My music-loving kids need more help than I can give.
November 20, 2011 1:32 AM   Subscribe

My 13 year old wants a bass guitar for Christmas. People who have some idea about musical instruments, please tell me what I should be looking for in a beginner bass guitar.

She’s had an acoustic guitar for a few years but hasn’t played it much since her utterly-unmusical father ‘tuned it’ for her, which has made it sound even worse. We’ve tried to tune it since then, trying both Youtube and a learn-to-play DVD I bought, but it still sounds like crap (it was a very cheap guitar in the first place).

She’s been learning bass guitar at school and is very keen to keep learning. She's also at that stage where her favourite bands consume her life, so I'm keen to encourage her to learn an instrument if only to emulate them, if that makes sense.

Her 10 year old brother has a drum kit, and has a pretty good sense of rhythm. They used to have fun together, her playing acoustic guitar and him playing drums, making up songs. They’re not going to win any Battle of the Bands soon, but they enjoy it.

So, what do I need to look for? Please guide me towards a good basic learner bass guitar.

And googling tells me that a bass guitar with drums sounds ‘empty’, that a lead guitar rounds out the sound. I can understand that. So what music can I turn them on to which is just bass guitar and drums, and possibly vocals? (I can only think of The Little Drummer Boy, and I don’t have the patience to listen to that one song for the entire 6 weeks of Australian summer school holidays.)
posted by malibustacey9999 to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 1 - they give stuff up at that age, as you know. So not that expensive is good.

2 - they give stuff up faster when it's not very good, as you also know, so not that cheap either.

3 - the bass can be a stretch for even small adults, so do so measurements and see if a 3/4 size would suit.

Basically, buy one of these!
posted by cromagnon at 3:17 AM on November 20, 2011

Fender Precision Basses are pretty standard for rock bands. Buying an American model is more expensive (but better), but you can find a Mexican Fender P-bass for cheaper. Please don't buy her a Squire. It's the cheap version of Fender, and honestly I laugh every time I see one, even if it's a beginner. You can at least fool 'em with a foreign Fender.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 3:17 AM on November 20, 2011

Ibanez 5 string, good value in my opinion. Also you might consider somehow teaching your kid some J.S. Bach on bass. Seriously impresses.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:18 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Post-post, I'm not dissing Cromagnon's advice. He's probably right. I just really don't like Squiers.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 3:20 AM on November 20, 2011

Now that I think about it, a Fender Jazz bass would be good for her too. Same deal, you can get a foreign made Fender for cheaper. But since she's young, and like Cromagnon says it can be a stretch, a Jazz bass has a less wide fret board, so it would be easier for her to wrap her wrist around the neck.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 3:23 AM on November 20, 2011

No offence taken - the Squier has always been a guitar to buy if you weren't sure. They should, though, at least have frets that are true all the way up the neck and accurately soldered pots and switches - this isn't true of anything much cheaper.

Sure, in a year or two one the arms have grown and someone knows if they're into Slayer or Level 42, then it's time to do the job properly. But I do honestly think buying full-size USA-made Fender Precisions for 13 year olds starting out is just giving money to eBay in April.
posted by cromagnon at 3:29 AM on November 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Suggest buying from a local music store where they can try for fit, and possibly get a used instrument for less initial investment. Music store will probably allow trade-ons when she decides bass isn't right and wants to learn banjo. Then mandolin. Then 12-string. Etc.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:31 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Even a brand new bass will need regular tuning, if you can't do that then its going to end up with the acoustic guitar. I'm terrible at tuning by ear, so I had a digital guitar tuner. Basically for my acoustic guitar I go somewhere quiet and play each string and it tells you if its flat or sharp and lights up green when you have it right. With the one I had you could also plug in your electric guitar. You can get models that do both bass and guitar, electric and acoustic.
posted by missmagenta at 3:33 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: cromagnon has your answer. The Squier line of guitars is pretty-much built for your exact need. Affordable entry-level equipment. Hell, they even sound pretty good. Plus, you can usually get them in packages that include a practice amp.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:56 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would strongly consider a 3/4 size, or short scale. Some people will say that everybody gets used to large scale, but I found that even for me (an average height adult woman) a regular size bass guitar was difficult to play and heavy, even the models that experienced bass players said were relatively light (like the Fender Jazz Bass). I really liked the Fleabass Junior when I tried it, but I don't know if you can still buy those where you live (where I live they are about 200 euro's, that's a good deal. Usually things that are 200 euro's here are 200 US dollars in the US. I would not like them for double that price, it is an entry level bass). There's also the Ibanez Mikro that has quite a few fans on Go to a specialized store if you can and try out different basses.

