when he converted an inexpensive Japanese fretted bass by simply removing the frets and filling in the slots cut into the neck with wood putty. The first production fretless bass was the Ampeg AUB-1 introduced in 1966, and Fender introduced a fretless Precision Bass in 1970. Around 1970, Rick Danko from The Band began to use an Ampeg fretless, which he modified with Fender pickups—as heard on the 1971 Cahoots studio album and the Rock of Ages album recorded live in 1971. Danko said, "It's a challenge to play fretless because you have to really use your ear." In the early 1970s, fusion-jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius had the fingerboard of his de-fretted Fender Jazz Bass coated in epoxy resin, allowing him to use roundwound strings for a brighter sound. 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 the metal string windings do not wear down the fingerboard. Tapewound and flatwound strings have a distinctive tone and sound. Some fretless basses have epoxy-coated fingerboards, or fingerboards made of an epoxy composite like micarta, to increase the fingerboard's durability, enhance sustain, and give a brighter tone.
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 (E1–A1–D2–G2). This tuning is also the same as the standard tuning on the lower four strings on a six-string guitar, only an octave lower.
There are a range of different string types include all-metal strings (which are available in many varieties, including roundwound, flatwound, halfwound, ground wound, and pressure wound); as well as metal strings with different coverings, such as tapewound and wound with plastic coatings. The variety of materials used in the strings gives bass players a range of tonal options. In the 1950s and early 1960s, bassists mostly used flatwound strings with a smooth surface, which had a smooth, damped sound reminiscent of a double bass. In the late 1960s and 1970s, roundwound bass strings producing a brighter tone similar to steel guitar strings became popular, though flatwounds also remain in use by players seeking a vintage tone. Roundwounds have a brighter timbre with longer sustain than flatwounds.
A variety of tuning options and number of string courses have been used to extend the range of the instrument, or facilitate different modes of playing. The most common are four, five, or six strings:
Some bassists use other types of tuning to extend the range or get other benefits, such as providing multiple octaves of notes at any given position, or a larger tonal range. Instrument types or tunings used for this purpose include basses with fewer than four strings (one-string bass guitars, two-string bass guitars, three-string bass guitars [tuned to E–A–D]) and alternative tunings e.g., tenor bass.
Extended range basses (ERBs) are basses with six to twelve strings—with the additional strings used for range rather than unison or octave pairs. A seven-string bass (B0–E1–A1–D2–G2–C3–F3) was built by luthier Michael Tobias in 1987. This instrument, commissioned by bassist Garry Goodman, was an early example of a bass with more than six single course strings. In 1999 South American ERB player Igor Saavedra designed one of the first eight-string ERBs known, and asked Luthier Alfonso Iturra to build it for him.  Conklin builds custom ERB basses. The Guitarbass is a ten-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 eleven-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. Subcontrabasses, such as C♯–F♯–B–E (the lowest string, C♯0 being at 17.32 Hz at around the limit of human hearing) have been created. Ibanez had released SR7VIISC in 2009, featuring a 30-inch (762 mm) scale and narrower width, and tuned as B–E–A–D–G–C–E; the company dubbed it a cross between bass and guitar.
In 2011 Warwick released a new Thumb NT 7 bass for Jeroen Paul Thesseling, featuring a 34-inch (864 mm) scale with subcontra tuning F♯–B–E–A–D–G–C. Yves Carbonne developed ten- and twelve-string fretless subbass guitars.
Piccolo basses are cosmetically similar to a four-stringed electric bass guitar, but usually tuned one whole octave higher than a normal bass. The first electric piccolo bass was constructed by luthier Carl Thompson for Stanley Clarke. To allow for the raised tuning, the strings are thinner, and the length of the neck (the scale) may be shorter. Several companies manufacture piccolo sets that can be put on any regular bass, thereby converting any bass into a piccolo bass. Because of the thinner strings, a new nut may be required to hold the strings. Some people prefer a slightly shorter scale, such as 30 or 28 inches (762 or 711 mm), as the higher tension required for longer scale lengths coupled with the thinner gauge of higher-pitched strings can make a long-scale piccolo bass difficult to play. The tuning varies with the personal tastes of the artist, as does the number of strings. Joey DeMaio from the heavy metal band Manowar plays with four strings on his piccolo bass. Jazz bassist John Patitucci used a six-string piccolo bass, unaccompanied, on his song "Sachi's Eyes" on his album One More Angel. Michael Manring has used a five-string piccolo bass in several altered tunings. Michael uses D'Addario EXL 280 piccolo bass strings on his four-string hyperbass, made by Zon Guitars.
