Buying & Learning Bass

Some tips on buying your first bass and amp plus a short lesson on building your learning curve.

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Introduction: Going to a music store for anyone interested in learning to play is like taking a child to Disney World. Most musicians will agree that this is the first most important step into finding your "weapon", shall we say. I, for one, will admit of losing track of time in a music store. All the instruments covering the walls, keyboards and drums lining the floors in many different flavors...it's easy to spend an entire day in there. It's also a good way to meet other musicians, talk to them, and get some ideas in the right direction of what you are looking for. Sometimes, some hobby players will hear someone playing a song, grab an instrument and play along. Music stores have an environment all of their own. Tips On Buying: If you have not bought your bass yet, but are interested in getting one, go to your local music store and spend some time with various bass models. Important factors include sound quality, durability and weight. Looks are on the bottom. It's ok to want to look good, but not at the expense of sounding good. The one you keep going back to the most is more than likely the one for you. Once you get a bass, assuming you picked up an electric bass, you are going to need an amp. Using the bass you have picked out, try out the various models with that bass only. Listen for any distortion, humms or other annyoing sounds usually not tolerable in music creation/playing. Remember, you are going to have a sound all of your own and what sounds best to you is more than likely the gear for you. You don't really need anything fancy, but if you can, an amp with some effect controls and input ports for practicing wouldn't hurt...but this is NOT an neccessity. If you don't want to fork out for an amp right now, you could easily grab a TASCAM BASS TRAINER which will allow you play in private using headphones. One model allows you use CDs (this includes burned CDs) and another uses MP3s. Both models allow you to control the speed of the song without effecting the pitch. These also come with tuners built in which is handy. I highly recommend this now or later...a very useful tool to have around. If you don't get anything with a tuner in it, you will need one of these as well as a cable to connect it all together. Learning Your Bass: Learning your bass is as easy as one-two-three. And it doesn't matter if you have a left or right-handed bass. Sitting in a chair, hold the bass like you was going to pick it. Observe where the strings are. If you bought a 4-string bass, the top string is your "E" string, the next one down is your "A" string, the "D" string follows that with the "G" string on the bottom. If you have a 5-string bass, only the top string is different, which is your "B" string. The rest are the same as a 4-string. Each string is named because when you pick any one of the strings without holding down a fret, known as an open string, this is the key they should be in tune to. Let's tune your bass now. Tuning Your Bass: You can tune your bass in a couple of ways, but the most effecient way is with a tuner. I recommend a clip-on or one that the bass can be connected to over a chromatic tuner. The reason for this is simple, it's hard to hear the bass over a chromatic tuner when it is not connected to any amp, and there will be times, if you perform, that you won't be able to use this style of tuner. Turn on your tuner and however it connects to your bass, clip-on or through a 1/4" cable, attach your bass to it. Make sure it is set in "BASS" mode if you have one for multiple instruments. Now, with a single finger, and not holding any frets, pick your "E" string. If it is out of tune, your tuner will do one of a few things: Either show a red color, or if it has a meter, will be on either side of dead center. You want a green color or the meter to show dead center. Using the tuning keys on the bass, slowly tune the string. Once in tune, do the same for the other strings. If you want to, once the "E" string is in tune properly, hold down the 5th fret on the "E" string and pluck it, letting it vibrate while you pluck the "A" string. Both of these strings should sound the same. If they don't, then you need to adjust your tuning. You can do the same for the "D" string by holding the 5th fret on the "A" string, and again for "G" string by holding the 5th fret on the "D" string. Now that you are in tune, you are ready to learn how to play. Learning How To Play You Bass: You are probably going to want to put in your favorite song and play right away. That's ambition and a good thing to have. So go ahead, and get a feel for your instrument while fine tuning the controls to get the sound of your liking. Tablatures (aka TABS): Most of the songs you will find on here (Ulitmate Guitar) and in most music books will be in a format call tablatures, or TABS. These are very simple to read and understand. I will show you, now, how to read this easy notation. Take a look as this blank tab:
