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Subject: Rec.music.makers.bass Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) part 1/2

This article was archived around: 10 Jun 1997 00:00:03 +0300

All FAQs in Directory: music/bass-faq
All FAQs posted in: rec.music.makers.bass
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Archive-name: music/bass-faq/part1 Version: 2.3 Posting-Frequency: monthly Last-modified: 1996/2/12
REC.MUSIC.MAKERS.BASS 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 rec.music.makers.bass. Permission granted to propagate this list freely on Internet, otherwise contact the list keeper (killer@iki.fi). This list may NOT be included on any publication. The Japanese version of this FAQ may be found at http://www.tcp-ip.or.jp/~h-aki/hba.html or at the newsgroup fj.rec.music. [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.] Topics Procedural 1. What is the purpose of rec.music.makers.bass? 2. What styles of bass playing are appropriate for discussion on rec.music.makers.bass? 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 manufacturer? 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 amplifier? 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? Answers 1. What is the purpose of rec.music.makers.bass? rec.music.makers.bass 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 rec.music.makers.bass? rec.music.makers.bass 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? On-line: 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 majordomo@magpie.com 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 bass@magpie.com. 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 listproc@ccad.uiowa.edu. 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 rec.music.makers.guitar.tablature which is a newsgroup which is mostly devoted to TAB for guitar. Off-line: 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 flaws. 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 you. 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 that. 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: G------------------------------------ D------------------------------------ A------------------------------------ E----3------------------------------- Notes are played from the left of the staff to the right; thus, an ascending G major scale might be written: G------------------------------------ D-------------------2--4--5---------- A----------2--3--5------------------- E----3--5---------------------------- Or, using open strings, it might be written like this: G-------------------------0---------- D----------------0--2--4------------- A-------0--2--3---------------------- E----3------------------------------- Chords can be written by writing two numbers in the same vertical bar. Thus one might write a simple A major chord as: G-----9------------------------------ D-----11----------------------------- A-----0------------------------------ E------------------------------------ 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 string. 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: G---------5P-7h-5p------------------- D------------------------3b---------- A---0S\5-----------3S-5S----5S-5H--- E------------------------------------ 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: G------------5--7-------------------- D------------------------------------ A---5--x--x--------5--x--5----------- E------------------------------------ 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: G---------5--7--5-------------------- D------------------------------------ A---0--5----------------------------- E------------------------------------ 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 G-----|----5--7--5-------|-------------5--7--7-|---- D-----|------------------|-3--3--5--7----------|---- A---0-|-5-----------8--5-|---------------------|-5-- E-----|------------------|---------------------|---- 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. + ftp.uwp.edu 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. + ftp.nevada.edu ( has a lot of TAB for both guitar and bass. Feel free to write to jamesb@redrock.nevada.edu 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 :) + ftp.uu.net 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 manufacturer? 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 relevant. 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 eclectic. 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 effort. 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 as: -------|------------------- (lowest line of staff) | ---O--- 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 lines. 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 2^(N/12) 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 practice. 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 bass: 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 killer@niksula.cs.hut.fi *