Bass ambition
January 30, 2008 4:58 AM   Subscribe

MidlifeCrisisFilter: my old itch to play the electric bass has resurfaced. Please help this middle-aged lady make a fool of herself.

I love a good bass line, I often listen to the bass more than any other "voice", and I'm not getting any younger so I want to try my hand at playing the electric bass. But I'm not sure how to get started. There's some good information in several AskMe threads (1 2 3 ) but I still have a few questions:

1. What's a good bass for someone with small hands? (Thumb to 5th finger tip to tip = 20 cm/8 inches). I'd like to get a decent used bass and amp for about $300 - $500, something that has some re-sale value if it turns out I suck at playing the bass.

2. 4 strings or 5?

3. Can headphones be used with any combination of bass and amp, or am I limited to certain models? I need headphones for the sake of my neighbors; the walls are thin and the wooden floor is a great sounding board so I need to practice in total silence.

4. Being a basically antisocial geek, I'd prefer to teach myself from a book, DVD or website. Can you suggest some good resources for the bass autodidact?

5. But I accept that sometimes one needs another human being to really teach something properly. Can you recommend a bass teacher in San Francisco who'd be OK with maybe one lesson a month on weekends only? East Bay would be OK if they're within a few blocks of a BART station.

6. Anything else?

Miscellaneous background info: about 15 years ago I doodled around on a borrowed acoustic guitar (self-taught, never got very far with it for unrelated reasons); I'm 47 with minor wrist problems; used to play piano and harpsichord; all formal experience with music was classical and I definitely have middle-aged-lady taste in rock/jazz/swing. Too old to rock and roll, too young to die?

Thanks in advance, hive mind!
posted by Quietgal to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
1. A short-scale bass. I play one, and my hands are pretty dang big. There's lots to choose from. Ask in the shop. A lot of small people play full-scale basses, though; Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club) plays full-scale AFAIK, and she's tiny. It just means you have to move your whole hand around, rather than stretching your fingers.
2. Four.
3. Any amp that doesn't have a headphone jack is a worthless piece of junk.
4. Just dink around a bit. That's how I learned. Look what other players are doing, and imitate.
5. ?
6. Playing with a pick is NOT cheating.

The wrist thing might be a hindrance, but then again, it could also end up helping your wrist. Talk to your doctor.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:30 AM on January 30, 2008

4. Youtube has become a fantastic resource for watching players of all skill levels play. Just do a search for "beginner bass lesson" and take your pick.
posted by davey_darling at 5:38 AM on January 30, 2008

1. I don't think anyone needs a short-scale, but they are available if you want one. I really really like Rondo Music's stuff, if you're cool looking online.

2. I like four. Four's enough. If you really want, you can string it BEAD and have almost exactly the same range. I also don't know if anyone makes a short-scale fiver. And if they did, I wouldn't wanna hear it. Honestly, I have a weird thing about odd numbers of strings.

3. You'll need an amp with a headphone jack, or a dedicated headphone amp.

4. Youtube? Or just google for some bass tab. Real musicians will make fun of you, but it's way more fun to play songs than learn positions and fingering and such.

5. ...

6. Keep your wrists as straight and relaxed as possible. Stop when it hurts. is fantastic.
posted by Plug Dub In at 6:05 AM on January 30, 2008

Decent quality starter basses here that are still very inexpensive. If you bail on the bass in 6 months or a year, you will get at least half back on Craigslist with no problem.

Four strings, for starters.

Pick and fingers (not at the same time, doh!)'ll probably flip back and forth, song to song.

Jack in your iPod as an input, with headphones along to your hearts content with no neighbor troubles.
posted by Exchequer at 6:10 AM on January 30, 2008

Agreeing with:
- Four strings
- Get an amp with a headphone jack
- You can definitely teach yourself if you're motivated and if you learn well on your own.

I've bought a few instruments off Craigslist, and I recommend it. You also might want to go to a store to learn what to look for.

