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The 10 Best Bass Guitars at Any Budget

Pitchfork logo Pitchfork 6/16/2021 Andy Cush
a close up of a guitar © Graphic by C.J. Robinson

The best bass guitars come with a wide variety of features and options, suited to particular genres and individual styles—there are endless variations on what you can do with low end. Are you planning on slapping and popping or sitting back in the mix? Do you like to play elaborate melodies or keep things simple? Do you want four strings or five? Passive electronics or active? A tried-and-true classic body shape or something a little more modern? Whatever you’re looking for, we’ve got you covered. Below, we’ve compiled a list of 10 of the best bass guitars on the market today, at price points ranging from bargain beginner models to high-end pro-quality instruments.

For Pino Palladino, the legendary bassist whose resume includes work with D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, John Mayer, and the Who (and who released Notes With Attachments, an excellent duo album with Blake Mills, earlier this year), the appeal of the instrument is simple. “Bass is the coolest instrument on the planet,” he says. “You don’t have to jump around. You don’t have to do nothing. You can just stand there, play the bass, and hold it down. Maybe most people wouldn’t even be able to isolate what the bass is playing on a particular track. But as soon as it stops, they’ll know something’s wrong.”

Finding the right instrument for you is all about your personal preferences and style. For some, that might mean a custom shop special with all the accoutrements. For me, it’s a used Fender Jazz Bass of uncertain provenance that I bought for about $400, whose previous owner told me he wasn’t sure it’s even really a Fender, despite what it says on the headstock. Not much of a pedigree, but it’s by far my favorite bass I’ve ever taken on tour or into the studio with Garcia Peoples, the band I play in when I'm not doing journalism. So don’t worry too much about fancy brand names. Just find an instrument that works for you.

All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

a close up of a guitar: Fender American Performer Precision Bass ($1,300) © Pitchfork Fender American Performer Precision Bass ($1,300)

Fender American Performer Precision Bass ($1,300)

Certain iconic performers have uncontested claims to their first names, so that you only need to say “Janet” or “Elvis” or “Cher” and everyone knows who you’re talking about. The Fender Precision Bass is a little like that, except it owns an entire letter. Among bassists, “P” can only mean one thing: the P-Bass, as it’s commonly known, the first electric bass to gain real traction among musicians, and still the most classic and recognizable bass on the market today. Without the P-Bass, the sound of the bass guitar as we know it—and thus, the sound of pop itself—doesn’t exist.

The list of P-Bass players and the classic records they played on is so long and all-encompassing that it’s almost not even worth getting into. Carol Kaye, the session powerhouse who has provided low end for everyone from the Temptations to the Beach Boys to Glen Campbell to Frank Sinatra, is a P-Bass player. So was James Jamerson, house bassist for Motown Records, who played on almost every hit the label cranked out in its prime 1960s-’70s era. Geezer Butler played a P-Bass in Black Sabbath. Roger Waters played one in Pink Floyd. Sid Vicious played one in the Sex Pistols, though legend has it his amp was unplugged half the time. If you can play it on four strings, you can play it on a P-Bass, and chances are it will sound great.

Fender’s American-made instruments are their most prized among players, and the American Performer series features the most affordable options in that storied class. The American Performer P-Bass features a solid alder wood body, a smooth-playing neck, and one feature that might surprise devotees of classic historical models: in addition to the traditional P-Bass-pickup—that is, the magnetic device that transforms the strings’ vibrations into the electrical current that drives your amp—it also features a second type of pickup, more commonly seen on the Jazz Bass, the P-Bass’s slightly slinkier cousin, for a wider variety of tones.

I asked Palladino what he might say to a friend less experienced than himself who came to him for advice about buying a bass. He was unambiguous: “Keep it simple, get a P-Bass. The P-Bass just has one sound, with a tone control. And so many amazing records have been made with bass players playing on a P-Bass. You really can’t go wrong with that.”

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Fender American Performer Precision Bass

$1300.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: Fender American Performer Jazz Bass ($1,300) © Pitchfork Fender American Performer Jazz Bass ($1,300)

Fender American Performer Jazz Bass ($1,300)

First off, if you want to talk like a bassist, you can call Fender’s Jazz Bass a J-Bass, just like the P. Second, though several jazz virtuosos have made it their instrument of choice—Marcus Miller and Jaco Pastorius, for two—its genre capabilities are far wider than its name would have you believe. Just ask John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone, Geddy Lee of Rush, and Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The J’s body shape is a little more dramatically contoured than the P’s, like someone took a P and gently stretched it from diagonal corners. There are also a few differences in playability and tone. A J-Bass neck is a little narrower at the nut—near the lowest frets—which means its strings are a little closer together in the low register. That could be a good or bad thing, depending on your playing style and the size of your hands. Traditionally, the J offers a little more tonal variety, especially in the crisp treble range, though the dual-pickup configuration of the newer P-basses closes the gap a bit. (What the P lacks in the range of its palette, it makes up for with a low-end thump that the J—or any other bass, for that matter—can’t exactly match.)

