The electric bass guitar is a stringed instrument similar to the electric guitar, but larger in size and with a lower range. It is also closely related to—and inspired by—the double bass, and shares things in common with a range of bass instruments. It is the standard bass instrument in many musical genres, including country, jazz, many flavors of rock and roll, soul, funk, and modern orchestral music.
As with the electric guitar, vibrations of the metal strings create electrical signals in electromagnetic sensors called pickups. The signals are then amplified and played through a speaker. Various electronic components, and the configuration of the amplifier and speaker, can be used to alter the basic sound of the instrument.
The first mass-produced electric bass guitar was developed by guitar innovator and manufacturer Leo Fender in the early 1950s. Electric upright basses had existed since the mid-1930s, but they were ungainly, and the standard hollow-body design was difficult to amplify past a certain volume, due to problems with feedback. (Additionally, a small number of electric solid-body bass guitars had been built, and apparently sold, by other designers, beginning in the mid-'30s.)
The change to the guitar form and the addition of frets made the instrument much easier (and more precise) to play.
The Fender Precision Bass was first offered in 1951, with a single piece, four-pole pickup, and a simple, uncontoured 'slab' body design. In 1954 the body was contoured with beveled edges for comfort. In 1957, the pickup was changed to a single "split pickup" (staggered) design. The pickguard also underwent a radical change, as did the headstock.
This 1957 design has remained as the standard electric bass, and is still widely available. Another industry standard, the similar, but more highly-engineered Fender Jazz Bass, was introduced in 1960.
Following Fender's lead, other companies such as Gibson, Danelectro, and many others started to produce their own version of the bass guitar. The upright double bass became functionally obsolete in most kinds of popular music, allowing bassists to move further up front in the band mix, both visually and audibly. Innovations and refinements continue through the present.
The acoustic bass guitar is similar to an acoustic guitar with a large, hollow body that is clearly audible without amplification. However, they are relatively quiet compared to most other acoustic instruments, and many acoustic basses are equipped with pickups to enable them to function with louder ensembles, while still maintaining some of the acoustic characteristics of the sound. See The Violent Femmes' first album for an example of acoustic bass playing in modern rock music.
The modern bass player has a wide range of choices when choosing an instrument, for example:
- Number of strings (and tuning): Leo Fender's classic design had four strings, tuned E, A, D, G (with the fundamental frequency of the E string vibrating at 41.3 Hz). Modern variants include:
- Five strings (normally B, E, A, D, G but sometimes E, A, D, G, C)
- Six strings (B, E, A, D, G, C or B, E, A, D, G, B—although E, A, D, G, B, E has also been used)
- More than six strings!
- Double and triple courses of strings (eg, a 12 string bass might be Eee Aaa Ddd Ggg, with standard pitch strings supported by two strings an octave higher)
- Tenor bass: A, D, G, C
- Piccolo bass: e, a, d, g (an octave higher than standard tuning—same as the bottom four strings of a guitar)
- Various uses of detuners, which allow one or more strings to be easily adjusted while playing (most commonly used to give the option of dropping the E string down to D on a four string bass)
- Pickups—the earliest basses had a single split passive magnetic pickup. Modern choices include:
- Active or passive electronics (active circuits use a battery to boost the signal)
- Pickup type
- Pickup position (near the bridge or further towards the neck for a fatter sound)
- Multiple pickups, giving more tonal variation
- Non-magnetic systems, eg. piezos or the innovative new Lightwave systems (these allow the bassist to use non-metallic strings)
- Body shape and colour
- A wide range of coloured finishes or exploiting the amazing variety of natural wood forms
- Different body shapes (affecting weight, balance and aesthetics)
- Headed and headless (with tuning done at the bridge) designs
Add in the factors of amplification and effects units and the electric bass has an overwhelming amount of tonal flexibility.
As with any instrument, the electric bass can be played in a number of styles. Players such as Paul McCartney tend to favor a subdued, melodic approach, while Les Claypool of Primus and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers favor a funky "slap and pop" approach in which notes and percussive sounds are created by slapping the string with the thumb and release strings with a snap. Many artists, such as Pino Palladino utilize a fretless bass guitar for the smoothness of its slide and unique tone.
The slap and pop method was pioneered by Larry Graham in the 1960s. Graham's unique sound gained a broad audience when it appeared in the 1970 Sly and the Family Stone song "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)". In the 1970s Stanley Clarke developed Graham's technique further, adding the popping and speed that are a hallmark of contemporary playing.