Most electric bass guitars use magnetic pickups. The vibrations of the instrument's ferrous metal strings within the magnetic field of the permanent magnets in magnetic pickups produce small variations in the magnetic flux threading the coils of the pickups. This in turn produces small electrical voltages in the coils. These low-level signals are then amplified and played through a speaker. Most basses have a volume potentiometer, which can be turned up or down, and a tone potentiometer, which rolls off the high frequencies when it is turned to the player's right. Some basses may also have a pickup selector control or switch. Since the 1980s, basses are often available with battery-powered "active" electronics that boost the signal with a preamplifier, provide equalization controls to boost or cut bass and treble frequencies, or both.
Many basses have just one pickup, typically a "P" or "MM" pickup, though single soapbars are not unheard of. Multiple pickups are also quite common, two of the most common configurations being two "J" pickups (as on the stock Fender Jazz), or a "P" near the neck and a "J" near the bridge (e.g., Fender Precision Bass Special, Fender Precision Bass Plus). A two-"soapbar" configuration is also very common, especially on basses by makes such as Ibanez and Yamaha. A combination of a J or other single-coil pickup at the neck and a Music Man-style humbucker in the bridge has become popular among boutique builders, giving a very bright, focused tone that is good for jazz, funk and thumbstyle.
Some basses use more unusual pickup configurations, such as a soapbar and a "P" pickup (found on some Fenders), Stu Hamm's "Urge" basses, which have a "P" pickup sandwiched between two "J" pickups, and some of Bootsy Collins' custom basses, which had as many as 5 J pickups. Another unusual pickup configuration is found on some of the custom basses that Billy Sheehan uses, in which there is one humbucker at the neck and a split-coil pickup at the middle position.
The placement of the pickup greatly affects the sound. A pickup near the neck joint emphasizes the fundamental and low-order harmonics and thus produces a deeper, bassier sound, while a pickup near the bridge emphasizes higher-order harmonics and makes a "tighter" or "sharper" sound. Usually basses with multiple pickups allow blending of the output from the pickups, with electrical and acoustical interactions between the two pickups (such as partial phase cancellations) allowing a range of tonal effects.
The use of non-magnetic pickups allows bassists to use non-ferrous strings such as nylon, brass, polyurethane and silicone rubber. These materials produce different tones and, in the case of the polyurethane or silicone rubber strings, allow much shorter scale lengths.
Like the electric guitar, the electric bass guitar is almost always connected to an amplifier and a speaker with a patch cord for live performances. Electric bassists use either a "combo" amplifier, which combines an amplifier and a speaker in a single cabinet, or an amplifier and one or more speaker cabinets (typically stacked, with the amplifier sitting on the speaker cabinets, leading to the term "half-stack" for one cabinet setups and "full stack" for two).
In most genres, a "clean" bass tone (without any amplifier-induced "overdrive" or "distortion") is desirable, and so while guitarists often prefer the more desirable distorted tones of tube-transistor amplifiers, bassists commonly use solid-state amplifier circuitry to achieve the necessary high output wattages with less weight than tubes (though smaller tubes can often still be found in the low-power "preamplifier" sections of the system, where they provide a warmer, smoother character to the bass tone for relatively little additional weight). A few all-tube bass amplifiers are still available, notably from the Ampeg brand.
In some cases, when the bass is used with large-scale PA amplification, it is plugged into a "DI" or direct box, which routes the signal to the bass amp while also sending the signal directly into a mixing console, and thence to the main and monitor speakers. When a recording of bass is being made, engineers may use a microphone set up in front of the amplifier's speaker cabinet for the amplified signal, a direct box signal that feeds the recording console, or a mix of both.
