electric bass guitar

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Title: EnRoute--Bag; John Scofield Trio. Label: Verve. Format: CD. Catalogue#: B0001699-02. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

The electric bass guitar, an electro-acoustic instrument, is a plucked box-lute chordophone with a solid body instead of a hollow resonator. Initially developed and manufactured in the United States in the mid-20th century, it has subsequently come to be distributed and manufactured internationally. It proved to be a worthy substitute for the double bass as used primarily in dance bands and jazz bands of the time. As rock and roll emerged in the 1950s it became the primary bass line instrument in that genre, and so it has remained. Many jazz and commercial music bassists choose to be proficient on both the double bass and the bass guitar, unwilling to give up the bowing option of the double bass (it can be both bowed and plucked) for being restricted only to plucking on the bass guitar. Created soon after the solid body electric guitar, the electric bass guitar was the perfect compliment to that new instrument. It is therefore found in almost any ensemble performing in practically every style of American popular or commercial music, including blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, country, and myriad rock sub-genres. Two electric bass guitars are shown in the image gallery on this page, the first has four strings, the second five.


 [The description details to follow focus primarily on the four-string instrument; differing features on the five-string bass will be pointed out at the end of the paragraph.] Shaped like a lute (neck + resonator), the electric bass is different from an acoustic lute in that the 'resonator' is solid and provides no resonance. Instead, the vibration of its four steel strings is sensed by magnetic pickups located on the 'soundboard' of the instrument (see first detail image; there is one pickup per string even though the pickup is divided into two units, one for the bottom two string, the other for the top two strings) that transform it into an electrical signal. This signal then passes through an internal preamp and eventually an external amplifier before being transformed back into acoustical energy by the speaker. As the electrical signal passes through the preamp and amplifier, it can be reshaped dramatically with the aid of filters, ring modulators, and other electronic devices. Some of this reshaping of the sound is controlled with preamp knobs (one for volume, the other for tone) on the body of the instrument (see first detail image), the rest with control devices on the amplifier into which the instrument is plugged. The faux resonator on this bass is made from alder with a plastic guard covering much of its top surface. A metal bridge plate with four separate sliding saddles is screwed to the body just above its bottom end (see first detail image). A solid piece of maple is used for the neck and pegblock section, and the fingerboard is from rosewood. These two main sections are joined to one another at the base of the neck with screws. Twenty metal frets are set in horizontal grooves cut into the fingerboard, which overlaps slightly onto the body. The bottom ends of the four heavy gauge, wire-wound steel-core strings are attached to the bottom edge of the bridge plate and then pass over their respective saddles before running in a parallel plane just slightly above the pickups and the fretted fingerboard before making contact with the nut (a raised bridge that separates the top end of the fingerboard from the tuning block). They are then wound around the capstans of the four back-mounted metal machine heads with their laterally situated knobs. The acoustically active length of all the strings (the distance between the bridge saddle and the nut) is on average 34 inches but the actual length of an individual string can be made a few tenths of an inch shorter or longer by adjusting its sliding saddle. [The second bass pictured in the gallery differs from the one described above in a few significant ways: the neck and the center of the body are made from a single block of wood; it has five strings; it has 24 frets on its fingerboard; and it has two sets of pickups and four pickup control knobs (see second detail image).]

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The bass guitar can be played either by a seated of standing performer (in the latter manner with the aid of a shoulder strap) and held horizontally or with its pegbox end raised up to about a 45-degree angle, the “soundboard” facing outwards. The player usually plucks the strings with the index and middle fingers of the right hand and stops them against the fretted fingerboard with the fingertips of the left hand. Since its primary musical function is to produce a monophonic bass line, strumming is seldom used. However, in some genres during solo passages the bassist might sound two notes simultaneously. Trills and other ornaments, articulations, figurations, and vibrato are a part of the music performed on this instrument. Harmonics can be produced on the strings by lightly touching them with the left hand fingers (but not pressing them against the frets) at acoustically appropriate places. The bass guitar is fully chromatic over a range of nearly three octaves, from E1 - D-sharp4 (for an instrument with twenty frets), and uses the standard double bass tuning of: E1 - A1 - D2 - G2 (an interval sequence of P4 - P4 - P4). Parts for the bass guitar are typically notated in the bass clef an octave above actual pitch. The dynamic potential of the bass guitar is greatly increased by its electronic component, which also allows the bassist increased control over shaping its tone quality as heard through a loudspeaker. [The five-string bass seen in the second gallery image can be strung in one of two ways: B0 - E1 - A1 - D2 - G2 (an interval sequence of P4 - P4 - P4 - P4) with a range from B0 - G4; or E1 - A1 - D2 - G2 - C3 (an interval sequence of P4 - P4 - P4 - P4) with a range from E1 - C5.]


The first electric bass guitar--the Fender Precision--was invented in 1951 by Leo Fender using technologies already associated with his solid body electric guitars. Other companies had produced electro-acoustic double basses prior to this time, but these were not guitars. And acoustic bass-register guitar-like instruments of various kinds with fretted necks also predated the Fender Precision. But it was the Fender model that brought together both the magnetic pickup amplification of a bass register instrument and the guitar-shaped body with fretted fingerboard features. It was so revolutionary and so well designed that only subtle changes to the original have been made, such as adding further strings, increasing the number of pickups and the sophistication of their electronics, and in a few rare instances changing the shape of the body.

Bibliographic Citations

Bacon, Tony. 1984. "Electric bass guitar [bass guitar]," NGDMI v.1: 651-654.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. 1994. Electric Guitars and Basses: A Photographic History. San Francisco: GPI Books.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: cosmopolitan

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

513 electrophone--electro-acoustic chordophones: musical instrument that has tensioned strings the vibrations of which are transduced into an analogue fluctuation of an electric current that can be electronically modified before being passed through a loudspeaker to deliver sound

Design and Playing Features

Category: electrophone

Type of electrophone: electro-acoustic

Type of oscillator: vibrating string + transducer

Type of pickup: electromagnetic

Number of voices: partially polyphonic

Primary pitch controller: chordophone; pressure stopping of vibrating strings against fretted fingerboard

MIDI compatible: no

Signal processing devices: analogue


44.5 in. length 13 in. greatest width 1.5 in. height of ribs

Primary Materials

string - wire
pickups - magnetic


Johnson (galley #1); Pedulla (gallery #2)


JP800P (gallery #1); 8512 USA (gallery #2)

Entry Author

Roger Vetter