An even later development is the two-handed tapping style, where both hands play notes by tapping the string to the fret. This makes it possible to play contrapuntally, or to play complicated chords and arpeggios. Since this makes the bass take up a large part of the aural spectrum, it is mostly used by bass players who act as the lead in their music. Notable examples are Stuart Hamm, whose music is Metal-oriented, and Michael Manring, who has a more jazzy / new age style. Manring occasionally plays on two (or even three) basses at the same time, much like Stanley Jordan on guitar. However, as a more traditional bass player, Jeff Berlin, has noted: no bass player was ever hired for his two-hand tapping skills.
Most bassists prefer to pluck the notes with the fingers but some also use plectra (also called picks). This often varies according to the musical genre—very few funk bassists use plectrums, while they are almost de rigueur for punk rock. Using a plectrum typically gives the bass a brighter, more punchy sound, while playing with one's fingers makes the sound more soft and round.
Bassists also have different preferences as to where on the string they pluck the notes. While the influential bassist Jaco Pastorius and many with him preferred to pluck them very close to the bridge for a bright and sharp sound, many prefer the rounder sound they get by plucking closer to the neck.
Bass players like Chris Squire, Geddy Lee and John Entwistle have been revolutionary by taking a more important, leading, complicated role and making the instrument a more important and recognised one, a trend that caught on in bands that followed them.
Famous or notable bassists include:
- Michael Balzary a/k/a "Flea" (bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, incorporates fingerstyle funk, slap, and punk styles)
- Jack Bruce (vocalist in Cream, pioneered a melodic, contrapuntal approach)
- Cliff Burton (late Metallica bassist, who along with Steve Harris and others pioneered complex bass lines in metal music)
- Alain Caron (bassist in Uzeb, 6 string, fretless)
- Jack Casady (free-form jazz-rock in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna—true progenitor of "jam-bands")
- Kim Clarke (bassist in Defunkt, seamless switching between fingerstyle funk and slap)
- Stanley Clarke (seminal work in Jazz fusion in 1970's)
- Les Claypool (of Primus, slap bass in hard rock, inspired by Geddy Lee and Larry Graham)
- Bootsy Collins (pioneering funk bassist)
- Rick Danko - arguably one of the leaders in jazz/rock bass guitar playing style. Bass player and vocalist for "The Band".
- John Entwistle (innovator of hard rock w/ The Who, lead bass lines, 8 string bass guitar)
- Billy Gould (Faith No More bass player)
- Larry Graham (originator of 'slap bass' technique)
- Steve Harris (Iron Maiden bassist and songwriter, lead bass lines and a very pronounced bass presence overall)
- Peter Hook (bassist and songwriter in Joy Division, New Order, Revenge and Monaco. Introduced melodic baritone-guitar-like bass lines in Post Punk and Wave music. Famous for playing his knee deep hanging bass on high notes with a "detuned" sound, caused by a chorus and overdrive effect)
- Anthony Jackson (pioneer on the six string bass guitar, work with Chick Corea, Chaka Khan, O'Jays, Quincy Jones)
- Rick James (renowned funk bassist)
- James Jamerson (speed, accuracy, and relative complexity of his Motown work was widely influential)
- Louis Johnson (pioneer of the slapping technique, work with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones)
- Steve Lawson (exploiting looping technology for solo bass performances)
- Geddy Lee (inspired a generation of rock musicians with time changes and progressive bass playing as a member of Rush)
- Phil Lesh (classical influences on rock; improvisation)
- Michael Manring (innovative work with multiple alternate tunings)
- Paul McCartney (melodic lines)
- Marcus Miller (work with jazz giants like Miles Davis and solo work)
- John Myung (of Dream Theater, famous for incredible speed and virtuosity, pioneer of bass tapping technique)
- Pino Palladino (fretless playing)
- Jaco Pastorius (pioneer of fretless bass, fingerstyle funk, harmonics)
- Tom Petersson (12 string bass guitar)
- Gene Simmons (bassist for rock band KISS. Considered one of the best bassists)
- Chris Squire (innovator of progressive rock with Yes, speed-picking melodic style on trademark Rickenbacker 4001)
- Doug Wimbish (pioneer of hip hop bass playing, work with Sugarhill Gang, Living Colour, Mick Jagger)
- Victor Wooten (especially his double thumbing technique)
The following manufacturers are among those that have produced widely regarded models of bass guitar:
- Carl Thompson
- Ernie Ball
- F Bass 
- Fodera 
- Hamer (known for 12 string bass guitars)
- Hohner (known for headless instruments)
- Ken Bebensee
- Ken Smith
- Kubicki 
- Leduc Guitars 
- Modulus Guitars 
- Music Man, an offshoot of Ernie Ball 
- Pedulla 
- Rob Allen
- Sadowsky 
- Tobias 
- Warrior Instruments 
- Warwick Gmbh 
- Washburn 
- Acoustic bass guitar
- Acoustic guitar/guitar: Electric guitar
- Cello: Electric cello
- Violin: Electric violin
- String orchestra
- Double bassde:E-Bass