I also came from a classical piano background, and it feels kind of like learning a new language: familiar, but also strange. I picked up the bass when some friends wanted to start a band, and the learning curve has been far more forgiving than the guitar. You're not too old to rock and roll!
posted by bassjump at 6:19 AM on January 30, 2008

Bunny Bass used to be an excellent bass community and very beginner friendly. They had a great page for beginning female bassists (he real site seems to be down or gone, the link is the Google cache).

Carol Kaye has the excellent educational materials and a great pedigree in classic 1960s bass. Be aware that her personality is a bit of an acquired taste (in case you venture on to her forums) but her site and her career is a wealth of information and inspiration. It's somehow very, very cool to see a woman in her 70s play hot jazz solos on the electric bass.
posted by quarterframer at 6:35 AM on January 30, 2008

Oh, and some rules of thumb to consider when with musical instrument shopping:

1) Go shopping with a friend who knows how to play the instrument.

2) Go to several music stores (not websites) in person, preferably during off hours (during the day on weekdays). The internet is cool, but an instrument is a very personal thing, and generally the internet is not the best first place to go shopping for a musical instrument.

3) Try out a bunch of different instruments to see how they feel in your hands, sound, and look. Try used instruments and new. You may be a beginner, but just use your senses and hold it and pluck the strings and listen (and have your friend check it out too).

4 Don't "settle" or get anything that doesn't grab you (because if you don't really like it, you probably wont want to keep picking it up to learn it).

Other than that, scale length and number of strings are more afterthoughts/personal preferences. Some long scales necks may be comfortable for you while others are not, etc.

Have fun!
posted by quarterframer at 6:49 AM on January 30, 2008

1) Get a full scale bass. That's my advice. If you need to, you can double up your third and 4th fingers and play it the way upright players you won't have to stretch. But short scale basses are probably not going to sound as good, there are fewer of them, and you will have much less selection. A good teacher can show you how to use your hands most efficiently.

2) 4. Definitely 4. Particularly if you are worried about your hands. Listen to Jaco Pastorious and James Jamerson for a while and then wonder why you need another string.

3) Why don't you just get a headphone amp?


5) The reason to get a teacher is because they can save you years of going down the wrong path. Believe me. I speak from experience. Get a good one, and expect to pay a bit for it. If you don't like the teacher, try someone else. It's a relationship. Probably like therapy. I wouldn't know. Do a lot of research, find someone who likes the kind of music you like. And maybe who has a lot of students and has taught for a while.

6) Have fun. I don't know...I say go at it with gusto. Maybe take a lesson every 2 weeks if you can, at least initially. Be mindful of your wrists...maybe research some stretching exercises, but don't overdo it.

Good luck!
posted by sully75 at 6:55 AM on January 30, 2008

On the pick-or-fingers thing, you will probably find that you will want to use one or the other depending on what it is you're playing and the sound you want. When I play stuff like Slayer, Metallica or Anthrax it's almost always with a pick. When I'm playing Casting Crowns, Sting, or Pink Floyd, it's usually with my fingers.

I agree that you should try out as many instruments as possible in stores until you find one that you connect with. Bringing an experienced player with you is also a good idea if they can look past their prejudices (e.g. "All [insert brand here] guitars are junk") and focus on helping -you- find the instrument -you- want.

Lessons are a good idea, but if you are not willing to consider it - consider buying the tablature books for songs or artists that you like. It's an easy way to get up and playing and it helps to build confidence quickly. It's not a substitute for knowing the notes and the music theory behind the instrument, mind you.

Most importantly: Have fun.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:09 AM on January 30, 2008

Everybody before has given really good advice. I just want to stress this point:

You are never too old to rock & roll.
posted by chillmost at 7:21 AM on January 30, 2008

1) If you're wanting a small bass that still has a great sound and is very affordable, check out the Rogue VB100 violin bass. I love mine. Since I got this for Christmas a few years back I haven't even touched my Fender Precision Bass.

2) 4 strings

3) Most decent amps will include a headphone jack.

4) There are a ton of good instructional books out there which include play-along CDs. But ...

5) I'd still recommend a teacher, at least in the beginning.
posted by tdismukes at 7:33 AM on January 30, 2008

Hi. I play bass in a local gigging band as a second job. Everyone here is giving really good advice, in my opinion so I won't add anything to the 4 vs. 5 string, headphone jack, etc. Scales will vary on instruments, but I personally - unless you have really tiny hands - wouldn't buy anything that is specifically marketed as a "short scale" instrument.

