Types of Bass Guitars – 2021 Complete Guide

Vlad
| Last Updated: February 24, 2021

All bass guitars may look somewhat the same at first. But, the more you analyze it, the more confused you may get about which bass guitar is the right for your needs.

Luckily, the final choice shouldn’t be that complicated once you read this article and a bit of bass guitar history.

Photo Credit: guitargearfinder.com

History of Bass Guitar

Before the bass guitar was invented, all bass players performed on the double bass. You probably recall those big upright instruments usually found at dimmed jazz and blues bars. And, if you think about it, carrying them around wasn’t exactly the happiest moment of the day for any player, especially not for their backs.

Meanwhile, after World War II, music started to get much louder and along with it, Big Band formats were becoming more and more popular. Acoustic double bass simply couldn’t compete with other instruments playing together and combined with its bulky shape taking too much space in the tour bus, everyone was ready to check some new solutions.

That’s why Leo Fender invented the Fender Precision back in 1950 and hired Big Band players to promote it. Instead of playing it vertically, the bass guitar was rotated for 90 degrees and the rest is the history that’s well known to all of us.

But, truth to be told, the original bass guitar story starts with the 1930s prototypes made by Paul Tutmarc in Seattle. We guess that the World War was just too close to get his idea popularized properly.

Bass Guitar Types

Today there are many bass guitars available, some more experimental than others, but we can categorize them all to these types:

Electric Bass Guitar

When you say bass guitar, you’re most probably referring to this type. As we mentioned before this model made the bass guitar world possible in the first place. It had four strings and a single pickup and unlike the double bass, it was meant to be played horizontally.

After the release of the initial model in 1950, the real model that’s been a prototype for modern bass guitars (Fender Precision) was made in 1957.

Its body design resembles an electric guitar a lot and, in general, electric bass guitar follows its rise and falls.

 That’s why it’s normal to have a bass guitar nowadays with multiple pickups, pickup switch selector, and additional tone controls with features such as push/pull pots installed.

Photo Credit: sweetwater.com

Usually, these guitars are 34-inch long and usually have 20, 21, 22, or 24 frets and require a bass amplifier to produce a sound. There are some short-scale models made for those who find the standard bass guitar too big and those guitars are going down to 28 inches.

Extended-Range Bass Guitar

Most extended-range bass guitars belong to electric bass guitars in general and share the design and features, but with one significant difference. They all come with an extended number of strings.

The most popular and the one that’s probably the most frequently used model in modern music production is the 5 string bass guitar that comes with the additional low B string.

Initially, Fender tried to promote these instruments back in 1965, but instead of low B, it included a high C note which wasn’t received so well. That’s why the rise of 5 string bass guitar had to wait for 1976 when the Alembic made the first low B model.

However, apart from it, there is also a 6 string bass guitar which adds up a high C note besides standard 5 string tuning.

In case you want to get more into guitar territory, you can also try to find a 7 string bass guitar that has the same string layout as the 6 string bass but with a high F string added on the bottom.

And besides those “standard” bass guitars, there are experimental models that come with strings paired together in courses and tuned into the same notes with octave difference:

  • 8 string bass guitar - four sets of two-string courses
  • 12 string bass guitar - this bass guitar may come either with four sets of three-strings courses or six sets of two-strings courses.

Fretless Bass Guitars

Fretless Bass Guitar is an electric or acoustic bass guitar that comes without frets on a fretboard.

The idea behind this instrument was to duplicate the double bass experience only in horizontal playing mode. And, while The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman is considered as the first bass player to perform on a modern fretless bass guitar, the first bass guitar prototypes ever made in the 1930s were made as fretless bass guitars.

Photo Credit: ibanez.com

So, instead of having frets, with a fretless bass guitar, you will be able to perform various slides all over the instrument and create interesting sounds that can’t be performed on a typical bass guitar.

The bass player will be granted the full tonal control and option to get into microtuning scales. However, without frets to tell you where notes end and the next one begins, this type of bass guitar is intended for a true pro player with a trained ear.

Acoustic Bass Guitars

Right after Fender's success, an acoustic model was developed in the mid-’50s and started producing in 1965.

This instrument looks and behaves just like an acoustic guitar except it covers an octave lower plus it comes with a 4-string setup. It also doesn’t require amps to be heard as it was built to be heard acoustically.

It shares the body shape with the real acoustic guitars and it may also include acoustic-electric models which make them useful for both lounge and stage performances.

These guitars may come in both fretted and fretless layouts and various scale lengths.

Hollowbody Bass Guitar

Hollowbody instruments should be pretty much related to the fame of The Beatles in the ‘60s and all those British and American bands trying to get the same sound. The other word for hollowbody is semi-acoustic and it should give you a hint about its sound traits - while they can produce a sound by using a pickup they can also create a sound acoustically that is much louder than one found in electric guitar.

