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Archive-name: music/bass-faq/part1
Version: 2.3
Posting-Frequency: monthly
Last-modified: 1996/2/12

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
                        Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

                       Part 1: Answers to Questions 1-11

  Version 2.4
  Revision Date - 28/3/96
  Revisions since 2.3:

         Added the location for Japanese version

   This FAQ list was created by Stephen Schmidt. Minor additions made by
   Kalle Kivimaa. Copyrights to the various answers are owned by several
   people from Permission granted to propagate
   this list freely on Internet, otherwise contact the list keeper
   ( This list may NOT be included on any publication.
   The Japanese version of this FAQ may be found at or at the newsgroup

   [Administrivia:  Sorry for this long delay in posting the FAQ.
    I have started a full-time job and my automated posting process
    didn't work.  From now on the FAQ should follow the normal 10th
    of each month -schedule.]


    1. What is the purpose of
    2. What styles of bass playing are appropriate for discussion on
    3. What other sources of information on bass playing exist?
  Getting Started
    4. What should I look for when buying my first bass and amplifier?
    5. What is tabulature?
    6. What are the advantages and disadvantages of tabulature?
    7. Where can I get TAB to learn?
    8. Who are some major makers of bass equipment? How much does their
       equipment cost? How can I get in touch with a particular
    9. What are some good books on bass instruction?
   10. How is standard music notation written for bass?
   11. To what pitches are bass strings normally tuned?
  Intermediate Questions
   12. How are 5 and 6 string basses tuned? What are the advantages and
       disadvantages of them? How are 8 and 12 string basses tuned and
       what are their advantages and disadvantages?
   13. Can I detune my 4-string to B-E-A-D?
   14. What is the difference between a preamplifier and a power
   15. What is biamping, and how is it done?
   16. How do I adjust the setup on my bass (action, intonation, etc?)
   17. What is the difference between the various types of strings?
   18. How does a bass pickup work? What is the difference between the
       various kinds of pickups?
  Advanced Questions
   19. How do I record my bass to tape?
   20. What are some popular effects for bass and what do they do? Is
       there a difference between guitar effects and bass effects?
   21. What is the difference between digital and analog electronics?
   22. What do the ratings of amplifiers and speakers mean? What is a
       watt, or an ohm? What factors must I consider in connecting
       amplifiers to speakers?

    1. What is the purpose of is a forum for the discussion of:
          + styles and techniques of playing bass guitars and acoustic
            bass viols;
          + the role of the bass in musical groups;
          + the merits of particular models of basses, amplifiers, and
            other equipment used in playing the bass;
          + music written for the bass, including TAB (tablature).
    2. What styles of bass playing are appropriate for discussion on exists to serve both electric bass players
       and acoustic bass players. Rock, funk, and jazz music are the most
       common styles discussed but all styles of music are welcome, as
       long as they include music written for bass.
    3. What other sources of information on bass playing exist?
       There is an electronic mail magazine devoted to bass playing
       called The Bottom Line, distributed on a basis depending on the
       amount of material received (currently averaging about one issue
       per day.) To subscribe to The Bottom Line, or for other
       administrative correspondence, send email to
       with the message body containing lines such as help, info
       bass-digest, or subscribe bass-digest. To submit an article for
       publications, send email to Please do not send
       personal correspodance to these addresses.
       There is also a mailing list for bassists who play in Christian
       churches called ChurchBass. It is available in individual messages
       and digest forms and has been picking up traffic steadily
       averaging one digest daily. The list processor arddress is
       The newsgroup alt.guitar.bass is a previous version of this
       newsgroup. It is still used by people who cannot access rmm.bass
       for one reason or another, and some people crosspost when the
       topic is of general interest. If you use both groups, PLEASE
       crosspost rather than posting seperately to each group. Ask your
       sysadmin how to crosspost if you do not know how.
       There is no specific newgroup for TAB for bass, so it is usually
       carried in rmm.bass. Sometimes bass TAB is posted to which is a newsgroup which is
       mostly devoted to TAB for guitar.
       There is a magazine called (appropriately) Bass Player which
       features interviews with famous bassists, product reviews, lesson
       columns, and TAB transcriptions of famous bass lines. Bass Player
       can be bought at most music stores. There is another magazine,
       called Bassics which also carries information on bass playing and
       bass players, but which may be harder to find than Bass Player.
       Also in the UK, a magazine called Bassist and Bass Techniques is
       out. In addition, most guitar magazines such as Guitar World have
       a bass column and occasionally print articles related to bass
       playing or bass tablature.
    4. What should I look for when buying my first bass and amplifier?
       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.
    5. What is tabulature?
       Bass tabulature, or TAB for short, is a simple method for writing
       bass music. There are several different versions of tabulature,
       but the following features are common to most of them.
       Bass tab is written on four-line staves. In text interfaces these
       are usually written using dashed characters. Each space
       corresponds to one string on the bass: the lowest space
       corresponds to the E string, the next lowest to the A string, the
       next to the D string, and the highest to the G string. A number on
       a given space represents a note played at the given fret on the
       corresponding string; thus, to indicate playing a G at the third
       fret on the E string, one would write:

