Buying Your First Bass Guitar

Everything you need to know about buying your first electric bass, but were afraid to ask! There’s no need to fear, just bring an open mind (and maybe a tuner).

I know what it’s like starting out on electric bass with limited funds. You’ll eventually need to own a bass, but you can also try:

  • Borrowing a bass guitar from a friend or relative
  • Trading something you own towards a bass
  • Enrolling in music class at High School
  • Renting a bass guitar

Borrowing from a friend or relative is great since you get some ‘hands on’ experience for nothing. You might even hit the jackpot and be able to borrow an amp at the same time!

Online classifieds like Craigslist and Kijiji are good for scouting out used gear. Both of these sites list classified ads by city so you should be able to find one close by. Some sellers may accept trades (if they don’t state this in their ad, it doesn’t hurt to ask). I’ve been offered everything from acoustic guitars, a 5 string bass and even a camcorder when I specified cash-only in my ad!

(Note: I don’t recommend buying used for your first electric bass unless you’re reasonably confident on what to look for. Otherwise your odds of ending up with a lemon will be greatly increased – more on that later).

If you’re a teenager and your school has an instrumental music program – go for it! Not only will it cost you nothing, it will give you a great chance to play some different styles of music and get a crash course on theory, sight reading, and proper technique while playing in a big band setting. You may have competition however, since there tends to be only one bass guitar “chair” per class, and the bass could be in bad need of strings and a setup.

Many music stores offer rental instruments, and this could be a good choice for you if none of the above options work. Be careful however, since renting will cost you money that could be used towards purchasing your first electric bass. I only recommend this step if you’re uncertain about committing to the instrument and want to try before you buy.

Buying a Bass Guitar

Unless you’re lucky enough to know someone with a bass they’re not using, or have a bass given to you as a gift – you’re going to have to buy one eventually. Some would tell you to spend as much as you can afford to get the best bass possible, but I disagree on this. If you haven’t even played a bass before you need to try out as many as possible in order to find out what works best for you.

It can be intimidating walking into a music store and asking to play all the basses, especially if you’re not prepared to buy anything at that time, but it is a necessary step. Price – at the beginner level – is just one factor, and spending more doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a better instrument.

Variables such as the amount of strings, the string spacing, weight of the instrument, shape of the neck, tone, balance (standing and sitting), and even shape of the body combine to make a bass either work for or against you. Everyone is different so what works for your friend or your bass playing idol may not work for you.

Ignore the names (or lack thereof) on the headstock: pick up the instrument and play it. How does it sound? How does it feel in your hands? Does one bass sound better than another? Do the controls make sense to you?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the “Brotherhood of the Bass” (as Sting himself put it) and have noticed on forums like Bass Player Magazine’s Lowdown Lowdown that seasoned bassists help out beginners with gear purchases; often even meeting at local music stores to try out gear together. I highly recommend that if you don’t know any bass players or how to hook up with one in your town that you visit forums like these and get in touch with the bassists whose posts resonate the most with you. Ideally, you’ll find a local bassist that can help you choose a bass guitar, navigate a sea of sales people (or lack thereof) and help you calm down if you’re about to make a rash purchase.

You can also try getting in touch with a local bass guitar teacher in your town. Try to find one who isn’t affiliated with any music stores if possible (so they won’t be biased) and ask if they’d like to help you shop for bass gear. If you’re polite enough and there’s a chance that you could become a future student – they might even do this for free!

In the unlikely event that you already own a guitar tuner (or perhaps that experienced bassist that’s going shopping with you has one) bring it with you. It may sound weird, but having a tuner with you gives you the opportunity to tune up the bass guitar and hear it at its best. While you’re tuning up you’ll be interacting with the tuning pegs and seeing how good they work.

If you don’t have a tuner, you can at the very least tune the strings relative to each other – once again, if you’re unfamiliar with how to do this an experienced bass player can show you how.

Here are the main points to consider when buying your first electric bass.

  • Buying a New Bass Guitar
  • Brand name and Warranties for Bass Guitars
  • Buying a Used Bass Guitar
  • Where to buy your Bass Guitar and Customer Service
  • Bass Guitar Quality
  • The Price of your first Bass Guitar
  • Accessories for you Bass Guitar

Buying a New Bass Guitar

Everyone wants to buy a brand spankin’ shiny bass guitar with all the bells and whistles. Having a warranty is one of the best reasons to go new when you’re buying your first electric bass, some stores may even give you some freebies like an extra pack of bass strings, a deal on a hardshell case or gigbag or even free bass guitar setups for a year. That all sounds great, but unfortunately buying a brand new bass doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a bass without problems or defects, so you should examine a new bass guitar just as thoroughly as a used one. Plus, buying a new electric bass will also hit your wallet a lot harder.

Brand names and warranties for Bass Guitars

I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for. If you’re buying an instrument with no name on it, in many cases you’re asking for trouble. Brand names are often a safer bet because most offer solid warranties on their products. Some quality brand names that offer budget or beginner instruments include: Fender/Squire, Peavey, Yamaha, Washburn and Ibanez basses.

Buying a Used Bass Guitar

Buying a used bass guitar gets you more bang for the buck, anywhere from 30 -60% off what a similar bass guitar costs band new (and it may still look like new!). For someone on a tight budget who’s looking to get maximum quality and features for their dollar, used is the way to go.