If you do want to go fullscale I agree that Squier is good for beginners, but if you want a bit higher quality than the beginner's model you could look at the Squier Vintage Modified Jazz Bass. It gets very good reviews (here's a Youtube review). It is great quality for the price and probably will have decent resale value.
posted by davar at 4:26 AM on November 20, 2011

I got an Ibanez set that came with a practice amp and a tuner (which also works for guitars). I'm not sure how standard it is to include tuners, but they can be had for around $10 separately.

I just don't get how a guitar can be rendered unplayable after a failed attempt to tune the strings?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 4:28 AM on November 20, 2011

I've found that kids are generally more likely to stick with a musical instrument if they feel like they sound good (or cool, whatever - I was a band geek in the truest sense and the concept of "cool" wasn't even on my radar) earlier. Whatever you decide, might I suggest finding your local Rock School and picking up a package of lessons? It might keep her interested and motivated to learn for a little while longer and you'll have the satisfaction of seeing it not collect dust for the first few months after your purchase.
posted by honeybee413 at 5:43 AM on November 20, 2011

I started playing bass around that age, and I stuck with the model I had until it was stolen. Is she tall or short? If she's only like 5'1" and not likely to grow any more I'd suggest a short-scale bass like davar mentioned (or a Musicmaster / Mustang, if you're willing to put the money in) but if she's taller she should be able to handle a full-sized bass.

In either situation, its really important that she gets a mentor; having a teacher that she likes will help motivate her to keep up with it.

Make sure you get a tuner. Also, I would suggest getting a distortion pedal - it's immensely satisfying to stomp on when you want to make even more noise, and it will help her and her brother sound thicker.
posted by modernserf at 6:00 AM on November 20, 2011

If she's already learning at school, can you find out what model and size of bass they use?
posted by missmagenta at 6:10 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, a nicer instrument is more likely to be played and is much easier to learn on.

I think your best option is picking up a used bass in the $225 range. The $150 brand new bass packages are junk. Buying your 13 yo a fender jazz is a little crazy in my opinion. Especially if she isn't the type to stick with stuff.
I'd get a 4 string. 5 strings tend to be heavier and have much wider string spacing.
Get the full scale bass. I've seen 7 year olds play on a full scale. You don't need big hands to play bass.

Not being able to tune a guitar is one of the poorer reasons I've heard for an instrument not being touched. Definitely buy a digital tuner. With the bass your daughter will be able to plug it directly into the tuner. If you can't figure it out go into your local music store and they'll show you how to tune it.
Even better, go in and sign your daughter up for 3 months of lessons with someone who primarily teaches bass.
posted by zephyr_words at 6:36 AM on November 20, 2011

There's no shame in getting her an electronic tuner, for the record - but I'd also suggest just going down to your local independent guitar shop and seeing what they have. The people who work there are likely musicians themselves, who generally look out for kids in this situation, and they may just have something. Let them know your budget, ask for guidance. Maybe they have items on consignment. Something gently used with a good sound that she's had a chance to try out can be great. That's what my parents did when I was that age, and the good thing about that was that it had some resale value when I quit. The entry-level department store basses and guitars just end up on Craigslist (and, do check there). I also like davar's advice about the size.
posted by peagood at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: I agree about the Squier bass guitars. They are inexpensive and reasonably well made. Fender Australia makes available complete packages including amplifier, cables, soft bag, and most importantly, a tuner. You can try BassCentre, who at least offer reasonable advice on their website.

For both the bass guitar and her acoustic, you should get some sort of electronic tuner. If you have an iPhone, there are several cheap tuner applications on the App Store; I'm sure the same applies for Android.

Tuning by ear really only works as you gather experience about what sounds "in tune". The "make it sound like this tone" techniques on a DVD don't work well for absolute beginners, in my experience.
posted by blob at 6:43 AM on November 20, 2011

nthing getting a tuner. Yes, it's a crutch, but if it's just a hobby, that's totally fine, and if she's serious serious she can use the tuner to help train her ear.