Photo Credit: guitarworld.com

Originally it had a short-scale and violin-like body design or a regular guitar shape but with f-shaped holes at the sides. That’s why these bass guitars might also be called violin bass.

Nowadays, these guitars are more fad than necessity.

Bass Ukulele

While Ukulele may not be considered as a guitar by some people, there is a pretty good reason why it should be mentioned here. First of all, Bass Ukulele has the same tuning setup as the 4 string so it might be an interesting and affordable solution for both jams or starting. The concept behind playing a Bass Ukulele isn’t different from playing a real bass guitar.

Photo Credit: beginnerukuleles.com

The main difference however is that the notes found on Bass Ukulele are tuned an octave higher and the strings are made of either rubber or chrome steel wrapped around a nylon core instead of steel found at bass strings.

In case you want to play in the same octave as bass guitar, consider playing Contrabass Ukulele.

Chapman Stick

Without going further into rare bass guitar models, we’ll present you with this model made in 1969 just as a showcase of how bass guitars can look and sound differently.

Chapman Stick is made of ten or twelve strings with the lowest strings placed in the middle and it’s equipped with the passive or active pickup.

From that central position, bass strings go up and melody strings go down. Both are tuned upwards except bass strings are tuned in all-fifths and the melody strings are tuned in all-fourths intervals.

This configuration allows bass players to play polyphonic using both hands to play directly on frets to create the desired note.

This technique allows bass players to play not just more notes at once and bring the whole concept much closer to a piano instrument but to perform multiple lines, for example, bass and melody played at the same time.

Photo Credit: wikimedia.org

Types of Bass Guitars For Beginners

The best way to start with playing the bass guitar will be the one that’s been used most frequently since the beginning - the electric bass guitar. We would recommend you to go with 4 string models as the fewer strings will help you to build better coordination for both hands, but the 5 strings could also work just fine, especially if you’re into rock and metal music.

In both cases, we truly believe that newbies should feel lucky because Fender and Ibanez are doing terrific jobs with making affordable bass guitars for an incredibly low price.

Squire By Fender

Squire is an entry-level series from Fender that gets its build quality significantly improved every day.

Many models from this series are having Fender’s bass guitar essentials so this way you can get the Precision-styled or Jazz Bass with an excellent bang-for-buck ratio. Some top-line Squier models might be even considered by professional players, too.

Ibanez Gio Series

Ibanez Gio bass guitars are best known for two reasons - being affordable and having a neck width that will be much more suitable for guitar players. And best of all, you can even find 5-string bass guitar models for a ridiculously low price.

Photo Credit: oldtimemusic.com

Which Type of Bass Guitar Should I Get?

In general, the electric bass guitar is probably the one you should get first. But, here are some

Music Genre

For most of the genres, 4 string electric bass guitar should do just fine. Afterall, it’s how it has worked for the last 70 years and judging by the songs recorded since we don’t see any problem in such selection.

But, modern music production has changed from that period and it may require a better low-end with more punch. That’s where 5 string bass guitars can help you a lot.

Performing

If you are or plan to become a session or studio bass player, having a 5 string bass guitar will always come as a plus. We believe that any bass player should have at least one 5 string bass guitar in its arsenal. Its extra tonal range should help as you will be asked to do a transpose or sudden key change eventually.

Experimenting

If you have mastered your bass guitar playing or you’re thinking about how you can expand your playing techniques, think of either fretless bass first or 6 string bass guitars first. If that’s not enough for you, then those extended-range models with multiple string courses should be interesting.

Conclusion

The bass guitar world revolves around electric bass guitars. But, we hope that you have found some info about those instruments you didn’t have a chance to see that often and we encourage you to try them out - you may never know how it may inspire you!

Vlad

I'm a 35-year-old rock-oriented professional musician from Belgrade, Serbia with 20 years of field experience in various areas of the music industry. After graduating from elementary music school I joined my first band Alogia in 2001 which had incredible initial success with the debut album and became one of the greatest Balkan heavy metal acts ever. We have recorded several studio and live albums and played as an opening act for Whitesnake, Apocalyptica, and Paul Di’Anno. Meanwhile, I got a chance to collaborate with Roland Planet shop and get familiar with various music equipment for more than a decade. For the last eight years, I have done live audio mixing for numerous bands and other live and studio events, including some TV audio mixing for national television broadcast as well. Currently, I’m playing keyboards for one of the most authentic Serbian music rock legends - Dr. Nele Karajlić, also known for his work with Zabranjeno Pušenje and No Smoking Orchestra.