Today we’ll learn more about the acoustic bass guitar and if it’s worth it to own one.
In modern times, many different models are available in the market – from upright basses to ukulele basses, the variety is more comprehensive than ever and serves the purpose of fitting any kind of musical genre, depending on its construction.
In addition, there are almost infinite electric options, with variations in scale radius, pickups, and much more. One curious alternative is the acoustic bass, which resembles an acoustic guitar but has an electric bass’ main features, like having four strings and a longer scale length.
The acoustic bass guitar came along about the same time as the electric, sometime in the mid-1950s. The immediate resemble of its cousin, the acoustic guitar, was always evident, and manufacturers wanted this similarity to exist as it could be easier to sell pairs of such instruments.
Other than that, many manufacturers were starting to develop their own identity, which could be pushed into new models.
However, if louder volumes are required in your presentation, this instrument might not be a good choice. This is due to the acoustic bass being completely hollow, which may cause you trouble when playing alongside an electric guitar or drums.
Although it can be significantly smaller in weight than its electric relative, which can be an excellent choice for traveling musicians, the less amount of gear to be carried around with it is substantial and can be imperative in dictating a fluid songwriting session or even playing a street gig, without leaving the best aspects about bass playing behind.
You can also expect your acoustic performances to be leveled up by adding the sweet lower frequencies of a bass guitar.
If you’re thinking about buying an acoustic bass or just want to learn more, below you will find some questions that will introduce you to this beautiful instrument and, most importantly, tell you if it’s an excellent choice or not.
Are acoustic bass guitars worth it?
You can undoubtedly say that acoustic bass guitars are worth it. These instruments can bear a remarkable resemblance to their electric counterparts, and the final tone is just as good. Furthermore, you can expect to play the same bass lines with the same comfort and techniques applied in the electric version.
The bonus part is that you can take this instrument wherever you go: the lightweight characteristic of its construction can make it a perfect ally for road trips and songwriting sessions, thus not requiring extensive gear and heavy amplifiers.
Furthermore, the acoustic bass follows the same guidelines as the electric bass regarding playability. They both feature four strings, usually tuned E, A, D, and G from low to high, and can present the same number of frets (sometimes it can be reduced, though).
The wood materials can share some similarities, although manufacturers may want to choose different types to enhance certain aspects of this acoustic instrument.
What’s the difference between acoustic and electric bass guitars?
The difference between acoustic and electric bass guitars is that one is focused on acoustic performances, while the other can be useful in more situations. Essentially, one is completely hollow and 100% acoustic, and the other depends on pickups and electronic wiring to be heard.
You can argue that the main difference between both instruments lies in their construction. Of course, one resembles an acoustic guitar and the other an electric guitar. And you’re right, they’re constructed very differently.
While the electric bass counts with the magnetic pickups to capture the string’s sounds, the acoustic relies simply on the string’s vibrations throughout its body to produce sound.
The acoustic bass sounds very uniquely for depending solely on acoustics to sound. The tone is very mellow and deep, with a pure sonority that the magnetic pickups may alter if included in the equation. Every note you play will fully resonate through the neck, body, and bridge, ringing clearly via the soundhole.
Below is a video clip where the player does an acoustic bass solo. Pay attention to hear what this instrument sounds like if compared to an electric one.
Does the acoustic bass guitar require an amplifier?
No, the acoustic bass guitar does not require an amplifier to be heard. However, even so, manufacturers include a magnetic or piezo pickup option so you can plug your acoustic bass in an amplifier, if necessary. A preamplifier may also be included, with additional settings to tweak your amplified tone.
As explored in the previous question, the acoustic bass relies on its reverberation to produce the notes instead of counting with a pickup inserted into electronic wiring inside the instrument. So, mostly, you’ll get a perfect bass sound by playing it unplugged, as long as other musicians playing with you don’t use louder instruments.
Because of its lighter weight and sometimes smaller size, the acoustic bass is ideal for traveling with or studying at home. In addition, the significantly lesser weight may invite you to play it more often, as inviting as an acoustic guitar might be.
You can be inspired to play it more quickly than a piano, for instance, as it can produce sounds instantly and doesn’t even need a power button.
Even so, you may find yourself in a situation where an amplifier is required, whether of volume issues or simply to send your sound straight into a PA system. For this situation, most companies also offer an option with a preamp included, where you can quickly set the most important parameters of your sound, or even a piezo pickup – a small pickup inserted on the instrument’s bridge that can be plugged into an external preamp.
These add-ons will not change the instrument’s tone very much but can be useful tools when playing live or recording in a studio.
Is the acoustic bass more versatile than the electric bass?
No, the acoustic bass is not as versatile as the electric bass because the latter can blend more easily with other instruments, especially due to the configuration of a pickup set connected to an amplifier. Although the acoustic bass can be more practical to play, the electric deals better with more styles.
Many genres in modern music feature a bass guitar. You can think of pop, blues, metal, RnB, world music… They all can include an electric bass in their songs. The acoustic bass can handle any music style, but the same cannot be said about other instruments in the same band.
For example, the acoustic bass may sound lower than a drumkit due to its size and volume capacity, thus not being wholly heard.
We’ve seen that this can be fixed by installing a preamp or pickup in the instrument, but another problem that may surface is feedback – when an instrument picks up its own sound coming from an amplifier and sends it back to it, generating a high-pitched noise.