Yes, Craigslist. It is littered with teenagers that are selling their parent-purchased guitars for weed money. Definitely go to Guitar Center or local music shops and get some ideas of what you like, then find and buy what you like for 1/2 to 1/3 that price on Craigslist. Bring someone who knows what they're doing when you buy the Craigslist stuff so you don't get stuck with crap.

Seriously, $300-$500 for brand new guitar and an amp is going to get you some equipment that you are going to want to ditch very soon if you actually like playing. When you ditch it, expect to get about $100-$250 back for it if you can actually sell it.

The same amount on Craigslist will get you stuff that you probably won't want to sell as soon, and will retain a much higher percentage of what you paid.

I've never met an amateur musician who didn't agree with this in the broad sense. Buy good condition used equipment.
posted by uaudio at 7:56 AM on January 30, 2008

One more thing: after people tell me they want to learn on their own before they get a teacher (which drives me crazy) they tell me they will just get a crappy instrument to see if they like it (that drives me crazier).

So I would say, if you really want to do this, try to scrimp and save as much dough as you can for a decent instrument. It doesn't have to be a $1000 bass, but something that is a quality instrument, set up well, that you can have a relationship with. If you go to the guitar store and get the thing that has a cheap guitar and a cheap amp in a box, you are not going to be happy in the long run.

Or maybe you will. But my guess is you will be happier in the long run if you buy something decent from the get-go. You can always sel it. Uaaudio has it right. Your money may be better spent on something used. The only thing is that it's hard sometime to evaluate on your own. That's another good part of having a teacher. If you could pay someone to go to the store with you as your first lesson, you'd be doing a really smart thing.
posted by sully75 at 8:43 AM on January 30, 2008

Strongly recommend you find friends to jam with; with a little practice, you will be able to contribute to an informal sit down in about 2 months, especially with your background. The Bass is a lonely instrument by itself; playing with friends (or at least records) makes it a lot more fun.

Good luck, and welcome to the club!
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:51 AM on January 30, 2008

Thanks for all the good advice so far. I'm definitely planning to get good quality used equipment and have been keeping an eye on Craigslist but the variety of basses for sale is a bit bewildering to a n00b.

Anybody in the Bay Area willing to hold my hand at a guitar store? I'll buy you lunch, or dinner, or a beer, or something. and I promise not to inflict my playing on you!
posted by Quietgal at 9:30 AM on January 30, 2008

Long time bass player here, FWIW. I've been playing more than a decade and have been in and out of bands for years and years.

1) Standard scale is 34". I've got small hands and started on a short-scale 32" model and it was an easy bass to play, but I do just fine on 34"s, and that's what all my current basses are. If you can find in that price range a used Fender American Standard P-Bass (Precision) or Jazz Bass you can't go wrong.

2) Everyone says four but I play five most often. Unfortunately, Fender doesn't make great five strings. Well, the Roscoe Beck model was awesome but it's been discontinued (the five string version). So don't go Fender if you want five; the Roscoe five commands a pretty high price, at least on eBay ($1000+). But I do like the added range and miss it on a four, though that's driven to some degree by the fact that some of my music is written on a guitar tuned down a step. I don't find a five more difficult to play. My toughest bass is a twelve string but that's a completely different animal.

3) Most starting/practice amps have headphone outs. The only practice amp to get, IMO, is the Peavey Microbass. But it's also discontinued, which really sucks because it was the perfect practice amp. I'll never sell mine. You want the one that looks like this or this (eBay). The Buy it Now on that auction is $45 and I'd hop on that if I were you, ASAP.

4&5) I took lessons for about a year when I started and I think it's generally a good idea. Sometimes self-taught people will have bad habits that are really hard to unlearn so a teacher is good to have. If I were in the Bay Area I'd show you the ropes and go to a store but I'm pretty far from there!

6) Have fun! Bass is a great instrument.

