by Phil Maneri
This article was published in #Issue 19 in summer 2016.
People often ask me how to shop for a bass. They ask me what brand names, what models, what features, and what minute details to consider. They go on and on, telling me about specs and wood and hardware and pickups, and this special rare thing they read about on the Internet. Or they want to bolt together a box full of disparate parts in hopes they will find magic from things they read on discussion boards, if they just get all the amazing mods in one great bass.
Meh. It’s not about that.
My usual response is, “Play as many as you possibly can, and the ones you can’t stop thinking about are on your short list.” There is no shortcut to having a bass in your hands. Feel it acoustically first, and then play it plugged in. It needs to feel alive to you, to speak to you in a very intimate way. Make sure you hear it played by someone else, too. Sometimes perspective helps.
It’s a tool you use to make music with. So it needs to be a tool that inspires you to pick it up and create with it. Or make a living with it. Or whatever you do with it. They work best for you if you love them and would rather pick it up and play it, rather than do whatever myriad options you have to spend your time with during a day; more than your cell phone. Or Xbox. Or Netflix.
The first corollary to “just play it” is there are great basses in expensive price ranges and great basses in cheap price ranges. Conversely, there are many expensive basses that sound terrible and a whole bunch of cheap instruments that aren’t worth what they are made of. You can line up ten identical basses on a guitar shop wall, and they will all be somewhat different. And one of them will shine like mad; resonant, great sounding, easy to create music on. That’s the one you want. Whatever it costs.
Some players can’t tell that, yet, because they haven’t played enough stuff. It’s hard to know what’s out there, if you haven’t played a bunch of things. It’s especially important to play things way out of your price range. You have to know what the edges are. When you know what a truly amazing instrument feels like, how it performs in your hands, how it makes you create things you haven’t yet discovered, then you know what to look for in things you can actually afford.
The choice is completely subjective, as well. And morphs over time. Things that I like, you might not. Things that inspire me, might leave you indifferent. And vice versa. Everyone has a thing that moves them, and those things are often different from what moves others. Moreover, what I want out of instruments has changed a bunch over the decades I’ve been playing. My sonic targets are constantly changing. I always end up sounding like me, but I’ve had many, many shades of “me” over the years, as my influences shift and my muse tells me to go one way or another. So, you have to play it. Find out if it fits you today.
My contribution to this magazine deals a lot with specs. I spend a lot of time measuring things and evaluating construction and function. Specs can help in ferreting out instruments to ignore, or instruments you aren’t aware of you might want to consider. Those technical aspects are important to long-term success with an instrument and in getting value for your hard-earned bread, but they don’t really tell the story. You have to play it. That’s the story.
In my shop, there are several bass players. All of us like different things. We usually agree on what is well-made and what isn’t, but often, we don’t agree on what inspires us in an instrument. I like one thing, but the others don’t see it; sometimes it’s the other way around.
You have to play it.
Having said all that, the more expensive instruments, by and large, are better made and more often sound amazing. Generally, they will be very durable and road-worthy. Cheaper instruments have to cut corners and make shortcuts to hit those price points. Sometimes, they cost you tone, durability and stability in performance. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there. Buy what you can afford. Choose from the ones we suggest are great examples in that price range; but be sure to play each individual instrument, because no two are the same, and some are way better than others.
If you have access to the funds to “buy up,” I can’t think of too many good reasons to go cheap. The best instruments I’ve played – the ones that sound the best, the ones that perform the best over time, the ones that are durable, stable and reliable – are on the higher end of the price ranges. It’s expensive and very difficult to do it right. Builders who do have earned the right to compensation for their excellence. Players, too, who have hard-studied skills have earned the right to fine instruments that aren’t impediments to their growth, and in fact inspire them to leap forward.
Buy up if you can. Buy cheap if you have to. There are great instruments everywhere in every price range. But you have to play it to find it.