   Notes are played from the left of the staff to the right; thus, an
       ascending G major scale might be written:

   Or, using open strings, it might be written like this:

   Chords can be written by writing two numbers in the same vertical bar.
       Thus one might write a simple A major chord as:

   which means to play an open note on the A string, to play a C# at the
       11th fret on the D string, and an E at the 9th fret on the G
       Various fingering techniques can be noted in TAB as well. This is
       done by writing a single character after the note being fingered.
       The most common of these are:

   h - hammer-on from previous note
   p - pull off from previous note
   \ - slide up to note
   b - bend note
   S - slap the note with the right-hand thumb (left hand if left-handed)
   P - pop the note with the right hand (ditto)
   t - tap the note with the right hand (ditto)
   H - harmonic
   Thus a funky bass line might be written like this:

   A muted note (one that is not fingered cleanly and makes a percussive
       sound rather than a clear tone) is written by placing an x on a
       line instead of a number:

   When it is not obvious which left-hand (right-hand to lefties) finger
       should be used to to fret a particular note, this may be indicated
       by writing a number under the note, with 1=index finger, 2=middle
       finger, 3=ring finger, 4=pinkie finger, and rarely, 5-thumb:

    1  1     3
   It is becoming popular to indicate time in TAB by writing over each
       note a letter indicating the time value of the note: s=sixteenth
       note, e=eighth note, q=quarter note, h=half note, w=whole note. It
       is possible to add dots to this system as is done with normal
       notes though it is not common. In addition, vertical bars are
       usually used to indicate measure breaks. TAB noted this way might
       look like this:

