by Scott Zimmerman

This article is about different types of bass guitar. To see our article on short and long scale bass guitars, go here. To learn about active and passive bass guitars, check out our article here. To see our courses on how to play bass and guitar, visit our courses section.

The bass guitar is a great instrument. It not only provides the rhythm and harmonic foundation for a band, but it can also play chords and single-note solos. If you are thinking about playing the bass guitar, this guide will help you understand the different types of bass configurations, which will help you determine the right bass for your needs.

What are the different types of bass guitar? Bass guitars can be categorized in several ways: length of the neck (long or short scale), type of pickup configuration (single or double coil), size of neck, and whether active or passive electronics are used. These differences can affect the tone and also come down to player preference.

Let’s take a look 5 types of bass guitar.

#1 Long Scale

Probably the most popular type of bass is the long scale bass. The scale length of a bass is measured from the nut to the bridge. The long scale bass is typically thirty-four inches long. However, the reason the long scale bass is the most popular, most likely, has less to do with the scale length and more to do with history. In 1951, Fender produced its first bass, the Fender Precision Bass, or P-Bass.

It was given the name Precision due to the fact that it used frets, unlike upright basses, and therefore, the notes could be played with “precision”. The popularity of the P-Bass was immense and became the sought after sound by record producers. It was used on countless classic rock-n-roll, rock, and motown records. 

#2 Short Scale

The short scale bass was in existence prior to the production of the P-Bass. In fact, Paul McCartney used a short scale bass, the Hofner 500/1 violin bass, during the Beatle years. The scale length of the short scale bass is typically around thirty inches, or four inches shorter than the long scale bass. The shorter strings on the short scale bass as compared to the long scale bass are under less tension; therefore, the tone will tend to be “fatter” and rounder, especially in the low end. Also, due to the shorter scale length, the frets are closer together. This results in easier playability, e.g. finger stretches and chord playing.

#3 Precision Bass or P-Bass Type

Due to the popularity of the P-Bass, the elements of this bass have become a standard to be emulated by other bass producing companies. Let’s unpack these basic elements of a P-Bass. The most important distinction of the P-Bass type is the pickup configuration. The P-Bass uses one pickup that is split, so that it essentially looks like two pickups connected together. This pickup is a double coil or what is known as a “humbucking” pickup. This type of pickup, as contrasted from a single coil pickup, is characterized by a full, “fat”, and round tone.

The fact that the pickup is placed nearer to the neck of the bass (than the other type (Jazz Bass) we will discuss shortly), is also a reason for its signature tone. In addition, it uses passive electronics, which means, that the output signal from the pickups can only be reduced or attenuated; the signal cannot be boosted or enhanced by an E.Q. before leaving the instrument. The consistency of the tone that results from this minimal tone shaping system is a key element in the success of the P-Bass design, i.e. it is hard to mess up the tone when playing and recording.

#4 Jazz Bass or J-Bass Type

The Jazz bass was also produced by Fender around 1960. It was created to market to Jazz players who were looking for more tonal variety and ease of play than the P-Bass offered. To make it easier to play, the J-Bass neck was made thinner than the P-Bass neck. In addition, a completely different pickup configuration was used to create different tonal possibilities. Instead of using a double coil pickup, the J-Bass uses two single coil pickups spaced apart. One is near the bridge and the other closer to the neck. The sound of a single coil pickup is very different when compared to a double coil pickup.

The difference can be described as thinner, less mids, more definition, etc. Similar to a guitar with multiple pickups, the bridge and neck pickups can be used together or separately, creating more tone shaping possibilities than the P-Bass, e.g. the bridge pickup used alone is brighter than the neck pickup with less of the fundamental tone and more of the higher harmonic overtones. The variety of tone options is useful when the bass player wants to “cut” through the mix in a solo break, or other musical situations where the bass leaves its traditional role in the band.

#5 Active And Passive Electronics

The electronics on a bass, which include pickups, tone and volume controls, preamps, and E.Q, come in either active, passive, or a combination of both configurations. Let’s briefly explain each of these and how they affect the sound of the bass. Passive electronics, or more specifically, passive pickups, produce an electrical signal by means of a magnetized string moving over a coil of wire. The electrical signal is then sent to a tone and a volume potentiometer, or “pot”, which is a type of resistor.

At this point, the signal can only be reduced or attenuated from its original signal, e.g. the volume can be decreased or the tone can be reduced to create a “darker” sound with less high overtones. In other words, the signal cannot be boosted in any way only reduced. Alternatively, active electronics by means of an external power supply can add or boost the original output signal from the pickup. This allows for the tone to be shaped in a variety of ways before it leaves the instrument and enters the amplifier, e.g. the volume may be increased and certain frequencies of the original signal can be boosted. What does this mean in practical terms?

A bass with passive electronics requires less maintenance (no nine volt battery to replace), and since the tone can be minimally altered, the resulting tone is very consistent from bass to bass and from player to player. This is always helpful to a sound and recording engineer! On the other hand, a bass with active electronics can be tone shaped “on the fly”, so to speak, there is no need to go over to the amp and increase the volume or adjust the E.Q., and furthermore, the variety of tone that the active electronics can produce is more than a bass with passive electronics- this is a definite plus in terms of creating interesting bass parts.

Bonus Difference: Hybrid Types

Ås you may have imagined, there are hybrid types of basses which combine the elements of a P-Bass with a J-Bass, and interestingly enough they are called P/J Basses. These hybrid basses offer some of the advantages of both types, such as a double coil pickup and a single-coil pickup. In addition, passive and active electronics are also combined in some bass models to capture the best tonal elements of each type. 

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.