This article is from the Rec.music.makers.bass FAQ, by Kalle Kivimaa Kalle.Kivimaa@hut.fi with numerous contributions by others.
Presumably you're going to be buying both a bass and an amplifier,
and there are things to know about both. In buying a first bass,
there's really three things you want to look for: comfort, tone,
and value, probably in that order.
The most important thing is that you get an instrument you can
play easily and comfortably. This is because the habits that you
form on your first instrument are the ones that are going to
follow you onto all your others, so you want to get one which
doesn't give you major hand cramps, on which you can easily fret
all the strings a fair ways up the neck, and which isn't too heavy
for you, or too neck-heavy. If playing this bass is uncomfortable
or painful, you'll probably never get to a better one, so you
should be sure that this is something you want to be strapped into
for a few hours a week while you're learning to play it. Bear in
mind that the bass can be adjusted: in particular, the strings can
be raised and lowered to a different distance from the
fingerboard. If you find the strings too high off the board, or
too close to it, ask the shop to raise or lower them for you.
Other things, like a warped neck or bad frets, are a lot harder to
fix and you definitely want to avoid basses which have these
The second most important thing is tone. This is more or less the
same issue, you're going to be playing this bass a few hours a
week (at least!) and if you hate the sound, you'll probably stop.
Think about the style of playing you're likely to develop. Do you
want to play jazz, hard rock, funk? Do you want to use a pick,
fingers, or slap? Get a bass that sounds good for the style of
music you're going to play. If you're going to play blues, then
don't worry if the bass has a lousy slap tone, and if you're gonna
play slap funk, then don't worry too much about the pick sound.
But if you're going to play in several styles, then you need a
bass that has a good tone for all of them. The first thing you
should do is listen to the bass without plugging it into the amp:
just hold your ear down close to the string and play a note and
see how it sounds. If it doesn't sound good unamplified, the
amplifier probably won't make it sound a whole lot better. So this
should be the first and most importaat test of tone. On the other
hand, your amp will be able to affect the tone of the bass using
EQ, at least to some degree. So, tone is less important than
comfort, but not very much less important.
The third thing to worry about is value. There are two effects.
First, you'll be happier with a better bass and (again) more
likely to stick with the instrument, so get the best one you can.
Second, as you get better, you're probably going to buy another
bass and sell this one, so you should try to buy one that will not
lose too much value. The main point here is that name brands like
Fender or Ibanez will hold their value better than less well know
brands, so there is some advantage to them.
Another thing that's important is to get a bass that looks
attractive to you. If your bass is attractive, you'll look over at
it, pick it up, and play it, whereas if it's ugly you'll look over
at it, shiver, and look quickly in the other direction :) So, even
though the look of the bass has no effect on the sound or your
ability to play it, if it has an effect on your _willingness_ to
play it, which it usually does, then get one that looks nice.
For amps, there are also three important things, tone, weight, and
power handling. Tone is important for the same reason as for
basses: if you hate the sound you will probably stop playing.
However, there are two considerations to keep in mind. First, amp
EQ can have a big effect on the tone of your bass. The more bands
of EQ the amp has, and the more effect the amp can have, then the
more it can do to help the sound of your bass (or hurt it). So
getting an amp with a fairly good EQ can help. The second thing is
the size of the speaker in the amp. Generally bigger speakers have
better bottom end, but smaller speakers have a tighter sound and
are lighter. You should probably get either a 10" speaker or a 15"
speaker, depending on which one you think has the better sound for
Weight is another consideration that goes both ways: heavier amps
usually sound better but are a pain to carry around. If you can
get an amp with wheels you can save yourself some carrying effort:
but remember that it won't help you going up stairs, so it's not a
cure-all. Before buying an amp, pick it up and carry it around a
bit (don't drop it!) and see how heavy it is. Don't buy an amp
that you're not willing to haul around a fair bit.
The third factor is power handling. The more power an amp has, the
louder it can get but the more it will cost and weigh. For
practicing by yourself, you can get by with 10 or 20 watts.
(Always measure the watts in watts RMS and not in maximum power
handling. Watts RMS is usually about half the max power.) To play
with other musicians, you're going to need 50 or 60 watts, or 100
watts if the drummer is loud. To play in front of an audience at
rock volumes you'll need 200 watts or more. Note, however, that
two amps with the same wattage can have very different volumes,
depending on what materials are used in their construction and how
good the speakers are. So, don't worry too much about the number
on the box; just make sure it's loud enough for what you need to
do. If you're just going to play by yourself, then you can get
away with a smaller amp, though you're more likely to want to buy
a new (louder) amp later. If you already have a drummer to play
with, then you probably need to get something larger.
The last issue is whether you should buy new or used. Used basses
cost about half as much, and aren't likely to fall apart or go bad
unless it already has. If you do buy used, try very hard to get an
experienced bass player to look at it for you before you buy and
identify any problems it may have, because if a bass's neck is
warping or its finish is peeling than it may not be a good buy no
matter how cheap it is. However, if a used bass is in good
condition it will usually be an excellent bargain. For $250, you
can buy a used bass that might cost you $400 or $500 if you bought
it new. So, for the same amount of money you can usually get a
better bass if you go used.
Used amps rarely have anything wrong with them that you wouldn't
notice right away (such as not making any volume or humming
loudly). However, because they don't go bad they also aren't that
much cheaper than new gear. They are somewhat cheaper, though, so
it's worth looking into them and seeing what you can find.
You should always try to look at as many basses and amps as you
can before you buy one, at least 5 or 6 of each. Different people
like different things, and even among cheap equipment some pieces
will be much more suited to you than others will. You should also
look at several shops, if you can, because pricing policies vary
widely from one shop to another and some comparison shopping can
save you a lot of money. Some shops will negotiate over prices
with you, and sometimes you can knock them down as much as 20% or
more. In other shops, the price listed is the price and they won't
come down at all. So, if you see the same bass listed at two
different prices, ask the higher-priced shop if they can give you
a lower price, and if you want, mention what some of your
alternatives are. You can do this even if they're not the same
model: you might say "well, I'd like to buy this Fender P-bass,
but you're charging $300 and I can get a Peavey for $250 at X
shop. Can you come down in price a little bit?" If they do, great:
but if they don't, then don't push them, because you don't have
anything to gain by irritating them. Another thing to bear in mind
is that some shops will give you a package deal if you buy both an
amp and a bass from them, so you might save some money by doing
When you try a bass, the salesperson may want you to try it
through a very expensive amp. Don't do that, because the bass will
sound much better through a $1000 amp than it will through the one
you're likely to buy, and you want to hear what it'll sound like
for you. If you think you know what amp you want to buy, then play
basses through the same amp or as close to it as you can come. The
same is true for amps: don't try them out with a $2000 bass
because they won't sound nearly as good with a beginning bass. Use
a bass as close to one that you might buy as you can.