Have you considered renting an instrument? Many music shops have good deals on rental instruments, and that might make more sense price-wise, especially if you're unsure she's going to stick with it.

Also, *definitely* invest in lessons. They'll include tuning, which is something she wants to learn, and there's infinite value in learning proper technique. Plus, grinding out tunes you don't like builds character, or something :)
posted by colin_l at 6:44 AM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: I've been playing the same '60s Fender Precision for about 20 years, so I'm solidly a Fender fan, but in this case I'm going to also suggest the Squier purchase. As a matter of fact, I am considering buying this one myself - the reviews and youtube videos about it seem very positive and the price is great.
posted by blaneyphoto at 7:10 AM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: Nthing a Fender Squier. Look for a beginners package - it will probably include a practice amp, a strap, a cable and an electronic tuner.
posted by gnutron at 7:17 AM on November 20, 2011

Nthing getting an electronic tuner and lessons.

As far as the bass itself goes, I really like my Rogue VB-100. It's an inexpensive Hofner knock-off, but it plays well and has a nice tone. It's also much lighter than my Fender bass.
posted by tdismukes at 7:25 AM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: There are more than a few bass/drums duos in the world of jazz (I'm especially fond of the work of William Parker and Hamid Drake).

In rock, check out American noise band Lightning Bolt and Japanese prog-metal duo Ruins.
posted by box at 7:35 AM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: I started playing bass at 13 or 14 on a Fender Jazz Bass, which was perfect. She'll also need a small amp and a cable to plug the guitar into the amp, in order for the instrument to make any real sound. A tuner and strap would be good too. I would not at all assume a 13-year-old needs a 3/4-sized instrument. On the contrary, I would assume that a 13-year-old will be playing full-sized instruments. Otherwise she'll probably end up wanting a full-sized bass down the road (when she's 14, 15, 16...) and you'll need to buy a whole other instrument. So get a normal-sized bass unless you have other information based on her experience playing bass. We commenters are in no position to know what her experience has been like.
posted by John Cohen at 8:24 AM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: A tuner is not a crutch or uncool; that's what professionals use to make sure they're all in tune when they're doing things like recording hit albums or performing live. Granted, the pros usually have fancy professional models and/or staff to tune for them, but a basic electronic tuner is pretty essential to not sounding bad, even if one knows how to do relative tuning. So in addition to buying your daughter an instrument, you'd do very well to buy her a basic electronic tuner AND find someone who can take five minutes to show her basic relative tuning. I started playing guitar when I was 13, and had fairly crappy, embarrassing instruments to learn on, which I think kept me from playing as much as I might've otherwise, but I DID learn tuning, picking, strumming, and tablature reading basics from a local community-college class I took with my mom. I've drawn on that knowledge ever since. Long story short, I'd recommend a slightly better than baseline bass and amp (Squier's Vintage Modified series is great for guitars and would be worth looking into for bass), an electronic tuner, and at least a few group lessons of some sort or a community-college class to get her started. It's hard enough for girls to be taken seriously in rock; might as well start off by taking her desire to learn as seriously as possible, esp. given that she and her brother get along well enough to jam (pretty awesome, that).
posted by limeonaire at 8:55 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all answers so far.

A couple of things I should have mentioned... this kid is 5 foot 7 inches tall and still growing. I affectionately call her my freak giantess, so I'm definitely looking at a full-sized instrument.

We live in a small country town, with no music shops and a dire lack of opportunities to take lessons, etc. I buy pretty much everything off the 'net, but will drive to the nearest bigger town/city to buy in person from a music shop if that's the best bet.

Her acoustic guitar was a gift from someone else. I strongly suspect it came from a $2 shop. It sounds like crap because it's, I don't know how to explain it, all twangy and grating on your ears because it just sounds 'off', but perhaps it always will due to being extremely cheap and nasty.

And how on earth, with all my googling, did I not realise you can buy electronic tuners? She'll be getting one for Christmas, for sure.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 9:13 AM on November 20, 2011

You may want to consider getting a bass with a jazz neck, which is slightly narrower and easier to fit into the smaller hands of younger players.
posted by caddis at 9:13 AM on November 20, 2011

will drive to the nearest bigger town/city to buy in person from a music shop if that's the best bet.

