The Bass Guitar

By Marlyn Ntsele & Russel Hlongwane

A dear friend once said to me, ‘’I stay away from bass guitarists, they trouble. I’ve been broken far too many times by bass guitarists. But I love the instrument, gosh I do’’. That which is produced by the bass guitar is commonly known as the ‘’anchor sound’’, it’s the instrument that cements the whole ensemble, arguably.



The bass guitar as we know it traces its provenance to the 1930’s in Seattle, Washington.  Invented by Paul Tutmarc. And if you dig a little deeper you will come to realize that the modern bass is actually a practical and refined version of the 17th century gigantic double bass. Paul Tutmarc’s modern version was born out of a necessity; to be light weight, practical and portable. Albeit his efforts, Paul had not quite struck gold and it was not till a decade later that his son Paul Tutmarc Jnr finally nailed it. He created the bass guitar; a compact handheld instrument that could be played horizontally, standing or sitting. Now this changed everything. Prior to this, the large double bass had limitations in terms of carriage when playing. Worst yet, the bass guitarist would sometimes have to travel on his own due to his gigantic instrument. This had all sorts of implications i.e travel costs increase, they sometimes got lost en route to the show and just the fatigue of this giant instrument lurking in the bakground. So this new innovation bridged two gaps, logistically, it made carriage much easier and musically, it gave the player a whole new world of exploration. Its portability meant he could do as he pleases with his handheld device.

The bass guitar as we know it now
Fast forward to 1951 and we find Leo Fender, the creator of the Precision bass and The Jazz Bass. The two most known models from Fender. You can say that the precision bass throbs and the jazz bass growls. The Precision allows the frets to be played with precision, because of two small elements on the fret, yet another milestone. The Jazz Bass  has one element. In the so-called PJ Bass, a jazz bass with a precision element, both qualities come together.

Just like with the guitar a bass has single coil (Fender) and double coil (Gibson, Music Man) elements, this makes the difference between a “thin” and a “fat” sound. Most bassists play with single coils. More than with the guitar the bass guitar knows several brands with its own sound, caused by the type of wood, the sorts of elements and the possible build-in electronics. Three examples of types are: 5-string bass, fretless bass and electro-acoustic bass.

Buying your gear
You can buy a good bass guitar for about R3,000. An American Fender starts from R7,500, a Warwick from R12,500 and an Alembic from R25,000. Other popular brands are Hofner (the Beatle Bass), Music Man and Rickenbacker.

Bass amplifiers mostly work with transistors, because of the heavy tone the tubes would break easily. Popular brands are Ampeg, Fender, Peavey, Trace Elliot and Warwick. To be able to play in a band an am of 75 Watt should be enough. You can buy this from about R3,500. You would also need a tuner and you might choose to use effects.

Fun facts

  • What do Johnny Depp, Hulk Hogan, Keanu Reeves have in common, yes you guessed it, they all enthusiastic bass players.
  • An alleged 12 string bass was created in 1978.
  • The highest grossing bass guitar pricedat 2 million Rand, made in Germany, carved from rare solid maple. Its nut is carved from 10 000 year old mammoth ivory. If that’s not enough, the fingerboard is a floral inlay pattern made of 24 karat gold. Other luxuries within it are black diamonds, gold cast knobs topped with diamonds.


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