G|--------------|
D|--------------|
A|--------------|
E|--------------|
The letters on the left represent the strings. What fret you play will be shown in the tab on the string you are to play, and how to play it, like so:
G|--------|
D|--------|
A|--------|
E|00000000|
In the above example, the tab is telling us to play the "E" string without holding down any frets represented by the "0". Play this now (hint: play it in a rock style like Kiss' Lick It Up) Now, here is a more advanced tab to try:
G|--------|--------|--------|--------|
D|--------|--------|--------|--------|
A|--------|--------|00000000|22222222|
E|00000000|22222222|--------|--------|
In this example, the "E" string is picked with no frets held down for a count of 4, then, while still strumming, the 2nd fret on the "E" string is held. Without hesitation, we switch to the "A" string without holding a fret down (letting go of the "E" string when we do), and finally, still strumming, holding down the 2nd fret on the "A" string. You can try this now if you wish. I'll wait... Tabs can be a very valuble tool to have to learn new songs. Beginners and professionals use this simple notation to learn new songs or for showing others how they did it. Scaling: You probably missed a few notes and was scratching your head going, "How did they do that?!?" Most of us have been there ourselves and know how frustrating it can be, especially when you are playing by ear. There is a trick you can do to improve the speed of your fret and picking hand. It actually can be the one of the most important exercises you could teach yourself and a great warm up before a stage performance! Scaling is a technique to play notes across the fret board at a fast pace. But it can also be used to practice and teach your hands to move. This won't be an overnight success as it depends on how much time you spend on the instrument and how often. Taking too long to return to the instrument to play can rob your training. How To Scale: To scale, you are going to use each string open at first on a single pick, moving to frets 2 and 3, picking the string for each of those. To tell you what I mean, I will break it down followed by a tab for it. Starting with the "E" string and not holding any frets down, pick the "E" string one time. Now, hold down the 2nd fret on the "E" string and pick. Hold down the 3rd fret on the "E" string and pick. When you get to this point, you are going switch to the "A" string, repeating the frets, then to the "D" string and finally the "G" string. Here's what it looks like in a tab:
G|---------023|
D|------023---|
A|---023------|
E|023---------|
Start out at your own pace, working on not missing any frets and string changes as you go. When you reach the last fret on "G", perform the tab backwards.
G|320---------|
D|---320------|
A|------320---|
E|---------320|
Doing this, starting at your own pace, and working on doing this faster when you are comfortable can help improve your playing skills over time. When you are comfortable, move up a fret, exchanging the open string for the first fret, and frets 2 and 3 for frets 3 and 4. Working on this technique will help you overcome playing techniques performed by professional performers. After this, the rest is up to you, which will develop into your style of playing...and we each have own way of playing.

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    comftrblynum
    how to play the bass is completely left out though - a pretty important step. Sure people develop their own style but they need to know how to get the cleanest tone
    Kamakazi20012
    To LOST&FOUNDBOX: If brand name isn't an issue, you can get a jumpstart with either an Ibanez or Squier Jumpstart package. These are worth the money and come with everything you need to start jamming right away. If you plan to surprise her with it, just choose one of her favorite color. You can find these online at various places like Musician's Friend, SamAsh, Guitar Center and other popular franchises. However, try to stick with your local music store...they will be happy to order it for you if they don't carry these on a regular basis. It's what I started with and these instruments are made as good as more pricey models. TO COMFTRBLYNUM: The cleanest tone can be difficult to teach. This is because most everyone uses different equipment, and each instrument and amp does act differently...even like models. I was trying to teach to play from the heart, as well as the ear. Everyone ears tones differently, and some can't hear bass like others can. That's why I left that out. The scaling tip is considered an important first step. Think about it...what's the point in playing if you don't have control over your hands? I was trying to keep this on a beginner's level...to pick out their first bass, learn the tabs so they could try songs on their own, and to exercise the hands...nothing more. I wasn't going for a DYI fine-tune your instrument better left for professionals.