Making an effort and involving her in the process might very well make more of an impression on her. A good shop will certainly provide some guidance. They should also be equipped to set up the bass properly. A mail-order bass that has high action (strings far away from the fretboard) or overly tight string tension will make it hard to play. Maybe someone at school (?) can do that, but a good shop will include it in the price of the instrument.

There's also a lot of advice above about "going cheap" on an instrument for a youngster. I certainly appreciate the realities of being on a budget (and how!), but there definite advantages to having a solid, good-sounding instrument when beginning. A quality instrument will hold it's setup and tuning better. It will be easier to play. It has a better shot of inspiring, "hey, I sound good!" Too, you might have an easier time reselling it if it does wind up collecting dust in a few years.
posted by GPF at 9:53 AM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: MalibuStacy9999, from your comments, definitely consider BassCentre.
posted by blob at 10:20 AM on November 20, 2011

I'm 5'2" and got my bass guitar about that age, and I went right to a Fender P-Bass. No small-scale or anything.

They hold pretty decent resale value, but I've had mine 20 years and still play. :)

It's worth it to start to develop a relationship with a music shop and make periodic pilgrimages, even if just to get a pretty new strap or whatever. Makes you feel like you're on the inside.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:44 AM on November 20, 2011

I've been playing a Fernandes starter bass for years. I paid about $200 new in probably 1998. It's been really good for a cheap guitar.
posted by humboldt32 at 12:09 PM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: She definitely needs a bass, a tuner, a strap, a cable and an amp to be a self-sufficient beginner bass player.

The ideal way to choose a bass would be to go to a music store with her, and have her play a bunch of basses and pick the one she likes, but be warned, she may have very expensive taste in bass guitars! If you're just going to buy a bass off the internet, I would keep it simple for now. The Fender Squire P-Bass mentioned several times upthread is a safe bet. I personally own an "Affinity" Series P-Bass and I think they are a step up from the Bullet Bass linked at the beginning of the thread (at least mine is a step up, one of the trickiest parts of buying a cheaper instrument is the extreme variability in quality from one instrument to the next, which is why playing an instrument in person is such a good idea). My P-Bass has a great tone and is versatile, i.e. it will sound good across many styles of music. Also keep in mind that, like many young musicians, she may have an opinion on what her bass should "look" like as much as how it should "sound", and you might want to check with her about that aspect of the instrument.

There are a lot of tuners out there but again you can keep it simple for now. I like this guy a lot for the simplicity of tuning, it clips right onto the neck, no cords required. The one I linked to has a mic on it so you can tune the acoustic guitar with it as well.

If you take her to the music store she could also pick out her own strap, but for now any old thing will do. You can get a really nice straps (leather, padded) if you start spending a lot of time with the instrument over your shoulder. But you'll want something to help you hold it at first, especially if you're playing with other people.

Speaking of playing with people, if she's going to play with her brother on the drums, she'll need a practice amp that is loud enough to be heard over the drum kit. Many starter packages will include the tiniest little practice amps that make barely a sound, and can actually be kind of deflating to play. If you want her to be excited about how she sounds, and you want her to hit the ground running as a bass player who can jam with other people, she'll need a decent practice amp, comparable in size and price to the bass guitar itself. Something like this would be the smallest I would consider going, and if it's in your budget, that particular amp has several "big brother" models worth looking into (along with many helpful features like headphone out for quiet practice).
posted by grog at 12:12 PM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: Actually, that link to BassCentre that blob posted has a starter pack is on the right track. I'd be worried the practice amp is a little too small (ok to practice with but not loud enough to play with), and $499 doesn't seem like the best deal based on pricing these things out individually, but their package did remind me that a simple soft case for the instrument is probably a good idea, and maybe even a stand to keep the instrument in when not being played.
posted by grog at 12:17 PM on November 20, 2011

I have an Epiphone Thunderbird that I love. The only thing is that it's kind of massive.
posted by 4ster at 12:53 PM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: So what music can I turn them on to which is just bass guitar and drums, and possibly vocals?