    w   q  s  s  e  q  h   q. e  e  e  s  s  e   h
    6. What are the advantages and disadvantages of tabulature?
       The major advantage of TAB as a notation system is that it clearly
       indicates how the music is to be played technically, ie which note
       are fingered by which fingers using which techniques. Other
       advantages include: no need to use sharps or flats.
       The major disadvantage is that time marking in TAB is still rather
       primitive and will probably never be as flexible as regular music
       notation due to the limitations of the ASCII character set. In
       printed sheet music, this problem is commonly addressed by writing
       TAB and conventional music notation simultaneouly. This is
       inconvenient for ASCII representations, but some people are
       attempting to develop useful systems for it. None have become
       widely followed at this time, however. Other disadvantages
       include: not widely known among classicly trained musicians
       (though this is changing) believed by some to discourage
       improvisation and ear training.
    7. Where can I get TAB to learn?
       There are several sites where you can get TAB for bass by
       anonymous FTP.
          + has the archives for The Bottom Line mailing
            list, and it has a lot of other things music-related things
            as well. Look in /pub/music.
          + ( has a lot of TAB for both
            guitar and bass. Feel free to write to
   if you have questions or comments.
            Please do NOT sent requests or submissions to root@nevada, or
            to any other account except the jamesb account. The local
            sysadmin is not connected to the bass TAB site and doesn't
            appreciate getting his mailbox spammed up :)
          + is accessible from UUNET and has copies of
            everything that is available from the first two sets for
            people without Internet access. Try this if you can't figure
            out how to reach the others.
    8. Who are some major makers of bass equipment? How much does their
       equipment cost? How can I get in touch with a particular
       The best source for answers to questions like this is the Bass
       Player Buyer's Guide, put out annually by Bass Player magazine. It
       lists nearly all available equipment, divided into instruments,
       amps and cabinets, signal processors, parts and accessories, and
       strings. It includes some basic information about the gear, list
       price, and references to product reviews that appeared in BP where
       List price is the manufacturer's suggested retail price. In actual
       practice, retail prices tend to be about 20% below list price, so
       that equipment is not as expensive as it appears to be.
       Competitive shopping can often turn up a lot of bargains as well.
       In addition, used equipment tends to be cheaper than new, although
       when buying used things you will want to make sure that they're in
       serviceable condition.
       The Buyer's Guide lists the addresses and phone numbers of all
       manufacturers who are listed in it at the back of the guide. Most
       manufacturers put their addresses and numbers in their
       advertisements which appear in Bass Player and in many guitar
       magazines as well. Check your local music store.
    9. What are some good books on bass instruction?
       There are lots of books on introductry bass playing, and there
       aren't all that many differences between them. There is a six-book
       series written by Dan Dean called "Electric Bass" (the last three
       books are also known as "The Studio Bassist") which presents a
       comprehensive approach to learning the bass. There is a series of
       books by Chuck Rainey which also present a comprehensive bass
       playing method: the first book is an excellent introduction to the
       bass while the other books cover advanced topics in bass playing.
       Carole Kaye has also written a six-book series on bass playing
       which many people recommend highly.
       There is also a book called "Electric Bass Guitar" which is a
       compilation of old bass columns from Guitar Player magazine
       (before BP existed [gasp]) which is definitive if a little
       Somewhat more advanced books which a lot of people find useful
       include "Modern Electric Bass" by Jaco Pastorius and "Electric
       Bass" by John Patitucci. A good book on bass harmonics is
       "Harmonics for Electric Bass" by Adam Novick.
       These are only a few of the many books on bass playing that are
       available for beginning and advanced bassists. Most music stores
       carry a selection of instruction books and you should be able to
       find something that will work well for you without too much
   10. How is standard music notation written for bass?
       Standard music notation is written for bass in exactly the same
       way that it is for piano, except that it is written one octave
       higher than played; that is, the note to be played on the bass is
       one octave lower than the one written on the page. This is done to
       avoid using a very large number of ledger lines, since most bass
       parts go well below the lowest line of the bass clef.

