Hope you had a lovely Valentine’s day. Did it make you remember your first date? How about your first date with your bass?
So, you are looking for a new instrument. Time to test it. Maybe you are at NAMM Show or Guitar Center. Or you are lucky enough to have a place like the Atlanta Bass Gallery within reach. Maybe you are hunting for a custom on Dan Lenards or checking for something solid and simple on eBay: You want to find your new special friend and it feels like going on a dating site!
So, you are sitting at the store or the bass that looked so cool in the eBay listing has finally arrived. Now what?
Here are a few tips to test a bass. Let me start with
what not to do:
The first impulse is to plug in, crank up really loud and play fast and furious licks. Maybe that impulse happens more often at NAMM show or in Guitar Centers, but, wherever you are, I say, resist! Because: by playing a massive amount of notes it is easy to get wrapped up in what notes you are playing rather than what instrument. Rather than space out into a jam, here is an opportunity to make the first connection with this unknown instrument in your hand. Think of it like a first date – you want to get to know each other, not just be loud and impressive.
So, instead, do this…
- Take a look at it. Do you like the shape, color, wood? Any special features jumping out at you? First impressions do count…
- Pick it up and feel its weight. Feel the neck and put the strap on (always test with a strap). Stand with it. Sit with it. What do you notice? If you let go of the neck, does it do a deep dive? Does it hang balanced on your body?
Things to Keep in Mind and be Knowledgeable About
- Is the fretboard maple or rosewood? A big difference in sound and response, dark or light also makes a big difference in fretboard orientation. Observe how you like it. If it is not what you are used to, can you get comfortable with it?
- Does it have inlays? Do you like front inlays? However the fretboard layout is created, will you be able to connect with it?
- Feel the neck – too wide, too narrow, too thick? Necks very much influence the playing feel. Test it by just feeling it.
- Is the bass neck-through (longer sustain)? Bolt on (faster response)? Test it by playing without plugging in (see below).
- Fourstring, Fivestring, Sixstring, Fretless? Shortie? What are you going for and why? Think about it. Don’t fall in love with an idea or concept or because XYZ is playing a two-string or 8- and-a-half string bass. Why are you looking to play a certain number of strings? What music are you playing primarily? Which bands do you want to play with? What situations do you want to get calls for?
- How many frets? How many frets are you used to? Do you prefer 20 or 24? (Be aware that we orient ourselves by the horn of the bass and by where the bass neck connects with the body. 20 fretters often have their horn line up with the 12th fret, whereas 24 fretters can have their horn line up a few frets higher (so if you have been playing a new bass and are consistently 2 frets off, maybe that’s why. No worries, you can get used to anything, just be aware of it – it may feel unusual as you test it!).
Allow your intuition to connect with the instrument and get to know its spirit and craftsmanship. Whether it is a Fodera or an Ibanez made in China – the instrument was put together with care and thought. My first bass was a red Ibanez made in China and I loved it! We still have Wolf’s old Ibanez Soundgear from way back when and love it like on the first day. It is a wonderful bass that still is the one to hit the mark in certain situations. It’s not necessarily the price tag, folks! It’s chemistry, too!
Now, take a Listen…
Now for the delicious part – without plugging in, put your ear next to the horn and pluck an open string. What does its natural wood tone sound like? How is the sustain? You are listening to the bass’ heartbeat now. An amp can color the tone, electronics and preamps do their thing, but the natural wood sound (as well as your technique!) are at the core of the bass’ tone.
Also, place your ear on the body and listen. Compare various basses like this and you will get a feel for the amazing difference between instruments. Good basses have a strong, round natural tone.
Now plug it in! Set the amp flat (bring your own amp, if you can) and set the controls on the bass flat. Play long notes and listen.
Then slowly go up and down the fretboard in long sustained notes. Any dead spots? Any areas that fall flat? Every bass has their sweet spots and not so sweet spots, that is normal. But the sweeter overall, the better, of course.
Is the bass in tune? Of course, the intonation can be adjusted, and in high registers, it is normal that the bass is a bit out of tune (unless you have Buzz Feiten tuning, fanned frets or similar), but it should be within reason.
Now, play some tunes that you know well
Play a few grooves that come easy. Some arpeggios, a scale, things that you are familiar with. How does it feel? How does it sound?
I have a few licks that I know are challenging. How do they roll off my fingers on this bass? Easily? Or more of a struggle than I am used to? Why? Is it the feel of the neck, the spacing or the way the bass responds?
If you do that sort of thing: Tap a bit, slap a few. What is the response like? Turn off the sound and tap and slap. What does it feel like?
Some things you can easily customize to your needs, others not so easily
So maybe you like some things about the bass, but not others as you test it. To know what can be changed easily and what is harder to customize can help you decide.
String spacing is a major factor in playing comfort. While you can easily adjust to different spacings with exercises like these, for example, a new bridge with spacing to your liking or one with adjustable string riders can really help make the bass fit your hands and style.
Strings are obviously a big factor in your sound. If you are testing a bass and have the opportunity to do so – put your favorite set of strings on there and give it a whirl. I don’t really judge any bass without putting my Dean Markley SR 2000’s on first. Also, flat wound strings can mask and alter the sound of a bass quite a bit. Even if flats is what you are after – test the bass with round wounds as well, just to get a feel of the bass’ variety.
Pickups can easily be changed. Make sure the bass can be equipped with space for a battery (or two) if needed. Some body shapes don’t accommodate for that very easily, so best to ask a builder.
A D-Tuner can add a couple of notes, but it cannot turn a four-string into a five-string.
I gotta play what X plays!
Many preconceived notions float about the forum-sphere – don’t let yourself be confused. Playing more (or fewer) strings does not impress anyone nor does a certain brand. Fanned frets, six-string, fretless…. go there if the music you play calls for it, or because it excites you more than anything (that is a totally valid reason!) or because you need it for the types of playing situations you find yourself in or aim for. Other than that, tune out the noise and carefully tune into your sound ideas.
To Sum it all up…
Just like on that first date, remember to listen more, rather than try to impress, look behind what’s flashy and take your time. Take all aspects into consideration. What’s right for another, may not be right for you. You don’t have to defend that to anyone but yourself. (Granted, some gigs come with certain requirements, but you likely know that at that point.)