That's not a particularly common lineup. Check out King & Moore for a jazz bass/vocal duo, and Sadhappy for a bass/drums "power duo" in a kind of prog/jazz/grunge vein. The best thing I can think of for encouraging a young bassist, though, is not necessarily to find music with only bass and drums, but to find music where the bassist is the composer or frontman. Or just music with amazing bassists. My personal pantheon includes (in no particular order): Ray Brown, Laura Love, Les Claypool, Tony Levin, Victor Wooten, Brian Bromberg, Esperanza Spalding, Jaco Pastorius, Charles Mingus, Michael Manring, Rhonda Smith... and a bunch more I'm forgetting, but that's a good start.
posted by hades at 1:29 PM on November 20, 2011

As far as tuners go, if she's got an iPhone I highly recommend the Cleartune app. Its all I use these days and it works really, really well. And its just a few bucks.
posted by blaneyphoto at 1:35 PM on November 20, 2011

find music where the bassist is the composer or frontman. ... My personal pantheon includes (in no particular order): Ray Brown, Laura Love, Les Claypool, Tony Levin, Victor Wooten, Brian Bromberg, Esperanza Spalding, Jaco Pastorius, Charles Mingus, Michael Manring, Rhonda Smith... and a bunch more I'm forgetting

The Beatles. The Police.

And googling tells me that a bass guitar with drums sounds ‘empty’, that a lead guitar rounds out the sound. I can understand that. So what music can I turn them on to which is just bass guitar and drums, and possibly vocals?

I don't understand that train of thought: why you would want to find music that's just bass and drums (and vocals), no that you know this combination sounds "empty"? You need some other instrument to fill out the sound. The goal of a bassist in learning the instrument isn't to create a full sound alone. The reason learning bass is a good idea is because lots of bands need a bass player.
posted by John Cohen at 4:29 PM on November 20, 2011

(now that you know...)
posted by John Cohen at 4:29 PM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: nth'ing get a squier. If you can swing it, the vintage modified and classic vibe series are actually legit instruments, particularly if you have a luthier look at it at some point and give it a tune up. Jazz bass is probably cooler than a precision, but either will be totally fine.
posted by yeoldefortran at 6:27 PM on November 20, 2011

The goal of a bassist in learning the instrument isn't to create a full sound alone.

It certainly could be. I mean, it's certainly true that lots of bands (and orchestras) need bassists, but that's a pretty limiting perspective. It doesn't really describe this, this, this or this, for example.
posted by hades at 1:02 AM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

For the acoustic: have her watch youtube videos about setting the intonation, and other luthier skills. Harder to do with an acoustic, but it will teach her a lot about how the instrument works. The neck might be out of alignment (bowed in or out) and causing the strings to buzz. Or the frets might be uneven. Or worse, according to my uncle, some of the cheaper guitars actually don't even have the frets spaced correctly.

Reading and watching internet content about setting up a guitar got me interested in learning to play after someone gave me a guitar. I still can't play anything, but that damn thing is set up perfectly.

For the bass: they make guitars in the $100 range for beginners. I *think* I've seen bass guitars at Target. If you set her up with one of those and buy her a variety of strings in different types, she can probably find a combination that sounds a little fuller. Maybe a cheap effects machine, too.

Tuning: there is a computer program called APTuner. It is really cool because you can see an oscilloscope-like graph of the different octaves of each string. And it is free. All you have to do is figure out how to connect it. But I've seen guitar cable to usb connectors in the $25 range.
posted by gjc at 6:33 AM on November 21, 2011

Response by poster: The Jazz Bass Combo, second from the top on this page, was a huge hit on Christmas Day, and she's barely put the bass down since.

The amp is loud enough to satisfy her practice needs, but quiet enough that she doesn't blow the windows out. Haven't tried it in combination with her brother on drums yet, but he has those deadening practice pads so shouldn't drown her out while they're jamming.

The tuner also works on her acoustic guitar, it actually sounds pretty good now, so she's been playing that as well.

Following some of your leads and advice led her to google stuff like tabs - whatever the hell they are - and she sounds pretty damned good already because she's had the school class as a base (see what I did there?), and then a couple of weeks of school holidays to google and learn all day.

I promise I'll invite y'all to her first public performance.


Proud mother of budding rock chick.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 12:51 AM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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