  For example, the lowest note on a 4-string bass, open E, would be written
-------|------------------- (lowest line of staff)
   The written note is E above low C, but the actual note on the bass is
       E below low C. Writing this note as played would take 4 ledger
       As a second example, when the written music calls for middle C,
       you should play the C one octave below that, which is the 5th fret
       on the G string.
   11. To what pitches are bass strings normally tuned?
       A. Pitch is measured in hertz (hz), which is the rate at which the
       string is vibrating back and forth (measured in cycles per
       second). The standard definition of pitch is that the A above
       middle C is exactly 440 hz. The open A string on a bass is three
       octaves below that A, and dropping one octave divides the
       frequency by 2. So the A below middle C is 220 hz, the A below
       that is 110 hz, and the open A string on the bass is 55 hz.
       You can get the pitches for the other two strings in either of two
       ways. The first is to use natural tuning, and the second is to use
       even-tempered tuning.
       Natural tuning is based on the fact that a major chord sounds most
       pure if the ratio of the frequencies of the three notes is exactly
       4:5:6:8. Thus an A major chord starting on the 440 hz A would be
       tuned as follows: A 440 hz, C# 550 hz, E 660 hz, A 880hz. A bass
       is tuned in perfect fourths, and as you can see from the E-A
       example in the A major chord, the frequencies of two notes in a
       perfect fourth are always 6:8, or 3:4. Using this ratio, and
       knowing that the open A string on a bass is 55 hz, we can find the
       pitches of the other strings just by multiplying or dividing by
       4/3, or 1.33333. The problem with natural tuning is that it is
       internally inconsistent, because it can produce several different
       "correct" pitches for a given note. For example, consider starting
       with the 440 hz A, and trying to find the pitch of the A one
       octave above it. One way to do that is to say "octaves are in the
       ratio 4:8" and conclude that the A one octave above is 880 hz.
       However, an equally valid way is to reason as follows. The C# that
       is above the A is in the ratio 5:4 with that A, so its pitch must
       be 550 hz. Starting on that C#, we can build a C# major chord,
       which will have F as its third. The ratio of C# to F must also be
       5:4, so that F must have a pitch of 550 * (5/4) = 687.5 hz. Now,
       starting on that F, we can build an F major chord with A as the
       third. The pitch of that A must be 687.5 * (5/4) = 859 hz, which
       is rather different from 880 hz. If you tuned an instrument to
       F=687, A=880, and played an F major chord on it, it would sounds
       very out of tune.
       The solution, which was popularized by JS Bach, is to slightly
       fudge the "natural" tuning of each note to average out the errors
       so that, while each chord will be a little off, no one chord will
       be very wrong and you can play in any key you like. Bach's piece,
       "The Well Tempered Clavier", which modulates through all 12 keys,
       was written to demonstrate the power of even-tempered tuning.
       The formula for even tempering is based on the number of
       half-steps between two notes. The ratio of pitch between two notes
       that are N half-steps apart is given by
       This formula was chosen because it makes the octave work out
       perfectly; an octave is 12 half steps so the ratio of two notes an
       octave apart is just 2 ^ (12/12) or 2^1, or 2. The advantange of
       this formula is that it gives the same answer for the pitch of a
       note, regardless of what intervals are used to calculate it. In
       the above example, the ratio between A and A an octave higher is
       2^(12/12) or 2. The ratio of a major third is 2^(4/12) or 1.260.
       Starting with A 440, and going up by major thirds, we get C# =
       554, F = 698, A = 880, because
       1.26^3 = [2^(4/12)]^3 = 2^(12/12) = 2.
       For a perfect fourth, which is 5 half-steps, the formula gives a
       ratio of 2^(5/12) or 1.33484. Note that this is just slightly
       bigger than the ratio of 1.33333 given by the natural tuning, so
       it doesn't make a whole lot of difference which one you use in
       Now, to answer the question :) The pitch of an A string is 55hz,
       and the other pitches depend on whether you use even-tempered
       tuning or natural tuning. The two cases are, for a six-string

                B       E       A       D       G       C
Natural         30.938  41.250  55.000  73.333  97.777  130.369
Even-tempered   30.868  41.203  55.000  73.416  97.999  130.812
   Other tunings are rare but not unknown. Most common is to tune the E
       string down to D, giving the tuning D-A-D-G. This has become less
       common since 5-string basses became popular but is found on many
       older records. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd uses it a lot. Another
       common tuning is to tune all strings one half-step flat: Eb, Ag,
       Db, Gb (or D#, G#, C#, F# if you like to think of it that way.)
       This reduces the tension on the strings, making string bending
       easier. Most groups that use this tuning, notably Van Halen,
       actually tune down so the guitarist can have the benefits of lower
       tension: the bass player just tunes down to match. However, it can
       be convenient to have lower string tension on bass as well. Also,
       being tuned to E flat instead of E can make things easier if you
       are playing with a horn section, since horn music is often written
       in such keys as E flat and B flat.
       Other artists use even weirder tunings, often setting the string
       intervals to fifths, major thirds, tritones, or even unisons.
       Michael Manring is probably the most notable artist who does this.
       It should be noted that this isn't all that good a thing for the
       bass, because the strings are designed so that all four strings
       will have the same tension in normal tuning, and thus apply the
       same pressure to the neck. If you change the tuning, so that some
       strings apply more pressure to the neck than others, the neck can
       warp in very odd ways that are not easy to fix. Michael solves
       this problem by using a bass with a graphite neck, and if you can
       afford to do this, you don't need to worry about the neck warping
       (for any reason). But if you have a wooden-necked bass, you might
       want to put the bass back into normal tuning after you experiment
       with other tunings.
* "Let's see if we can spot any colorful exotic natives in colorful       *
*  exotic costumes singing colorful exotic songs with their colorful      *
*  exotic hands out for bakshoesh." - Zebadiah Carter                     *
*  PGP public key available - try finger         *

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