When playing in louder volumes, a hollow instrument such as an acoustic bass can easily emit this unpleasant noise, so it may never be possible to use it with bands that require a louder sound.
The solid body and the overall wiring system in an electric bass prevent feedback from happening so frequently, thus making it perfect for playing in higher and lower volumes.
This provides considerable versatility if compared to its acoustic counterpart, but that doesn’t mean the instrument itself cannot handle the same styles played by the electric – just play these songs with acoustic guitars and small percussive instruments, and you’ll be good to go.
Does the acoustic bass use the same set of strings as the electric bass?
Although there are specific strings for acoustic bass guitar, there’s no problem using an electric bass string set in it. You cannot do the other way around because acoustic bass strings lack the ferrous material required to be picked by the magnetic pickups, so it’s okay to use an electric set of strings.
Pickups literally pick up the vibrations of each string via individual magnets. You can adjust the height of each pickup and even switch it to other specific models so that your tone satisfies you, but you must always use electric string sets. This is because they contain the required materials to ring clearly through an amplifier; even so, different types are available.
Acoustic guitar strings, on the other hand, depend solely on acoustics to ring the notes. The body, which is usually bigger than an electric’s, allied with the soundhole can reverberate the notes you play and can be heard without the help of external tools or devices. Again, you can plug them up if you want, but it doesn’t work the same way as in electric bass.
As the ferrous materials are not required to be present, acoustic bass string sets can vary in opacity, construction, and materials. The ukulele bass, for example, features unique rubber strings that sound perfectly with its smaller body size.
Round wound strings, which are smoother than regular bass strings, can also significantly change your tone, sometimes chosen by jazz and fretless players for a more delicate approach.
How is the acoustic bass constructed?
Similar to acoustic guitars, acoustic bass guitars are built in a way that enhances every note you play acoustically. In order to achieve that, it features a significantly larger body with a soundhole, aside from a careful selection of woods that may interfere with the final sound.
The larger body is built for a better sound resonating throughout the entire instrument, being projected via a soundhole usually in the center part of the bass guitar.
The size sure helps with this acoustic quality, but the woods are also very important: the back and sides usually feature a different wood type than the top, with typical choices such as mahogany, rosewood, or koa.
As the top is where the bridge is glued on, it’s one of the most important superficies to ensure every note resonates as it should. The wood choices usually go spruce, cedar, and maple, which are lighter woods in weight and coloration. There’s no “right” or “wrong” wood type, but each can feature a subtle difference in the note’s quality.
The necks contained in acoustic bass guitars are somewhat similar to electrics, usually being made of rosewood, maple, or mahogany and displaying similar shapes – “Cs,” “Us,” “Vs,” etc. The fretboard can be of maple, rosewood, or ebony, and the number of frets can vary, just like in any electric bass.
The tuners and the truss rod system are usually the same as well, as these elements don’t impact so much on the acoustic performance of the instrument.
Is the acoustic bass more fragile than the electric?
Yes, the acoustic bass is more fragile than the electric. Although both are made from similar wood types, the acoustic bass’ construction is more delicate and relies on a hollow configuration that can be more fragile than a solid body’s.
It’s known that acoustic guitars are more fragile than electrics, as any accident can be fatal on the former instrument. The same applies to their bass equivalents, as the overall hollow body construction means that there’s nothing inside an acoustic (maybe a couple of picks and the wiring for a preamp), allowing for more severe damage to potentially occur.
Electric bass guitars can also be damaged, but their solid bodies usually withstand more hits and accidental bumps. As a result, it’s fairly common to see vintage bass guitars with chips and marks all over the body, giving an aura of experience and a fully-lived life to the instrument.
Customizations like relic jobs on the painting are common and try to mimic this effect, and they can be present in an acoustic, too – see Willie Nelson’s Trigger.
The bass guitar has been in our favorite music styles since the upright bass was around. Even before that, we had bass lines going on, so it’s okay to say that these instruments are culturally significant to our music in general. Other than genre variations, the different bass models available are enormous, with subtle and drastic variations in the materials used, shapes, and even sizes. If there’s a stringed instrument, it’s almost certain it also has a bass variant.
The acoustic bass guitar is a close relative to an acoustic guitar, as both depend on the sound reverberating through their bodies to generate sound, and they usually go along very well.
They are consistent in volume, tone, and playability and can be ideal partners for a songwriting session on a distant retreat or the ideal entertainment for an extended trip with friends. If a preamp is added to them, you can even plug them into a PA system and present an acoustic gig without any problems.
They are also very convincing to be used at home, especially for practicing and studying. You don’t need big amps or ridiculous volumes to hear what you play, which can be helpful for constant musical reliability. There are also options with shorter scale lengths and smaller body sizes that can be even more inviting and practical to use daily.
The best way to better comprehend this beautiful instrument is to try one out, so I’d strongly recommend you visit a musical store nearby to try one with your own hands. The impressions may vary and be distant from what you’ve read here, so this is why it’s important to see if this is what you want or need.
See you next time!
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Eduardo Cardoso is a musician and audio producer based in São Paulo, Brazil. He studied both music production and theory in college and has successfully launched his career as a solo artist in 2021. With over 10 years of experience with the music business, he currently acts as a session musician, music producer, audio editor, and content creator. Read more..