However, if you have zero experience playing an electric bass, you could end up buying an instrument with problems, and no warranty. Your best bet is to buy from a reputable store close to you that sells a good deal of used equipment. Make sure you ask if they inspect their used bass guitars before they sell them. Also ask if they offer any sort of warranty, and look into their return/exchange policy.

You may be tempted to buy a bass guitar online due to cheap prices, but resist that urge. You can strike gold on an online auction site, or you could get a total lemon; as a beginner you are less likely to be able to make that distinction, and you don’t have the option of trying before you buy.

Where to buy your Bass Guitar and Customer Service

Buying your first bass guitar can be the beginning of decades worth of enjoyment for you, so choose who you buy from carefully. Price is important, but don’t underestimate the importance of good or great customer service.

Remember what I just said about warranties? No matter how great the brand is, you normally need to go through the store you purchased the bass guitar from to have warranty work done. If you pick a store with lousy customer service, getting warranty issues dealt with will be a nightmare.

When you find a great retailer, support them by shopping there. If they don’t have something you want tell them and see if they can order it for you. This is especially true if you’re lucky enough to have a store that sells bass guitar – only gear; by shopping at their store you are voting with your dollars to keep them in business.

Too often people look for the best deal possible when shopping for a bass guitar, but don’t forget about service, and networking aspect of dealing with a good local retailer. They may help you increase your knowledge of bass gear, set up and maintain your instruments and become a contact that can refer you to a bass instructor or clue you in on opportunities with local acts.

Bass Guitar Quality

A bass guitar needs to be able to stay in tune, period. Learning on a chronically out of tune bass may set your ear training back by weeks, months or even years. So, when you’re buying your first bass guitar you need to make sure the quality is good enough to get you off to a good start and that the bass will last long enough until you can afford to upgrade.

Beginner or ‘student’ bass guitars are cheap for a reason; they use budget hardware, electronics and woods. Cheap tuning pegs may tend to ‘slip’ and gradually release the tension on a string, also known as detuning. A beginner bass should be able to stay in tune (or close to it) for at least a few songs at the budget level – if not, hang it on the wall or throw it in the fire.

Good entry level bass guitars are out there, but you’ll need to look for them. Try as many basses as possible and look them over carefully – does anything feel cheap or flimsy? Are the control knobs loose? Plug that sucker in – does the input jack hold the bass guitar cable securely, or do you hear static when you or the cable is moved? Also, don’t forget to give a tug on the neck of the bass – it shouldn’t move much and if it does – avoid it.

Bass guitars in the entry level price range are mass produced – this means that there is an assembly line in Mexico or Korea or China that is churning out dozens of these instruments a day. The bass you pick up today in store X may sound better or worse than the same model bass you pick up in store Y tomorrow. Try them all and let your ears and hands decide.

The price of your first Bass Guitar

Although there are many other considerations, at the end of the day you only have so many dollars to spend. Do yourself a favour and educate yourself on the price range that you’re looking to spend. Decide on how much you’re going to spend and stick to it, between taxes and accessories the number you start with can balloon upwards very fast!

If you can spend up to $500 you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. There are bass guitar kits from various brands that include a bass guitar with a small practice bass amp and other bass accessories (like a strap and tuner) that fall into this price range for instance.

Check out online stores, local stores and even ebay auctions and try to get a sense for what a fair price is for the bass guitar that you’re after. If you find what you want locally but their prices are too high – tell them about the online prices you’ve seen and see if they can match it or throw in some freebies. It never hurts to ask.

If all else fails be patient and save your money. Most stores have sales a few times a year, so you may have a great chance to score that bass guitar you want for less if your timing is right.

Resale Value of your First Bass Guitar

Let’s face it, despite your best intentions your first bass guitar may not be a keeper for life. You may decide that playing bass isn’t for you, or you may opt for more or less strings on your bass or even a completely different brand or model.

While trends come and go – its hard to deny the staying power of a brand like Fender when it comes to the electric bass; they’ve been around for more than 50 years and are still considered the industry standard in many ways. Selling a used Fender bass guitar will probably be easier than selling a used brand of almost anything else. While Fender has evolved over the years – if you’re looking to buy a six string bass guitar you’ll have to look elsewhere!

Aside from that, taking good care of your bass will help you to sell it later. Bass guitars without mechanical problems and that are devoid of chips or dents in the finish will always sell higher. Buying a bass guitar with a popular finish like black or with a nice transparent grain should increase your odds of selling as well – stay away from that neon green and purple bass!

Resale value shouldn’t be the biggest factor when you buy an electric bass – but its worth considering before you buy.

At the end of all of these considerations you will be rewarded with a new (or new to you) bass guitar that should last you at least long enough until you’re ready to upgrade. But before you congratulate yourself you’ll have to invest in some bass guitar accessories and a bass guitar amp as well; these are topics for other posts to come.

Thanks for reading about buying your first bass guitar and for visiting Bass Guitar!

  • “Cheap” is a relative term. A $500 bass may seem cheap to some players, but there are a number of basses priced between $250 and $400 that would make good beginner basses. The Fender Squier line has several models to chose from in popular styles, including the Precision and Jazz. Dean, Yamaha and Ibanez make several more modern looking and sounding instruments in the $400 range that are worth checking out.

  • As always Dave – you’re right on the money and I agree 100%. I’ve had some great experiences with Ibanez bass guitars, and the Yamahas I’ve experienced have been solid as well. I haven’t ever set hands on a Dean bass, but they look promising as well.

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