Types of Bass Instruments

Upright, Horizontal, Acoustic, Electric

musicians playing on bass guitars
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There are two broad categories of bass instruments, based on the technique required to play them. The strings of all basses are most commonly tuned to the same basic notes: E1, A1, D2, and G2.

  • Upright basses are held vertically.
  • Bass guitars are held horizontally.

Within these categories are a number of variations. Let’s look at some of the most popular ones.

Upright Basses

Upright basses can be acoustic or electric. Any acoustic upright bass (or “double bass”) can be modified for amplification by adding a “pickup” to it. In the early days of electric instruments, the retrofit pickups weren’t that great, which in part led to the development of the electric bass guitar. Today, though, they are a lot better. The upright acoustic bass is a centuries-old instrument, commonly featured in symphony orchestras. It can be bowed (arco) or plucked (pizzicato). The fingerboard is fretless. They usually have either four or five strings; four is most common.

Many acoustic upright basses have a fingerboard extension, which lets the low string be tuned down to C or B, rather than E. There are various ways this capability is implemented, and basses can be fitted with extensions after their original manufacture.

Another sub-classification of these instruments is whether they are carved or laminate (i.e., plywood). For older instruments, the carved ones were nearly always superior, but laminate instruments have improved, and there are fine quality contemporary laminate basses.

Today, the acoustic bass is most common in classical music, jazz, country, blues, rockabilly, folk, and other popular genres, as well as various Latin and other world styles.

The washtub bass is a folk instrument created with a long stick, rope, and a metal basin. Typically, they have just one string that is plucked.

Electric upright basses were developed in the 1930s. They are much smaller and more portable than their acoustic counterparts, and their design is optimized for amplification (which they require). They are made of wood or synthetic materials (such as graphite and carbon fiber).

Bass Guitars

Bass guitars also come in various forms. The first was a 4-string model, invented in the 1930s, and Paul Tutmarc is generally credited as its original creator. Leo Fender was the first to mass market the instrument, in the 1950s.

The most common type today is a 4-string, solid-bodied fretted fingerboard, but 5-string and 6-string instruments are also available, in either fretted or fretless fingerboards. Some rarer instruments have seven, eight, ten, or twelve strings. The 8-, 10-, and 12-string models are typically tuned in courses of two strings, like a mandolin. And, there are other freaks, such as guitar/bass hybrids, with four bass strings and six guitar strings on the same wacky instrument.

Two types of strings are used on electric bass guitars: flat wound and round wound. Flat wound strings are less likely damage the fingerboard. Round-wound strings have a brighter sound. Each has different sonic characteristics for articulation, as well as general hand feel.

There are also acoustic bass guitars: hollow bodied instruments, usually fretted and with four strings. These have primarily been used in world (particularly Mexican) and folk-influenced music. The advantage is that they can be played using the horizontal orientation, which is an easy transition particularly for guitarists who want to play bass. Also, they are the most portable of the bass options, being relatively small and not requiring an external amplifier, though they are often set up with amplification.

Tuning Basses

Here are the typical out-of-the-box tunings for basses, though there are other possibilities (such as tuning in fifths: C, G, D, A). They read bass clef notation that is transposed an octave above where the instrument sounds.

  • 4-string: E, A, D, G
  • 5-String: B, E, A, D, G
  • 6-String: B, E, A, D, G, C