my world

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Electric Bass


The electric bass was invented by none other than Leo Fender, the same guy that invented the Stratocaster, in the early 1950's. It was developed to be able to compete with more and more amplification for guitars and other instruments. The traditional acoustic bass was not loud enough to be heard above the other instruments.

Using many of the techniques and electronics from building electric guitars, he built the electric bass. The bass Leo built is what all electric basses from then on are based upon. Things like having four strings, 34" between the bridge and nut, the types of pickups, and even the bridge design are standards still in use today.

The more popular basses out there are the Fender Precision and Jazz, Gibson, Alembic, Rickenbacker, Spector, and Carvin just to name but a few. They come in many shapes, sizes, sounds, control knobs, number of strings, electronics and pickups.

Your choice of a bass is going to depend on three main things; sound, feel and budget. And the formula usually works like this, if the budget goes up, the sound and feel go up. If the budget goes down, the sound and feel goes down. Just be realistic and if you are just getting started, there is no reason to invest in an expensive bass.

Selecting a Bass

Hipshot Bass Xtender

I would suggest starting with a fretted four string bass and working your way up to the five and six string basses and even fretless basses. Fretless basses are difficult to learn to play.

If you go with the five or six strings, they have the low "B" string and they will require a real good amplifier and speakers with a good low end response. That "B" string is very low and many amplifiers can't handle it without distorting or just not producing a good volume.

If you need to get lower than "E" try tuning down to "C" or "D". Check out a "Hipshot Bass Xtender ". It is a device that attaches to your "E" string tuning head and allows you to tune down and back up at the flick of a lever.

The electronics on the bass include the pickups, volume controls, tone controls, bass boost or cut, switches and so forth. There are two basic types of electronics on basses. Active electronics or passive electronices.
Passive Electronics
Passive electronics refers to the type of circuitry used to produce a signal from the strings through the pickups and to the output jack. Most basses made before about the early to mid '70s had passive electroncs. Most low-cost basses today use passive electronics.

The way the signal is created is when the strings vibrate above the magnetic field of the pickups, they distrupt that magnetic field. As the strings vibrate at a certain frequency (note), the magnetic field of the pickups start to change at the same frequency of the strings.

This is in essence the "signal" that is then sent to your tone and volume controls and finnaly to your output jack. Passive electronics don't use batteries and they don't amplify the signal. The tone controls don't boost as well, they only cut.

For instance, the treble knob will not increase the treble but allows the full treble at one end and some amount of reduction in treble at the other end of the turn of the knob.

With passive electronics, you don't get as much versatility at the bass in controlling your sound. Typically, you set your bass to one setting and leave it there. The range of tones isn't very large.

You don't get as good of a signal when running it direct into the mixing board for recording and such. You will typically need at least a pre-amp to run direct into a mixing-board or recorder.
Active Electronics
Active electronics require a battery inside the bass to power the electronics. This can be a drag because you usually have to take an access cover off or the pick guard off to get at it. Usually they are activated when you plug the cord into the bass. So, if you leave your cord plugged in overnight, you will probably find that you have a dead battery the next day. Real drag! You can usually tell when the battery is low or dead when your bass distorts easy, you are not getting a loud signal from the bass, or you get no signal at all.

The good news is that under normal usage, the battery will usually last a couple of months at least. Active electronics are very popular now because they give such a hot, higher voltage, output signal and provide a greater range of sounds right at the bass.

This is good for both recording and playing live. It is much easier to process a good clean sound and color it. Playing live, you get more flexibility in your sound with less engineering of your amp and the PA sound.
The pickups are what picks up the vibration of the string and converts that motion into electronic pulses that get amplified. The pickups are electro-magnets that generate a magnetic field.

The strings run through these magnet fields and because the strings are metalic, when they vibrate or move, they disturbe the electro-magnetic field of the pickup. This disturbance creates pulses in electricity and that can be amplified. After all, music is just vibrations.

The pickups are made up of several magnetic posts wrapped by a copper wire. The posts are the metalic round things on top of the pickup.

