Something that always comes up when a student is buying a bass - often when upgrading their first bass is the active vs. passive question. As ever - its one of those really tricky things, and again as ever, there isn't a definitive answer - one isnt better than then other, but, they are different, and ultimately do the job for different types of music.
The difference is the electronics. Simply, on a passive bass, the control knobs cut sounds/frequencies going to your amp... whereas with an active bass you can boost or cut frequencies. The advantage of this is it opens up far more tonal flexibility and possibilities - but as with all choice, whilst it can make you sound brilliant, it can also make you sound less good! The ability to boost sounds is achieved by the inclusion of (normally) a 9v battery in the bass - which will run out and need replacing every now and then; every bassist who uses an active bass will have had a battery go at some point. When you insert your jack lead into the bass, it completes the electronic circuit, and 'activates' the battery - leave your lead plugged in when not playing, and it will continue to drain the battery.
Passive basses are where it all started - and where all that was available 'off the shelf' (the exception being custom basses such as Alembic) until the late 70's and more predominantly the 80's. Around this time, as well as Active electronics being very common in new 'Eastern' Basses from companies like Ibanez and Yamaha, Leo Fender's new instruments from Music Man where his first movement into active instruments, and his effort to move away from the more traditional Fender's. Now, you can buy both - you can still buy very traditional passive basses that haven't developed much from the 50's, and you can buy basses with very advanced electronics. You can also retro fit active electronics to a passive bass should you choose too.
What should you buy? Its a tricky question, and one where you need to start really thinking about the type of music(s) you play, and the tones you want to achieve. I think the first thing I would say, is that unless you are going to spend at least £300, I wouldn't consider an active bass. Below this, the preamps sound thin, scratchy, and generally not nice... around the £300 price point, Ibanez, Yamaha and various other brands, produce some great sounding, versatile, active instruments.
Breaking it down into 'Genres', there is no definitive answer... but, for more traditional things, I'd always go passive (Rock & Roll, Blues, Motown, Jazz, and more recently Indie etc), where as for more modern things I'd reach for an active bass (Pop, Funk, Soul etc.). Obviously, this is not definitive, and ultimately you need to use your ears, but, is a starting point. With an active bass, you can get that lovely smooth, scooped, burpy, funky sound that is so nice - but, there is something awesome about a warm, passive bass with flat wound strings on that you jsut cant recreate, and a passive Fender Precision played with a pick is just right for Indie/Rock!
Have a listen to some of the examples below to help hear the difference in tones between active and passive.
PASSIVE - Everlong (Foo Fighters)
PASSIVE - Whats Going On
ACTIVE - Rio
ACTIVE - Boogie Wonderland
What to go for?! I have both, and use both for different jobs. My main bass in Active. I would say there are probably more 'iconic' bass lines played on passive basses, and a paassive bass can sit so well in a live mix... but, there is just something I love about a burpy, funky active bass when played solo. Find out what the bass players who inspire you play - try active and passive basses yourself - and listen to as many different instruments as possible!
As soon as you start playing with other musicians, Hearing Protection is something you need to consider. Even playing at what appear to be low volumes can have an impact on your ears, and unfortunately, any lasting damage will only be obvious when its too late. If after a rehearsal, or a gig, your ears ring you have caused irreparable damage to your hearing - the ringing sound indicates there are frequencies you will never hear again.
My advice is to start using some sort of hearing protection as soon as possible. Many seasoned musicians will complain that hearing protection muffles the sound, or means they cant hear themselves. The truth is, you acclimatise to hearing sounds during rehearsals and gigs - and picking out your tone in the mix; if you use hearing protection early on, and persevere with it, you will just get used to that mix. And if you go down the IEM route, you will be able to hear yourself more clearly than you could believe!
Below are 5 suggestions of types/levels of hearing protection that I have used and can comment on. I am not associated with any of these brands, and my feedback is purely based on personal experience.
Entry Level - Foam Plugs
The Next Step - Universal Rubber Plugs
Flare Audio Isolate
Top of the Range - Custom Moulded
The best solution...
If you choose to go down the IEM route, there are 2 companies I would recommend, and use myself. The Custom IEM company are based in London, and act as an agent for numerous brands who actually produce IEMs - they offer great advice, and as they sell lots of options, I found they were genuinely interested in giving me the best, impartial advice they could. I chose to go with 64 Audio IEMs - the reviews, advice, flexibility when ordering really helped - they also have a model specifically voiced for drummers & bassists which was ideal for me.
One of the most common things I get asked is to recommend a bass for a new player. Sometimes it will be after having enjoyed a couple of lessons and wanting to buy their own bass to practice on (or a parent wanting to purchase a bass for their child who has had a couple of lessons); and sometimes people want to start learning on their own bass. I've played, and recommended loads of 'entry level' basses over the years, and am now confident in what I suggest people look at - I'm going to try and get everything down in one place here to help anyone looking for their first bass.
