I can tell you about electric basses. I don't know a damn thing about those giant hollow wooden things. You have to wear a beret to play those, and have a goatee. That's just not my "thing". Besides, they don't have frets either, and the final impossibility has to do with the fact that I won't smoke French cigarettes even at gunpoint.

Seriously, I was in France, and this guy in a beret -- that of a French guy, not that of a beatnik jazz musician and certainly not that of Our Brave Fighting Men in Uniform; there are subtle differences -- put a gun to my head and handed me a Gitane. I politely declined. With an eloquent Gallic shrug, he departed.

You have to know how to deal with the French: Just make faces at them and giggle. It's against their code of honor to shoot somebody who's giggling. Please draw no conclusions about the regrettable events of the Fall of 1940.

So. This bass thing.

An electric bass is a lot like an electric guitar (to the point of each being frequently mistaken for the other by laypeople), with the following differences:

  • They have four strings instead of the six that a guitar has (with the freakish exception of five and six string basses, about which I know little and care less: Did James Jamerson ever play one? Nope. Case closed.)

  • The four strings are tuned as the lowest four strings a guitar: E, A, D, G -- but they are an octave lower.

  • To get an octave down from a guitar, two things are done:

    1. The strings are much thicker ("heavier") than those of a guitar. They differ also in construction: Guitar strings are the same diameter all along their length, but bass strings taper at the very end (the very end, past the nut).

    2. The neck is roughly (real roughly) six or eight inches longer than that of a guitar. The strings, therefore, are longer as well1, and the frets are more widely spaced. This is called the "scale length". Basses are usually in the neighborhood of thirty-four inches, while guitars fall more around twenty-six or so. All of this varies with make and model.

  • In addition to having a longer neck, basses are generally bigger and heavier than guitars. Sustain and all that.

  • Bass amplifiers differ from guitar amplifiers also: Low frequencies require more wattage to get the same perceived volume level; three-hundred watt bass amps are not strange, while eighty or a hundred watts is plenty for a guitar amp. Bass amps also frequently have fifteen-inch speaker cones, while guitar amps rarely have speakers larger than twelve inches. Again, this is because of the low frequencies -- and again, there are many exceptions, both freakish and otherwise. The canonical knuckledragging tube bass amplifier is the 300-watt Ampeg SVT with a speaker cabinet containing eight ten-inch drivers (get one of those and a P-Bass with nice fat dead strings and you're in business, pal). But fifteens are still sort of the usual thing, more or less.

  • Bass is usually played with the tips of the fingers, while guitar is usually played with a pick, or with the fingernails (go to fingernails; there's a groovy writeup there by our own dannye, a fingerpicker of long standing). Again, there are exceptions: I play bass with a pick.

  • One plays entirely different kinds of things on a bass: You don't often play full chords, for example, because that far down the scale they sound like crap. You can play power chords pretty much anywhere on the neck, though, and above the fifth fret they can sound very neat. That's only the beginning of the differences in playing style between the two, but to cover the topic well would take days.

In closing, I'd like to mention that Wicked_Bass (above) speaks righteous truth: Fuck chops. Find the pocket and dig in. Make it move, make it funky, make it shake. That's where it's at.

1There are a few rare, freakish exceptions (such as the Guild Ashbory bass) which have a shorter scale length than a normal guitar; there are also "short scale" basses with a scale length somewhere between that of a conventional bass and that of a conventional guitar. I've got one in the closet (a Fender Musicmaster -- Quiet! I heard that!) but I don't feel like digging it out to measure the scale length. Short scale basses appeal to guitarists too lazy to stretch their fingers out like a normal bass requires. Bill Wyman plays short scale basses because he has short arms; I seem to recall that Tina Weymouth has played short scale basses for the same reason. Finding strings for a short scale bass is hell, because they're not all that widely played. You can't shorten an ordinary set of long scale bass strings, because of that taper at the end -- the full width of the string won't fit through the hole in the tuning machine post. Ack, screwed again!