What you are looking for with the pickups is a good clean sound. Does the sound distort? Use all the switches and make sure they do what they are supposed to do. Listen for scratchy switches and knobs. Often times the switches will select between multiple pickups and make a single output from combinations of those pickups.
Single Coil Pickups
A single coil pickup is a set of magnets with a single wrapping of copper wire around the magnet. Single coil pickups have a good high end response. The price you pay is that single coil pickups tend to hum. If you don't have a good amp the noise can drive you crazy.

Make sure that the bass is shielded. This will help keep the noise down. Shielding the bass simply means lining with copper strips or plates and or using a special coating on the inside cavities of the bass where the pickups and electronics are. If you hear a radio station from your amp, which does happen, it usually means your bass is not shielded very well.
Double Coil and Stacked Pickups
A double coil or stacked pickup is two sets of magnets with each wrapped with their own set of copper wire. Double coil pickups are generally more quite than a single coil pickup.

The noise you experience with single coil picks cancels themselves out on double coil and stacked pickups. Double coil pickups have three packagings or form factors. Double row of poles, two separate offset pieces ( one for two strings, one for the other two strings) or single stacked (looks like a single coil but it's not).

The Neck

The Neck is one of the most important parts of your bass. It has the most effect as to how your bass will play and to a great degree how well it will sound and how long the notes will sustain. They come with different types of wood and finishes for the fretboard. The popular surfaces are rose wood, ebony and finished maple.

The neck is usually made of three or more laminated pieces of wood running the length of the neck. The more layers you have the stronger the neck is.

The Frets

The frets are the metal bars that run across the neck. They are counted from the head stock to the body starting with the first fret next to the nut and the 22nd or 24th frets at the body of the bass.

The neck has almost everything to do with how the bass plays. What you should look for in so far as how the bass plays, is you should try to play each note at every fret on each string to make sure there are no dead spots or areas that buzz. Make sure that you are using good solid fingering.

In other words, make sure you press firmly but not too hard. If you press too lightly, it will buzz or the sound will be very weak. Look at the frets to see if they are worn. Look for grooves or low spots on the top of the frets. Uneven or worn frets will cause a lot of buzzing when fretting the strings.

If the frets look worn, they can be fixed either by replacement or by filing them down to the lowest common height. Fret work can be expensive especially if you have a binding around your neck or have a finished maple neck. But they can be fixed, so if you really want to buy that bass with the worn frets, just figure the cost of the fret job into the price of the bass.
The Nut
The nut separates the fingerboard from the head stock. It is what the strings run across before they reach the tuning heads. Look at the nut. No not the drummer! If it is plastic, you will need to replace it.

Brass nuts are good for a bright open string sound, harmonics and longer sustain, however, they don't have much effect after that, meaning that nut has very little affect on fretted notes.

A bone nut will give you a thicker sound, however, as with the brass nut, it only matters on open strings. Brass nuts tend to wear out faster than bone nuts.

To see if the nut has worn, look at how close the string comes to touching the fretboard at the bass of the nut. If it is almost touching, your action is probably real low and you have a lot of buzzing when you fret notes. Even the open strings may buzz.

You will need to replace or shim the the nut in this case. If the space is too high, your action will be difficult to adjust to a low setting and you will need to file down the string grooves.
The Bridge
The bridge is what anchors the strings to the body of the bass. Some basses will also have the tuning heads at this end as well. When you look at the bridge, make sure that each string has its own saddle so they can be individually adjusted for height and string length. This is important for setting the intonation and the action of the bass.
The Trusrod
The trusrod is a metal rod that is inside your neck and runs from one end of the neck to the other. The trusrod is used to adjust the amount of bow the neck has. There is usually a place to adjust the trusrod located at the headstock of the neck or at the point where the fretboard ends and the body of the bass begins.

To adjust the trusrod, tighten it to decrease the bow. In other words, when you tighten the trusrod, the middle of the neck will move closer towards the strings. So, if the neck is extreemly bowed, the action is too high, or you just changed to lighter guage strings, you will want to tighten the trusrod.

