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Electric Bass Buying Guide for Beginners

Are you thinking about taking up the electric bass? In this buying guide I offer an overview of practical advice, search tips, and recommendations on affordable starter electric basses.
Man choosing an electric bass guitar

Find your first electric bass

I still own the very first bass I bought 15 years ago. It has served me well and I was able to buy it for a song.  My success was largely attributed to the advice and feedback that a friend of mine so generously provided.  Following his steps I would like to pay it forward by sharing this short electric bass buying guide for beginners with you.  I was a beginner on the bass at one point and it’s my intention to pass along a few simple thoughts, recommendations, and additional information that will equip you to find a starter bass that is both reasonably priced, reliable, retains quality, and is user-friendly for new students.  Let’s get started…

Here is what you will take away from this post:

  • I can help you save time and money by helping you narrow down your search criteria with a few practical questions. 
  • I will provide a few recommendations on electric basses that are suitable and reliable for first-time students.  
  • You will enjoy the process of finding your first electric because you will feel more prepared with your decision making process.  
  • I will also provide my recommendations on additional accessories that should also be considered with your purchase.  You should consider bundling these with the purchase of your bass and try to negotiate a discount in the process.  
  • I have found some well written articles that reinforce my thoughts on buying a bass.  Several of these articles have offered in-depth reviews on some of the starter basses mentioned in this guide.  

Narrow your search grid with these questions:

Let’s shave off some real-estate from your brain-space by narrowing you search grid for your first electric bass.  I’m sure you might be grateful since you likely want to make a good decision with reasonable effort and time.  Let’s move ahead as you answer these next few questions:

What is the age of the student?  

If you, or your student, is between the ages of 8-11 they would likely do better starting with a smaller scale bass.  Sometimes these types of basses are referred to as small scale basses or 3/4 size basses such as the Ibanez GSRM20 MiKro Bass or the Squier Affinity Series Bronco Bass Guitar.   I would recommend a full-size bass for students ages 11 – adult.  

Determine your budget:

I’m a big fan of establishing budget parameters before I set foot in a music store.  Every time I’ve done this I’ve felt much better about the overall experience because I was more in control of my financial boundaries.  This has also been a safety measure for me when music staff do their best to up-sell me above my stated budget (I have to give them credit – it’s their job to do so).  

Let me give you three caveats on bass budgeting:

First: I would recommend finding a bass that falls somewhat close to $200.  It is possible to find a bass within a $100 range but you are at risk of comprising the quality of your instrument (unless you choose to buy used).  Most of the basses I will recommend below generally have come close to $200 and seem to sit in that sweet spot of affordability and quality. 

Second: Factor in the purchase of an amplifier and accessories within your budget AND allocate the majority of your budget to getting a quality instrument.  So, if money is tight, I would still get a decent bass and skimp on the amplifier and accessories.  It’s my opinion that you can’t go wrong if you decide to purchase a used amp.  From my perspective, I would allocate 60% of my monies towards my bass, 30% to the amp, and 10% to accessories.  Or you can add the amp and accessories later as funds become available.  

Third:  Don’t spend too much on your first bass since it will likely not be the last one you own.  As you know, we are dynamic and subject to grow and change as we take in new experiences and information.  So, you will likely have much stronger preferences for your choice of instruments after you have been playing for a year or more.  I have found that it is much easier to upgrade to a better instrument if I didn’t spend a huge chunk of change on my first bass.  Plus, music retail mark-up is roughly 50%.  What that means is that $200 bass you buy new will only realistically sell for about $100.  So, go easy on your first bass and just spend what you need to get started. 

Classic vs. Modern:  Which type of bass might you prefer?  

The vast quantity of basses we have today can be traced to the Fender P-bass (introduced in 1951) and the Fender Jazz Bass (introduced in 1960).  Both of these bass models have distinct sounds and are extremely versatile.  The body-shape is substantial in terms of the size and weight.  The pick-ups that capture the string vibrations are simple.  My first bass, mentioned earlier, is a Jazz bass which has served me well when playing rock, R & B, jazz, gospel, country and other music styles.  You cannot go wrong starting out on either of these classic models due to their simplicity, well-established sounds, and versatility.   

When I speak of modern basses I’m thinking of models such as the Ibanez GSR200sm and Dean Edge 09 4-String Electric Bass.  Many of these models often have a smaller body shape and offer more pick-up options.  This often translates to owning a bass that is not as heavy as classic basses.  Plus these basses offer more ergonomic advantages of a smaller neck profile and curved body.

You will have a much better idea of your size and model preferences once you try out multiple basses at your local music store.  I would recommend requesting store staff if they could let you borrow an instrument strap when you try out each instrument.  This will give you a much more accurate idea of whether or not you are comfortable with the weight and body shape of a particular model.  

How many strings does your bass need?  

It won’t take long for you to be aware of the existence of 5 string basses.  Let me risk being opinionated and answer this question for you:  Stick with a standard 4 string bass for your first instrument.  This will definitely help to smooth your learning curve.  You also will save money because that low-B string bumps the price of your bass considerably.   It’s my opinion that you will not want to buy a 5 string bass on the cheap if you wish to avoid quality issues. 