I am not associated with any of the brands or shops I mention in this post, but am suggesting products based on personal experience. Also, whilst these may be considered 'beginner' or 'entry level' basses, they are all decent instruments in their own right, and a good solid starting point.
The first thing to think about is the 'size' of the bass. Most basically this is the 'scale' of the instrument - which is the measurement of the strings. A standard, full size bass has a 34" scale, and this is what I usually recommend the majority of players go with. For younger players, and 'smaller' players, its worth considering a short scale bass (typically around 30" scale) - if possible try both and see what you are comfortable with. One thing worth mentioning is that a short scale bass shouldn't be considered a 'toy' or 'kids' instrument - you can pay big money for a short scale bass - and you could buy a short scale bass to start with and have an instrument for life.
Where to Buy
If possible, its always good to support your local music shop. Depending on where you are, these can either be non existent, or tricky to get to - but, if there is a decent music shop near you, at least give them the chance, and pay them a visit. The other common way people buy instruments is online, and there are loads of great online retailers. For people buying their first bass, the places I usually suggest are Thomann, and Gear4Music - based on experience, their prices are excellent, shipping & customer service is quick and efficient, and their websites are presented in an easily accessible way for people new to the world of musical instruments. The other reason is whilst some guitar shops may offer 1 'entry level' bass and loads of expensive ones, both of these companies have a wide and varied selection at the cheaper end of the market.
The first 'range' of basses I suggest are instruments costing around £80-£100. These instruments are achieved using mass production, and will be 'own branded' by the shops - meaning you aren't paying for big advertising budgets. They will typically be copies of more expensive Fender basses - which means that companies have access to mass produced hardware and parts - allowing them to bring the prices down. The basses I usually get people to look at at this end of the market are the 'Harley Benton' brand from Thomann, and the 'Gear4Music' own brand basses.
The main down side on 'Entry Level' basses is the quality control. Paint finises often are scrappy, with rough edges. On the Metallic silver on the Gear4Music bass above, you can see brush strokes in the finish (although the lacquer is smooth). The 'setup' (how the instrument plays) often wont be great, and the strings will (to a seasoned player) feel and sound poor. However, you need to put this in context... either of these basses can be purchased for only twice the price of a decent setup - and you can change the strings. Long term, as bits wear out you can change the majority of parts on these basses, and as they are based on common Fender models, there are loads of parts you can easily get hold of.
Either way, they are an amazing way to get started playing the bass, and the quality of these, compared to 'beginner' basses from even 10 years ago really has to be seen to be believed.
The 'Next Teir'
For me, the next step up, is going to around the £160 - £180 price bracket. Here, you start getting into the realm of usable gigging instruments - often, the budget range from more recognised guitar brands - and different body shapes and designs. At this sort of range, I would recommend looking at brands such as Ibanez, Yamaha, Peavey, Tobias (by Epiphone), Squier or similar. Whats really good about this sort of price range, is I usually find, moving up from here, unless you take a big jump (upto maybe £500/£600) you don't really get a 'better' instrument - just maybe something that looks a bit prettier.
You can also get into active basses at this sort of range. Personally, I would suggest sticking with a passive bass - that way your extra money is going towards better better hardware and body/neck woods, or quality control.
You can also get some bargains 2nd hand - I'd be tempted to stick to looking at some of the basses that are slightly more expensive when new (Ibanez, Yamaha, Peavey, Squire etc) as the better quality hardwear, and build quality when new, means they are more likely to still be in good condition a couple of years down the line.
So - what would I do? I guess the first thing to say is that the quality of these basses is amazing, and now 'entry level' or 'beginner' basses are actually really good quality instruments in their own right. All of the basses I have mentioned would be a great starting point for any bassist, and allow them to start practising and developing as a musician.
If it was my money, I'd probably go with an 'entry level' bass - one of the Harley Benton, or Gear4Music basses, and then spend some of the money I'd saved on a new set of strings, and taking it to a good luthier to set it up properly. Local to me, I recommend Lewis at Torbay Guitar Repairs (link below) who always does a great job, is very reasonably priced, and honest with advice. That way for around £130 you could have a new, properly setup bass that would be great to play, and ready to start using. However, if one of the slightly more expensive models (Ibanez, Yamaha, Peavey, Squire) is on offer, and you can save a couple of £'s, i'd probably go down that route as the standard setups tend to be that much more usable - and save up for a good setup further down the line.
So - my first blog post! I'm not intending this to be a massive thing, but, something that will run alongside my website, Instagram posts, and #songoftheweek lessons. I'll try and link it with my lessons, and things that crop up in my gigging, and instrumental teaching - but will also include things for other bassists that I've picked up over the years. I've got lots of ideas for content, and things that will hopefully interest people - but, would also love to hear from anyone who wants another bassists thoughts/input on things.
I'll try and update this every week or so - maybe more regularly, maybe less. Thanks for stopping by, and hopefully, this is the start of something interesting!