The electric bass guitar is a stringed instrument similar to the electric guitar, but larger in size and with a lower range. It is also closely related to—and inspired by—the double bass, and shares things in common with a range of bass instruments. It is the standard bass instrument in many musical genres, including country, jazz, many flavors of rock and roll, soul, funk, and modern orchestral music.
As with the electric guitar, vibrations of the metal strings create electrical signals in electromagnetic sensors called pickups. The signals are then amplified and played through a speaker. Various electronic components, and the configuration of the amplifier and speaker, can be used to alter the basic sound of the instrument.
The first mass-produced electric bass guitar was developed by guitar innovator and manufacturer Leo Fender in the early 1950s. Electric upright basses had existed since the mid-1930s, but they were ungainly, and the standard hollow-body design was difficult to amplify past a certain volume, due to problems with feedback. (Additionally, a small number of electric solid-body bass guitars had been built, and apparently sold, by other designers, beginning in the mid-'30s.)
The change to the guitar form and the addition of frets made the instrument much easier (and more precise) to play.
The Fender Precision Bass was first offered in 1951, with a single piece, four-pole pickup, and a simple, uncontoured 'slab' body design. In 1954 the body was contoured with beveled edges for comfort. In 1957, the pickup was changed to a single "split pickup" (staggered) design. The pickguard also underwent a radical change, as did the headstock.
This 1957 design has remained as the standard electric bass, and is still widely available. Another industry standard, the similar, but more highly-engineered Fender Jazz Bass, was introduced in 1960.
Following Fender's lead, other companies such as Gibson, Danelectro, and many others started to produce their own version of the bass guitar. The upright double bass became functionally obsolete in most kinds of popular music, allowing bassists to move further up front in the band mix, both visually and audibly. Innovations and refinements continue through the present.
The acoustic bass guitar is similar to an acoustic guitar with a large, hollow body that is clearly audible without amplification. However, they are relatively quiet compared to most other acoustic instruments, and many acoustic basses are equipped with pickups to enable them to function with louder ensembles, while still maintaining some of the acoustic characteristics of the sound. See The Violent Femmes' first album for an example of acoustic bass playing in modern rock music.
The modern bass player has a wide range of choices when choosing an instrument, for example:
Add in the factors of amplification and effects units and the electric bass has an overwhelming amount of tonal flexibility.
As with any instrument, the electric bass can be played in a number of styles. Players such as Paul McCartney tend to favor a subdued, melodic approach, while Les Claypool of Primus and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers favor a funky "slap and pop" approach in which notes and percussive sounds are created by slapping the string with the thumb and release strings with a snap. Many artists, such as Pino Palladino utilize a fretless bass guitar for the smoothness of its slide and unique tone.
The slap and pop method was pioneered by Larry Graham in the 1960s. Graham's unique sound gained a broad audience when it appeared in the 1970 Sly and the Family Stone song "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)". In the 1970s Stanley Clarke developed Graham's technique further, adding the popping and speed that are a hallmark of contemporary playing.
An even later development is the two-handed tapping style, where both hands play notes by tapping the string to the fret. This makes it possible to play contrapuntally, or to play complicated chords and arpeggios. Since this makes the bass take up a large part of the aural spectrum, it is mostly used by bass players who act as the lead in their music. Notable examples are Stuart Hamm, whose music is Metal-oriented, and Michael Manring, who has a more jazzy / new age style. Manring occasionally plays on two (or even three) basses at the same time, much like Stanley Jordan on guitar. However, as a more traditional bass player, Jeff Berlin, has noted: no bass player was ever hired for his two-hand tapping skills.
Most bassists prefer to pluck the notes with the fingers but some also use plectra (also called picks). This often varies according to the musical genre—very few funk bassists use plectrums, while they are almost for punk rock. Using a plectrum typically gives the bass a brighter, more punchy sound, while playing with one's fingers makes the sound more soft and round.
Bassists also have different preferences as to where on the string they pluck the notes. While the influential bassist Jaco Pastorius and many with him preferred to pluck them very close to the bridge for a bright and sharp sound, many prefer the rounder sound they get by plucking closer to the neck.
Bass players like Chris Squire, Geddy Lee and John Entwistle have been revolutionary by taking a more important, leading, complicated role and making the instrument a more important and recognised one, a trend that caught on in bands that followed them.
Famous or notable bassists include:
The following manufacturers are among those that have produced widely regarded models of bass guitar: