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Top 10 Things to Consider When Buying a Bass Guitar

Acoustic guitars have their classic elegance, electric ones have their screaming riffs, but it's the bass guitar that funks things up. As with guitars or any other instrument, trying many will help you understand what physical preferences and characteristics work best for you.

1. Strings

Basses traditionally come with four strings, but five-string and even six-string basses are also available. If you're new to the bass, it's best to start with four strings. A five-string bass lets you go lower in tone, and are used by funk or pop players mostly. A six-string lets you go both lower and higher.

2. Body Type

Solidbodies are most common for bass guitars. The best ones are made from a single piece of alder, maple, ash or mahogany, though quality can be found in solidbody basses made from ply or pressed woods.

Hollowbody basses produce a more acoustic-like tone. Mostly used for jazz and folk music, they are lighter and offer a softer sound. They're also prone to feedback at louder volumes.

3. Necks

The strings of a bass create a lot of tension on the guitar's neck, so a solid neck is vital. The best necks are smooth, tight and rigid. Bolt-on necks are most common for basses; look for a bass with little overlap between the neck and body, as it increases stability. Within the neck is a truss rod which is a metal bar used to reinforce the neck.

Set (glued on) necks are rare, but a neck-through (the neck and body are one piece) is another option. They're strong and typically have better sustain and response.

4. Fretboard

There are finished and unfinished fretboards. You can produce a whining, trebly sound with a longer sustain on a finished fretboard, while unfinished ones have a warmer, more natural sound.

5. Frets

A bass will have 21, 22 or 24 frets. Since each fret is a note, the more frets you have, the more notes you have with each string. However, the lower frets are the ones played the most.

6. Bridges

Most of the strings' vibration is transferred to the body of the bass at the bridge, so look for quality hardware. Top-loading bridges allow you to replace strings more easily but string-through-body bridges give your notes more sustain.

7. Pickups

The number of and placement of pickups greatly influences the sound and tone of a bass. While some of the most popular basses have only one pickup, two pickups — one near the neck (which gives off warmer, fuller tones) and one near the bridge (producing thinner, brighter sounds) — will give you the most range and tonal variety.

8. Active and Passive Electronics

Active basses require power, often provided by a battery in the electronic controls. Through extra controls and switches, you can alter frequency, blend your pickups and generally have more control as you shape your tone.

Passive bass systems have fewer controls and operate without a power source, giving you a traditional low-fi sound. There's more freedom without dependence on a battery, but you also sacrifice tonal options for simplicity.

9. Scale Length

Also called the neck scale, the scale length is the distance between the nut and the bridge. The most common is 34"; shorter lengths are available and are good choices for small hands and younger players. Scale length influences the quality of the notes produced and the tension of the strings, which defines pitch.

10. Research

Research the manufacturers of the guitars you're interested in and educate yourself on the details of the various models so you can make in informed choice. Check out review sites, read about the pros and cons, and consider others' opinions. Research is important, especially when you're buying online.

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Glossary terms

Bridge

The metal plate where the strings attach to the body. It is a crucial element in the transfer of the sound from the strings into the body.

Fret

The metal strips along the fretboard.

Fretboard

The face of the neck that you press a string to, to create a note.

Neck-through

One long piece of wood (or several plies of wood) runs the full length of the guitar, serving as the neck and part of the body. "Wings" are attached to the lower part to create the rest of the body.

Sustain

How long the note or chord will ring before fading out.