Various electronic bass effects such as preamplifiers, "stomp box"-style pedals and signal processors and the configuration of the amplifier and speaker can be used to alter the basic sound of the instrument. In the 1990s and early 2000s (decade), signal processors such as equalizers, overdrive devices (sometimes referred to as "fuzz bass"), and compressors or limiters became increasingly popular. Modulation effects like chorus, flanging, phase shifting, and time effects such as delay and looping are less commonly used with bass than with electric guitar, but they are used in some styles of music.
Most bass players stand while playing, using a strap over the shoulder to hold the instrument, although sitting is also accepted, particularly in large ensemble settings, such as jazz big bands or in acoustic genres such as folk music. Some bassists, such as Jah Wobble, alternate between standing or seated playing. 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. When sitting, no strap is required. 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 the lower-pitched 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 the thumb, ring, and little 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 or her 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. When plucked closer to the bridge, the string's harmonics are more pronounced, giving a brighter tone. Closer to the middle of the string, these harmonics are less pronounced, giving a more mellow tone.
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) and 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 (as a true thumbrest) 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 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 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). Spank bass developed from the slap and pop style and treats the electric bass as a percussion instrument, striking the strings above the pickups with an open palmed hand. 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 and punk rock, picks are also used in other styles. Jazz bassist Steve Swallow often plays with a pick, while Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters uses one for a heavier tone. Mike Gordon of Phish uses a pick while also incorporating slapping techniques into his playing. 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.
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, rubber, and felt, all of which produce different tones. Felt and rubber picks are used to emulate a fingerstyle tone.
Palm-muting is a widely used bass technique. The outer edge of the palm of the picking hand is rested on the bridge while picking, and "mutes" the strings, shortening the sustain time. The harder the palm presses, or the more string area that is contacted by the palm, the shorter the string's sustain. The sustain of the picked note can be varied for each note or phrase. The shorter sustain of a muted note on an electric bass can be used to imitate the shorter sustain and character of an upright bass. Palm-muting is commonly done while using a pick, but can also be done without a pick, as when doing down-strokes with the thumb.
One prominent example of the pick/palm-muting combination is Paul McCartney, who has consistently used this technique for decades. Sting also uses palm-muting; but often does so without a pick, using the thumb and first finger to pluck.
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 fundamental technique used in the fretting hand is known as "a finger per fret", where each finger in the fretting hand plays one fret in a given position. Also, the double bass technique can be used for fretting. This technique involves the use of four fingers in the space of three frets, especially in the lower positions. When considering the spacing between notes, this is a comfortable distance for the average person's hand size. The main advantage of the "four fingers in three frets" technique is less tendon strain, leading to a diminished likelihood of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). The "four-in-three" technique is demonstrated in the image below (A bassist performing tapping).
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 being played by a piano player, a bassist might hold down the "C" and low "F" below this note so their harmonics 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, as is done with the double bass and on other unfretted stringed instruments. 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, by pushing or pulling the string so that the note sounds at a higher 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. Though rare, some bassists 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 double stop (two notes at once) or a chord. While double stops and chords are used less often by bassists than by electric guitarists playing rhythm guitar, a variety of double stops and chords can be performed on the electric bass. Some double stops used by bassists include octaves. Chords can be especially with effective on 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 (also called "overtones"). Glissando is an effect in which the fretting hand slides up or down the neck, which can be used to create a slide in pitch up or down. 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 lower 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 fret or the fretboard creates 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 bass line and a simple chord, or play chords and arpeggios. Bassist John Entwistle of The Who tapped percussively on the strings, causing them to strike the fretboard with a twangy sound to create drum-style fills. Players noted for this technique include Cliff Burton, Billy Sheehan, Stuart Hamm, John Myung, Victor Wooten, Les Claypool, Mark King, and Michael Manring. The Chapman Stick and Warr Guitars are string instruments specifically designed to be played using two-handed tapping.
Strumming, usually with finger nails, is a common technique on acoustic guitar, but it is not a commonly used technique for bass. However, a notable example is Stanley Clarke's bass playing on the introduction to "School Days", on the album of the same name.