When you losen the trusrod, you will create more of a bow in the neck. Do this if your action is too low or you are changing to a heavier guage of strings.
The Action
Check the action of the bass. The action refers to the distance between the strings and the frets. A lower action makes it easier to press the string down to the fret. This also allows you to play faster because it requires less movement to finger the notes. With low action it is much more critical that the frets are not worn or you will get a lot of buzzing.

A higher action will make it harder to fret notes, however you won't tend to have as much buzzing. What I usually do to check the action is to finger the first fret with your left hand and then finger the last fret with your little finger on your right hand and then the first finger to reach as far up the neck towards the nut as you can.

Usually this is the 12th fret. Use that finger to tap on the string. It should only be just off the fret and when you tap it, the string should buzz very lightly. If the string is way off the neck, your action is very high and usually not desirable. If the string is against the fret, your action is too low and will probably cause a lot of buzzing.

If you play real hard using a pick, you will probably want higher action to reduce the buzzing. If you play much softer, you can get away with real low action. The buzzing, by the way is caused by the string vibrating and touching other frets on the neck. Again, all of this is really personal preference.

Another thing to check is the trueness of the neck. Contrary to what many people think, your neck should not be perfectly straight. It will have a slight bow to it. What you are looking for is to see if it is flat from the first string to the fourth string across the fret board.

Hold the bass so that the head stock is away from you. Face a light source and then look down the neck. Try to line up the frets so that they line up with no shadows or dips. It should look like a railroad track. If the neck has waves or has more than one bow to it or the bow is extreme, you probably wont want to purchase this bass.

The only exception is the depth of the bow. This can usually be fixed by adjusting the truss rod. The truss rod is a metal rod that runs up and down the neck to provide additional strength.

Neck Attachments
There are three ways you can connect the neck to the body; neck through the body, bolt on, or glue on.

Neck Through the Body

A neck through the body means that the neck piece runs from the head stock to the bottom of the bass and the body of the bass is actually the two sides of the body and they are glued onto the neck. This type of bass gives the best sustain and usually the best action and ability to reach the upper frets by the body.

Because there is no bulky junction where the neck meets the body, unlike bolt on and glue on necks, it is easier to play the upper frets. Because of the strength of this type of neck and lack of a neck/body junction they easily accomodate a full two octave (24 frets) fretboard length. Most two octave necks will be neck through the body rather than glue ons necks.

Popular neckthrough the body basses are the Rickenbacker 4001 and 4003, Alembic, and Spector. Neck through the body basses are usually more expensive but worth the extra price. A Steinberger bass is simply a neck through the body bass without the body glued on.

Bolt on Neck
A bolt on neck is what Fender as well as most other low end basses use. This is not to say Fender is a low end bass. It is just very inexpensive for the manufacturer to build this type of bass as compared to a neck through the body or a glue on neck.

The disadvantage to this type of bass is that you don't get as much sustain because of the junction where the neck is bolted to the body. This junction can also make it more difficult to fret the notes towards the body of the bass.

One advantage of the bolt on neck is you can replace the neck if you don't like it and you have more control in regards to adjusting the action.

Glue on Neck

A glue on neck, which Gibson basses use, is kind of a cross between bolt on and glue on and gives you most of the advantages of both of the other types of neck attachments. Like the neck through the body, glue on necks are impossible to replace and can get to a point where short of major work, you are not going to get good and low action on the neck.

Neck Laminates
Another important factor is the number of laminates of the neck. Usually the neck will be made up of three or more pieces of wood glued together. This adds additional strength to the neck. Avoid necks that do not have laminates as they will eventually go out of alignment and are very difficult to fix.

Wood Type
One last factor to the bass is the actual wood it is made from. I won't get into that because there are many nuances each wood gives and is beyond the scope of this document. If you know a good luthier, try to corner them for a few minutes to get their thought on the various woods. Woods most widely used are mahogany, poplar, alder, and maple.

Selecting Strings
There are three basic types of strings. Round wound, Flat wound and Ground wound. All of these come in sets of various gauges.

String Guages
Strings come in several thicknesses. Not only from one string to the next but also for each individual string. The name for this measurement and signification of thickness is guage. The guages used in a particular set of strings is usually defined by the individual string manufacturer.