My recommended bass-shopping process:

If you have narrowed your buying options it is now time for you to start trying out basses at your local music store.  Before you do that, let me share with you the process I’ve used with most of my gear purchases.  It consists of conducting online research, trying out basses in-store, pausing to define your preferences, and negotiating.  

Online Research:

You currently are engaged in online research by reading this short guide and then going beyond that to check out all of the recommended basses below and read up on additional articles that I’m sharing with you.  Kudos to you!  You will have a much better idea of what the market is communicating regarding the value of the basses you have your eye on.  In addition to this, I often visit Reverb.com or Guitar Center’s website to get both the new and used pricing information on specific basses.  Reverb does a very nice job of providing a median price average for instruments that factors in both new and used prices.  Guitar Center sells many used instruments on consignment which could present your desired bass at a used price.  Taking the time to conduct research has saved me a great deal of expense and helped me get the most out of my resources.  

Test Drive 3-4 different Basses:

Now that you’ve narrowed your search and also are now armed with accurate market info it’s time to visit your local store to try 3-4 different types of basses that you have your eye on.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a good idea to request an instrument strap when trying out basses so you can really determine if you are comfortable bearing the weight of your instrument.  When trying out basses I will often try to hear how it sounds unplugged.  This often gives me a good idea of overall tonal qualities of each model I’m considering since an amplifier adds an additional layer of complexity to your sound.  I then will listen to it amplified at a reasonable volume.  

Pause to reflect on your preferences

I like to hit the pause button on my search process after I’ve test-driven several basses.  Quite simply, I make it a practice to not immediate buy anything after trying out instruments.  Sometimes I will even let store staff know that I’m simply trying out basses and not making any buying decisions.  This interruption has served me well and helped me to avoid making quick buying decisions that I might regret later.  So, take some time to reflect on all the basses you’ve tried to determine which bass you truly preferred above the rest.  Don’t be swayed by the fear of missing out if you delay your decision process.  Time is on your side.  

Negotiate your sale price by adding accessories into the equation:

Music retail has changed considerably from the time I started purchasing gear back in the late 1980’s.  Most music stores were independently owned, smaller in size, and not as centralized as they are today.  This created some space for consumers to negotiate their price based upon competition.  Today’s music retail is more centralized as smaller shops have folded under the massive weight of big-box stores.  Pricing is much more fixed and it seems like there is no room to negotiate down the sticker price you see posted.  So, one way to work around this is to see if your sales staff will give you a discount on smaller accessories if you bundle them into your overall purchase.  This has worked for me in several instances.  In one case I was able to get a free amp case thrown into a large ticket purchase.  

Recommended Basses

Here are several electric basses that I would recommend to new students.  These following models are all fairly affordable yet retain very good standards in terms of quality and playability.  You also will find reviews on many of these models within some of the additional reading articles I’ve provided in this guide.  This list is not exhaustive so you can use these suggested basses as a point of comparison against other models you come across in your search efforts. 

Small scale basses:

Full-Sized Basses

My recommended Accessories

Additional Reading

I have found several additional articles that are definitely worthy of your time and attention.  These sources build upon my initial thoughts with greater depth and detail.  Guitarfella’s “5 Best Affordable Bass Guitars Under $200” provides good descriptions of many of the basses I’ve recommended in this article.  After you’ve read this article I would jump into Beginner Guitar HQ’s articles “Best Budget Bass Guitar”.  You should also read their article “Best Bass Guitar for Beginners”.  You won’t be disappointed.   Similar to other articles they’ve written, they provide in-depth information on 10 budget basses that are suitable for new students.  They also devote a generous amount of attention on setting a budget and share additional information on a few bass amplifiers you should consider.  

Speaking about budgets:  Spinditty has written a very nice article called “10 Best Bass Guitars for Beginners Under $200”.  They review many of my recommended basses and present many of the factors you should consider when buying a bass for the first time.  Additionally you should consider reading “Best Cheap Bass Guitars Under $200” by guitarrepairbench.com  and “The 7 Bass Guitars under $200 in 2019” by theguitarjunky.com.  

Wrap Up:

You now are equipped with some practical consumer advice on how to best buy your first starter electric bass.  You will feel better about your purchase if you take time to check off the preliminary steps of narrowing your search options by determining what you really need with respect to size, ergonomics, style, and budget.  

Once you have narrowed down your options gift yourself with much needed online research on reviews and pricing.  Schedule a time to visit your local music store to try out 3-4 basses then definitely pause to consider   which basses spoke to you in terms of their ergonomic playability, sound, and how they relate to your music interests and goals.  I also recommend looking into bundling your accessories with the purchase of your bass  and ask sales staff if they would consider discounts off of the small stuff.  Finally, Remember that time is your friend and always on your side.  There will always be a sale and a promotion available for just about any bass you have interest in.  Don’t let the sales staff push you into a quick sale based upon a time-sensitive promotion they are offering. 

Contact Me!  I’m happy to help!

Thank you for reading my electric bass buying guide for beginners. Contact me if you have further questions or want me to be a sounding board as you walk through this process.  If you come across a potential bass please send me the information along with a picture and I will be happy to give you my feedback.   Also, I welcome your suggestions on other basses not mentioned in this guide.  I’m always on the lookout for additional options that I can pass along to my students.  

Thank you!

Gordon Tibbits

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