    Kamakazi20012
    I meant to mention to Lost&FoundBox about 2nd hand basses so I'll add those now. If you plan to get a used bass, like from a music store, flea market, pawn shop, etc., you need to make sure the instrument is in good performance standards. First, it never hurts to ask if you can try out the instrument. If you can, use any bass amp they may have to test it out. You should not have any, what I call "string talk" (where the string is vibrating across frets you are NOT using), any loose connections and knobs shouldn't give any static when used. If you get any weird sounds from the strings, set the bass on the floor like you was hanging it and hold it by the headstock then look straight down the neck on the fret side to check for any bows, bends or loose frets. Also take a really good inspection of the shape the woodwork is in...especially along the neck and body. Overtime, the pull from the stings will weaken the neck, and some may have been abused. Be sure to check where the neck meets the body for any cracks. Here's something to keep in mind if you are unsure: Consider the asking price of the instrument and what it will cost to fix it. You shouldn't have to spend more on a used bass than you would a shiny new one. Also keep in mind that some basses that have been aquired by pawn shops someone simply got tired of the constant repairs...at least, that's the case in my area and most pawn shops I've seen. If you do find a quality instrument that is of the used nature, buy some new strings, and take it to your local music store for an all-points lookover. Use common sense and your own judgement. Consumer reports are good to use so you are on the right track there, but one's opinion will not be the same as another's opinion. This can be because they use better equipment now, or just simply didn't like the instrument for various reasons. What one person couldn't get the bass model to do another one might can. When looking online at these reviews, here are some things to look for. 1) Who made the instrument? Some famous brand-name models are actually designed by them, but manufactured for them by another company that is usually unheard of. You might be able to find a site online about the company by simply typing in the make and model of the bass. 2) What hardware is used? Most basses come with at least two pickups, some add to this with a third one close to the bridge. 3) What controls are available? Naturally, you should have a volume and tone control. More advanced models will have a second volume control to help "push" the bass and may come with a 9-volt battery to really get a growling sound. 4) Who Sells The Bass? Most music stores will sell on tried-and-trued brand names. However, due to the economic plummet, some companies that have made basses for years for other name brands have started to sell their own versions at a much cheaper price without sacraficing quality. My bass is a good example of this. Don't hesitate to consider these instruments. When you see a model you are interested in, either write it down or print out the sheet with picture (if possible). This way, when you visit your local music store, you will be able to help them, and they will be able to help you. Try to test each model you asked them about. That's about the most advice I could give you right now. I hope it helps, good luck and would enjoy to hear what you end up getting!
    Lost&FoundBox
    my girl friends wanting to get a bass and I my self just started playing guitar a little while ago so im really not all that knowledgeable about how to pick one out for her... is there any advice othern what you said here that can help me get her set up and going? She's been going threw the consumer reports and everything even and I feel like a idiot cause im just like... Uh yea that looks nice lol... I just really want her to enjoy it so any advice would be great haha. Thanks, and this was definitly a great lesson imma use it for her when she gets her bass definatly a 5 star lesson bro!
    Kamakazi20012
    To learn Hammer Ons and Pull-Offs, simply follow the Scaling method mentioned here, using Hammer-on and pull offs on the 2nd fret...and third fret for that matter.
    Kamakazi20012
    Thank you for the comment. I will admit, I wish I had this myself when I got my first bass. One of my friends plays fiddle for Country Tonight show in Branson, MO and he showed me this tip and it has helped me out in more ways than I could
    Kamakazi20012
    add to for faulty keyboard. of imagined. I also got a few more tips from band members from my local church. Trust me...this isn't you typical Gospel...and if you have seen any Hillsong concerts then you will know the setup I am talking about. When I have more time, I plan to share those tricks here. Thanks again for the comments!