If you've ever got questions don't hesitate to email or MeMail.
posted by 6550 at 10:06 AM on January 30, 2008

And my link to the auction is already dead. Sorry about that.
posted by 6550 at 10:08 AM on January 30, 2008

As my name should tell you, this is a subject I have an interest in.

As for which bass to buy, I'd recommend the one I have: a Fender J. Its a classic style, easy to hold, great tone and a very reputable brand. Plus: if you say you're listening to the bass line in a song over the other tracks, the J over the P will put your sound out in front a little bit. You can get a starter one for under $200 and a "real one" for about $300. I actually managed to get a non-squire for under $200 at one of Guitar Center's super kickass sale days. But no matter what, you've got to go try it out in person. And who knows? You'll probably be able to find a really decent bass used at a local shop and they love to make deals. My first amp was a used ampeg that I still have and use and unless I really crank it up, it still has a nice, rich tone. And quarterframer is right: if you can bring someone with you that knows a thing or two they staff isn't going to be like "oh you're beginning! Let me show you the section for rubes".

As for "how many strings"? A five-string has three too many, and a four string really has two too many. So stick with the four-string, lest ye be judged by your fellow bassists.

Headphones? Click on some of these. The Bass Ace is pretty awesome, but realistically there's not that big a difference between the cheap ones and the midrange ones, so just find one with a name you like and a normal design (I don't dig the round-y ones). You can, of course, just plug the headphones into whatever bass you get but I like the freedom of the self contained dealy.

Learning? I have to agree: just messing around at first will be the best benefit (and it's free!) and you'll learn things intuitively that will come easy if you do decide to take lessons. Davey Darling has it right: there's a ton of free stuff out there on the 'tubes ("you" or otherwise) but I always think you get what you pay for. A real live in-person lesson can't be beat, but I wouldn't do that until I was comfortable enough with some basic stuff. And the best thing you can do, no matter what your skill level is PRACTICE YOUR SCALES. I still do it. Still don't like it, but it's the most helpful thing you can do, bar none.

I personally never use a pick, but I think that's just preference. Maybe if I was playing some Slayer or something I would, but I mostly stick to things that are "groovy" if you dig what I'm saying. My personal problem is trying to put "stank" on everything, when many things require little to no stank. What can I say? I love it!

So... yeah, sorry for writing war and peace down here but I just wanted to pass on a few things because I get excited when spreading the Gospel of Bass. Feel free to e-mail with any questions you might have. I'm on the opposite coast so I can't be real-life help, but I can offer advice at the speed of the internet and that's something.

Good Luck! And don't get discouraged; keep at it and you'll be rocking sooner rather than later!
posted by indiebass at 10:13 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm 37 and (with a bit of MeTa advice thrown in), starting to rock out, very badly, on bass guitar. So go for it!

I'm saving everyone's sanity by using one of these, which are ace. I plug my Mac into the aux input so I can practice along to drum loops in GarageBand.

But on it's own, it's still a really, really, great headphone amp. And very cheap, so you can throw more money at a decent, playable bass.
posted by dowcrag at 12:37 PM on January 30, 2008

Yay for middle-aged bass playin' chicks! I am 45 and I still haul out my Fender on occasion. Only to be reminded of how much I suck at it - but it sure is fun.

Anyway, my sense of rhythm improved quite a bit when I started practicing with a metronome. I don't know if that's what the cool kids do, but sure helped me.

I'm assuming you took piano lessons way back when, yes? Do remember practicing your hand positions over and over and over, before you were allowed to play scales and whatnot? It's just as important to learn proper hand and wrist positions on the bass - and in fact may be more important for you with a history of wrist problems. (And face it - sometimes we lose flexibility as we age - it's happening to me.) Anyway, my point is it might help you to take a few beginner lessons with someone experienced at teaching beginners, just so you can physically get yourself in the right place for proceeding with the rock-out-itude.

Rock on, my sister.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:51 PM on January 30, 2008

Thanks, everyone, for the good advice and inspiration! I'll probably be MeFiMailing a few of you in days to come, so thanks for your kind offers of help.

Rock on, my sister.
SuperSquirrel, that brings a tear to my eye.

posted by Quietgal at 10:07 AM on January 31, 2008

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