Popular music bands and rock groups use the bass guitar as a member of the rhythm section, which provides the chord sequence or "progression" and sets out the "beat" for the song. The rhythm section typically consists of a rhythm guitarist or electric keyboard player, or both, a bass guitarist and a drummer; larger groups may add additional guitarists, keyboardists, or percussionists.
Bassists often play a bass line composed by an arranger, songwriter or composer of a song—or, in the case of a cover song, the bass line from the original. In other bands—e.g., jazz-rock bands that play from lead sheets and country bands using the Nashville number system—bassists are expected to improvise or prepare their own part to fit the song's chord progression and rhythmic style.
Types of bass lines vary widely, depending on musical style. However, the bass guitarist generally fulfills a similar role: anchoring the harmonic framework (often by emphasizing the roots of the chord progression) and laying down the beat in collaboration with the drummer and other rhythm section instruments. The importance of the bass guitarist and the bass line varies in different styles of music. In some pop styles, such as 1980s-era pop and musical theater, the bass sometimes plays a relatively simple part as the music emphasizes vocals and melody instruments. In contrast, in reggae, funk, or hip-hop, entire songs may center on the bass groove, and the bass line is usually prominent in the mix.
In traditional music such as country music, folk rock, and related styles, the bass often plays the roots and fifth (typically the fifth below the root) of each chord in alternation. In these styles, bassists often use scalar "walkups" or "walkdowns" when there is a chord change. In Chicago blues, the electric bass often performs a walking bassline made up of scales and arpeggios. In blues rock bands, the bassist often plays blues scale-based riffs and chugging boogie-style lines. In metal, the bass guitar may perform complex riffs along with the rhythm guitarist or play a low, rumbling pedal point to anchor the group's sound.
The bass guitarist sometimes breaks out of the strict rhythm section role to perform bass breaks or bass solos. The types of bass lines used for bass breaks or bass solos vary by style. In a rock band, a bass break may consist of the bassist playing a riff or lick during a pause in the song. In some styles of metal, a bass break may consist of "shred guitar"-style tapping on the bass. In a funk or funk rock band, a bass solo may showcase the bassist's percussive slap and pop playing. In genres such as progressive rock, art rock, or progressive metal, the bass guitar player may play melody lines along with the lead guitar (or vocalist) and perform extended guitar solos.
Chords are not used that often by electric bass players. However, in some styles, bassists may sound "double stops", such as octaves with open strings and powerchords. In Latin music, double stops with fifths are used. Robert Trujillo of Metallica is known for playing "massive chords"  and "chord-based harmonics"  on the bass. Lemmy of Motörhead often played power chords in his bass lines.
While bass guitar solos are not common in popular music, some artists, particularly in the heavy metal, funk, and progressive rock genres, do utilize them. In a rock context, bass guitar solos are structured and performed in a similar fashion as rock guitar solos, often with the musical accompaniment from the verse or chorus sections.
Bass solos are performed using a range of different techniques, such as plucking or fingerpicking. In the 1960s, The Who's bassist, John Entwistle, performed a bass break on the song "My Generation" using a plectrum. He originally intended to use his fingers, but could not put his plectrum down quickly enough. This is considered as one of the first bass solos in rock music, and also one of the most recognizable. Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times", the first song on their first album, contains two brief bass solos, occurring after the song's first and third choruses. Queen's bassist, John Deacon, occasionally played bass solos, such as on the song "Liar". Metallica's 1983 debut Kill Em All includes the song "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth," consisting entirely of a bass solo played by Cliff Burton. John McVie of Fleetwood Mac performed a bass solo on "The Chain" from the 1977 Rumours album.
Manowar's bassist Joey DeMaio uses special piccolo bass for his extremely fast bass solos like "Sting of the Bumblebee" and "William's Tale". Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt played a bass solo on the song "Welcome To Paradise" from the 1994 album Dookie and on the song "Makeout Party" from the 2012 album ¡Dos!. U2 includes a bass solo most notably on "Gloria", in which Adam Clayton utilizes several playing techniques. Matt Freeman of Rancid performs a very fast, guitar-like bass solo in the song "Maxwell Murder". Blink-182's "Voyeur" has a bass solo, which is featured on both their studio album Dude Ranch & their live album The Mark, Tom and Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back!).
