HISTORY: The beginnings of the instrument can be found in the mid-1930's in some jazz arenas, however, it wasn't until Leo Fender introduced the “Fender Bass” 1951 that the instrument began to be seriously recognized. The instrument was appealing to the jazz musician and quickly appeared in rock n' roll, country groups, and eventually in the new emerging Motown sound. Monk Montgomery (bassist for jazz great Lionel Hampton), was one of the pioneers of the instrument and mixed performance techniques of the double bass with new techniques that the new instrument allowed. Monk often plucked the strings with his right hand thumb, playing all downstrokes.
Today, the bass guitar is the primary bass instrument in most of the ensembles of popular Western culture and provided a wide range of sounds that have gone far beyond anything that the double bass was capable of producing. This instrument has also found its way into other, more classically oriented ensembles as well as non-Western ensembles.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: The bass guitar is a solid body instrument visually similar to the electric guitar with four strings just like the double bass. It has a long neck like a guitar and typically fretted. There are fretless models that are more difficult to play, but in the hands of professionals, can add more range to the sound palette of the instrument. The four strings are held in place with the tailpiece at one end of the instrument and by the tuning pegs at the end of the neck. The tuning pegs are mechanical screws. An electrical pickup is positioned under the strings near the bridge and turns the vibrations of the strings into electrical impulses that are sent to an amplifier. A 1/4" phono plug in the body of the instrument is used to connect to the amplifier.
The bass guitar requires an amplifier to amplify the frequencies of the vibrating strings that are sensed by the pickup. The amplifier takes these signals and processes them into louder and often altered sounds that are then sent to a speaker so they can be heard. The amplifier and sound processors in the amplifier are what provides the range of sounds that make the bass guitar such a versatile instrument.
There have been variations of the bass guitar that have taken on more of the attributes of the double bass and know as the upright electric bass. This instrument looks like a cross between a small double bass and a large bass guitar standing on its end. It provides the sound palette of the bass guitar with more of the double bass feel so it is easier to play either instrument. Other less-common variations on the bass guitar include hollow body models, 5-string and 6-string models.
SOUND PROPERTIES: One of the gest challenges of amplifying a double bass was the fact that the hollow body allowed for a great deal of resonance (producing sound colors and volume). It is difficult to separate the vibrations from the strings and from the resonator, so both sets of vibrations are sensed and amplified. This can often produce a jumbled sound. A solid body has more mass and less vibration, so the pickup reproduces a signal from the pure tone of the vibration of the strings alone. Since there is no acoustic resonator , the instrument's sounds are largely determined by the electronic amplifier and sound processors that it is connected to.
The sounds range from a "pure" amplification of the bass strings (that can provide a sound similar to a double bass) to the distorted electronic sounds found in some heavy metal or rock music. The sounds of the bass guitar can also be altered by the techniques of attacking the notes (striking, plucking or slapping the strings). Typically, the strings are plucked with the finger, but some prefer to use a pick.
RANGE: The bass guitar has the same range as the double bass. The lowest note is E (written E below the bass clef staff and sounds an octave lower). The four strings (E A D G) are one octave lower than the lowest four strings of a normal guitar. The bass guitar music in jazz often employs basic chord symbols that provide a guide for the performer. Specific notes and rhythm patterns are left to the discretion of the individual performer.
Harmonics on the bass guitar can extend the high range of the instrument and are the same as the double bass. The bass guitar (as in most stringed instruments) is capable of double stops, or sounding two strings simultaneously.
The 5-string bass guitar adds a low B string (B1 - a fifth lower than the low E string) and the 6-string bass guitar adds a higher C string (c1 - a fourth higher than the highest normal string) in addition to the low B string.