Sets are usually found in Extra Lite, Lite, Medium, and Heavy. The lighter guage strings are usually easiest to play and bend but may not give as good of a bottom end as the heavier guages. Be careful about what guage you put on your bass. The heavier guages will put more tension on the neck and create more of a bow.

If you are switching from lite to heavy, you will need to adjust the trusrod in your neck. Medium guage strings are a good start unless the manufacturer of your bass specifically indicates you must use a certain guage.

Round Wound Strings

Round wound strings have a center core round piece of wire and it is wrapped with another round wire for the length of the string. These types of strings give you a bright fat sound with lots of sustain.

These types of strings are the most abusive on your fret board, especially if you like to bend your strings or do vibratos. However, if the sound is what you like, then the price is new frets every few years or so.

Flat Wound Strings

The flat wound strings have a round center core wrapped by a flat wire for the length of the string. This type of string is very common in the jazz world and will give you more of a mushy, midrange sound and not much sustain.

Ground Wound Strings

The ground wound strings are basically round wound strings that have had the outer part of the wrap string ground down so that it is flat. As you might suspect this will give you the in between sounds of the round and flat wound strings.

Care and Maintenance
The things you will probably have to do to maintain your bass is replace the battery if you have active electronics, change the strings and keep it clean. How often you change the strings will depend on how bright you want your sound, the quality of the strings, how clean you keep your hands, and the humidity where you live.

As a string gets older and diritier or if the strings are of a low quality, they will lose their brightness sooner and you may have to replace your strings once a month to maintain a bright "live" sound. New strings are critical if you are playing tap. Older strings won't sustain as long as newer, high quality strings.

If you are using flat wound strings, they will last much longer as far as the consistancy of their sound. They will sound pretty much the same when you first put them on as they do when they get older. Round wound strings will sound very different from the first day to when they are a month or two old.

Keeping your hands clean and living in a dry climate will prolong the life of your strings. Some people have tried boiling thier strings after they are old and are able to get a second life out of them. You can try this and it does help to remove any dirt build up. Dirty strings will also wear the frets down faster.

Look at the string and notice how it vibrates. If it vibrates in a round pattern, the string is probably okay. If you notice that it doesn't have an even vibration pattern, or kind of has a wobble to it, the string is old or of poor quality.
Keeping the Fretboard Clean
Keeping the fret board clean will go a long way to keeping the strings clean and prolonging the life of the strings. On finished surfaces, such as are common on Rickenbacker and Fender basses, you can use special cleaners like Tres Amigos, or Martin Guitar Polish, or you can just use your regular furnature polish.

Pay special attention to the sides of the frets where the frets meet the fretboard. Don't let dirt build up there. Clean your frets with Brasso or some other non-abraisive metal cleaner. Again, keeping your frets clean will prolong the life of not only your strings but the frets as well.

On basses with an unfinished fretboard, you can use 000 guage steel wool or a special posish to clean it. Be sure to rub back and forth, up and down the neck which is with the grain of the wood. Don't rub across the grain as this will damage the wood and as well as the look.

It's harder to get the areas where the frets meet the fretboard so use a cotton swab to clean these areas. These types of fretboards are more difficult to keep clean, however, if they provide the sound and feel you like, then that's the price you have to pay.
Keep Your Body Beautiful
Keeping the rest of the bass clean only helps to retain the value and beauty of the bass. If the rest of the bass is clean, you are less likely to get the neck dirty. If you sweat a lot, be sure to wipe down the metalic parts such as the pickups and the bridge, etc. Your sweat will rust and corrode these parts very quickly.
When Frets Aren't Flat
After several years you may have to plane or level the frets. You will find that you play certain areas of the neck more frequently than others and those areas will begin to wear faster than the other areas. You will see grooves or dips in the frets. This will cause buzzing when you try to play.

If you have room, and the grooves are not too deep, you can file the frets down so that they are all level. If the frets are too far gone or you have already planed them down a few times, you will need to replace them. Most likely you will need to take it to a guitar repair shop to have this type of work done. The nut and the saddles on the bridge will also wear down over time and need to be replaced or regrooved.