Heavy metal bass players such as Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath), Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse), Cliff Burton (Metallica), and Les Claypool (Primus, Blind Illusion) have used chime-like harmonics and rapid plucking techniques in their bass solos. Geddy Lee of Rush has made frequent use of bass solos, such as on the instrumental "YYZ". In both published Van Halen concert videos, Michael Anthony performs unique maneuvers and actions during his solos. Funk bassists such as Larry Graham began using slapping and popping techniques for their solos, which coupled a percussive thumb-slapping technique of the lower strings with an aggressive finger-snap of the higher strings, often in rhythmic alternation. The slapping and popping technique incorporates a large number of muted (or 'ghost' tones) to normal notes to add to the rhythmic effect. Slapping and popping solos were prominent in 1980s pop and R&B, and they are still used by some modern funk and Latin bands.
When playing bass solos, rock and metal bassists sometimes use effects such as fuzz bass or a wah-wah pedal to produce a more pronounced sound. Notably, Cliff Burton of Metallica used both effects. Due to the lower range of the bass, bass guitar solos usually have a much lighter accompaniment than solos for other instruments. In some cases, the bass guitar solo is unaccompanied, or accompanied only by the drums.
The electric bass is a relative newcomer to the world of jazz. The big bands of the 1930s and 1940s Swing era and the small combos of the 1950s Bebop and Hard Bop movements all used the double bass. The electric bass was introduced in some bands in the 1950s and it became prominent during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rock influences were blended with jazz to create jazz-rock fusion.
The introduction of the electric bass in jazz fusion, as in the rock world, helped bassists play in high-volume stadium concerts with powerful amplifiers, because it is easier to amplify the electric bass than the double bass (the latter is prone to feedback in high-volume settings). The electric bass has both an accompaniment and a soloing role in jazz. In accompaniment, the bassist may perform walking basslines for traditional tunes and jazz standards, playing smooth quarter note lines that imitate the double bass. For latin or salsa tunes and rock-infused jazz fusion tunes, the electric bass may play rapid, syncopated rhythmic figures in coordination with the drummer, or lay down a low, heavy groove.
In a jazz setting, the electric bass tends to have a much more expansive solo role than in most popular styles. In most rock settings, the bass guitarist may only have a few short bass breaks or brief solos during a concert. During a jazz concert, a jazz bassist may have a number of lengthy improvised solos, which are called "blowing" in jazz parlance. Whether a jazz bassist is comping (accompanying) or soloing, they usually aim to create a rhythmic drive and "timefeel" that creates a sense of "swing" and "groove". For information on notable jazz bassists, see the List of jazz bassists article.
Contemporary classical music uses both the standard instruments of Western Art music (piano, violin, double bass, etc.) and newer instruments or sound producing devices, ranging from electrically amplified instruments to tape players and radios.
The electric bass guitar has occasionally been used in contemporary classical music (art music) since the late 1960s. Contemporary composers often obtained unusual sounds or instrumental timbres through the use of non-traditional (or unconventional) instruments or playing techniques. As such, bass guitarists playing contemporary classical music may be instructed to pluck or strum the instrument in unusual ways.
However, contemporary classical composers may also write for the bass guitar in order to utilise its unique sound, and in particular its precise and piercing attack and timbre. For example, Steve Reich, explaining his decision to score 2x5 for two bass guitars, stated that "[with electric bass guitars] you can have interlocking bass lines, which on an acoustic bass, played pizzicato, would be mud".
American composers using electric bass in the 1960s included experimental classical music composer Christian Wolff (born 1934) (Electric Spring 1, 1966; Electric Spring 2, 1966/70; Electric Spring 3, 1967; and Untitled, 1996); Francis Thorne, a student of Paul Hindemith at Yale University (born 1922), who wrote (Liebesrock 1968–69); and Krzysztof Penderecki (Cello Concerto no. 1, 1966/67, rev. 1971/72), The Devils of Loudun, 1969; Kosmogonia, 1970; and Partita, 1971), Louis Andriessen (Spektakel, 1970; De Staat, 1972–76; Hoketus, 1976; De Tijd, 1980–81 and De Materie, 1984–1988). European composers who began scoring for the bass guitar in the 1960s included Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (born 1932) (Symfoni på Rygmarven, 1966; Rerepriser, 1967; and Piece by Piece, 1968); Irwin Bazelon (Churchill Downs, 1970).
In the 1970s, electric bass was used by the American conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) for his MASS (1971). American jazz pianist Dave Brubeck used bass guitar for his 1971 piece Truth Has Fallen. Russian and Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke used the instrument for his Symphony no. 1, 1972. In 1977, David Amram (born 1930) scored for electric bass in En memoria de Chano Pozo. Amram is an American composer known for his eclectic use of jazz, ethnic and folk music.
In the 1980s (and in following decades), electric bass was used in works by Hans Werner Henze (El Rey de Harlem, 1980; and Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, 1981), Harold Shapero, On Green Mountain (Chaconne after Monteverdi), 1957, orchestrated 1981; Schnittke's Symphony no. 3 (1981); Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint (1987) and 2x5 (2008), Wolfgang Rihm (Die Eroberung von Mexico, 1987–91), Arvo Pärt (Miserere, 1989/92), Steve Martland (Dance works, 1993; and Horses of Instruction, 1994), Sofia Gubaidulina (Aus dem Stundenbuch, 1991), Giya Kancheli (Wingless, 1993), John Adams (I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, 1995; and Scratchband, 1996/97), Michael Nyman (various works for the Michael Nyman Band), Mark-Anthony Turnage (Blood on the Floor, 1993–1996), numerous works by Art Jarvinen.
The pedagogy and training for the electric bass varies widely by genre and country. Rock and pop bass has a history of pedagogy dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, when method books were developed to help students learn the instrument. One notable method book was Carol Kaye's How to Play the Electric Bass.
In the jazz scene, since the bass guitar takes on much of the same role as the double bass—laying down the rhythm, and outlining the harmonic foundation—electric bass players have long used both bass guitar methods and jazz double bass method books. The use of jazz double bass method books by electric bass players in jazz is facilitated in that jazz methods tend to emphasize improvisation techniques (e.g., how to improvise walking basslines) and rhythmic exercises rather than specific ways of holding or plucking the instrument.
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; five- and six-string electric bass playing (including performing chords); and how to read bass sheet music. Berklee College alumni include Jeff Andrews, Victor Bailey, Jeff Berlin, Michael Manring, and Neil Stubenhaus. The Bass Department has two rooms with bass amps for classes and ten private lesson studios equipped with audio recording gear. Berklee offers instruction for the four-, five-, and six-string electric bass, the fretless bass, and double bass. "Students learn concepts in Latin, funk, Motown, and hip-hop, ... jazz, rock, and fusion."
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., saxophone, 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, some universities offer bachelor's degrees (B.Mus.) and Master of Music (M.Mus.) degrees in jazz performance or "commercial music", where 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 that accepts students who play bass (double bass and electric bass), guitar, piano, drums, and melody instruments (e.g., saxophone, trumpet, etc.).
In the Australian state of Victoria, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has set out minimum standards for its electric bass students doing their end-of-year Solo performance recital. To graduate, students must perform pieces and songs from a set list that includes Baroque suite movements that were originally written for cello, 1960s Motown tunes, 1970s fusion jazz solos, and 1980s slap bass tunes. A typical program may include a Prelude by J.S. Bach; "Portrait of Tracy" by Jaco Pastorius; "Twisted" by Wardell Gray and Annie Ross; "What's Going On" by James Jamerson; and the funky Disco hit "Le Freak" by Chic.
In addition to college and university diplomas and degrees, 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 bass lines 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 experts in these or other styles, adapting learned techniques to their own style. As well, there are a range of books, playing methods, and, since the 1990s, instructional DVDs (e.g., how to play metal bass). In the 2010s, many instructional videos are available online on video-sharing websites such as YouTube.
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