Neither instrument is “better” per se, and each has its partisans. But if you’re interested in exploring the purely melodic capabilities of the bass a la Jaco, or slapping up a storm a la Larry Graham—who invented the technique while playing a Jazz Bass—the J may be the bass for you.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Fender American Performer Jazz Bass

$1300.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Precision Bass ($430) © Pitchfork Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Precision Bass ($430)

Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Precision Bass ($430)

Fortunately for those who don’t have the budget to spend $1,000 or more on an instrument, Fender makes extremely solid instruments under its more affordable Squier line. The “Classic Vibe” series contains some of the coolest Squiers, including this P-Bass, which looks like a vintage 1960s instrument but costs a tiny fraction of what you’d pay for the real thing. If you want P-Bass power and versatility at a lower price—or you’re a beginner and not sure what you want, besides a reliable bass that won’t break the bank—Squiers are where it’s at.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Precision Bass

$430.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: Epiphone Thunderbird ’60s Bass ($699) © Pitchfork Epiphone Thunderbird ’60s Bass ($699)

Epiphone Thunderbird ’60s Bass ($699)

Fender basses are classics for a reason, which makes them nearly ubiquitous; sometimes, it feels like everywhere you look is a bassist playing a Fender or one of the many models by other manufacturers that take clear inspiration from some aspect of P- and J-Bass design. If you want to stand out from the crowd, try a Thunderbird, which will never be mistaken for anything else. This model from Epiphone—Gibson’s Squier-style beginner line—has unmissable mojo at a reasonable price. The Thunderbird’s enormous tones tend to attract players of hard and heavy rock—whether of the stadium variety, like Gene Simmons of Kiss and Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, or something more punk, like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Mike Watt of the Minutemen.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Epiphone Thunderbird ’60s Bass

$699.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Bass ($2,299) © Pitchfork Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Bass ($2,299)

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Bass ($2,299)

Fender Instruments founder Leo Fender, having sold the company that bears his name in the mid-1960s, became president of Music Man about a decade later. Of all the instruments Fender and his team designed there, the StingRay bass comes the closest to the iconic status of the flagships from his old company. Joe Lally of Fugazi, Mark Hoppus of Blink-182, and Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) have all rocked its distinctive oval pickguard onstage at some point or another.

The StingRay is also the first production four-string bass guitar to feature active equalization, a term that may need a bit of explaining. To sculpt the sound of, say, a P-Bass, you’d use the tone knob, a relatively simple device that works by gradually cutting the high treble frequencies out of the signal. The electronics on a StingRay give you more precise control, with independent knobs for bass, treble, and midrange—a bit like the EQ on your car stereo—as well as the option to boost frequencies rather than just cut them. Crucially, it requires a 9V battery to operate, unlike the traditional “passive” electronics on most basses, which don’t need any external power source. (It’s worth noting that there are plenty of ways to get sophisticated tone control on a passive bass, too; they’re just built into amps, or pedals, rather than the instrument itself.)

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Bass

$2299.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: G&L L-2000 ($1,800) © Pitchfork G&L L-2000 ($1,800)

G&L L-2000 ($1,800)

Leo Fender founded one more instrument company after parting ways with Music Man in the late 1970s: G&L, which he continued to manage until his death in 1991. If the StingRay was a bit like a high-tech sequel to the P-Bass, the L-2000 takes the same basic template even further into the future. Its electronics can be used either actively or passively, offering an extremely wide array of vintage and modern tones, suited to just about any style of music. Also, its neck is slim and comfortable, ensuring it plays as smooth as it sounds.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

G&L L-2000

$1800.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: Yamaha BB734A ($750) © Pitchfork Yamaha BB734A ($750)

Yamaha BB734A ($750)

Compared to the midcentury-style body designs of the basses we’ve seen so far, Yamaha’s BB series of basses—first introduced in the late ’70s—looks a little sleeker, more devilish, less like it should be sitting next to a surfboard in the back of an old woody wagon. Its slender profile is designed with ergonomics in mind, and it’s one of the most comfortable basses to play on the market today. The BB734A incorporates many of the modern features that first debuted on Music Man and G&L models, including the ability to run its two pickups in both active and passive modes. It has a versatile “PJ”-style pickup configuration, meaning one pickup is modeled after the P-Bass design, and the other is modeled after the J-Bass.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Yamaha BB734A

$750.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: Fender Custom Shop Pino Palladino Signature Precision Bass ($5,000) © Pitchfork Fender Custom Shop Pino Palladino Signature Precision Bass ($5,000)

Fender Custom Shop Pino Palladino Signature Precision Bass ($5,000)

As you may have gathered by now, Palladino is a P-Bass devotee. You can often catch him playing one of two beautiful vintage P-Basses he owns, a red one from 1963 and another with a sunburst finish from ’61. Fender’s Custom Shop built him a signature model that combines the best of both into one instrument. “The fiesta red is always a color I really love,” he says. “And I love the feel of the neck on my ’61, which is just a different profile. So Fender put together those two instruments brilliantly and came out with the signature model.”

Somewhat unusually, the Pino signature model ships with flatwound strings, not the roundwound strings that come stock on most basses. Flats, which Palladino plays on his own basses, are a little smoother on your fingers, and tend not to produce as much high-end sparkle as their round counterparts. Of course, with any instrument, you can always change out the stock strings for whatever you like best. If you’ve never experimented with changing string types before, you might be surprised by how much they can change a bass’s sound and feel—just one more way to make an instrument your own.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Fender Custom Shop Pino Palladino Signature Precision Bass

$5000.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: Yamaha BB435 ($550) © Pitchfork Yamaha BB435 ($550)

Yamaha BB435 ($550)

At some point in the mid-’70s, a few bassists decided that they wanted to go a little lower than was possible with the instruments on the market at the time, and the 5-string bass was born. In its most common incarnation, the 5-string involves an additional string tuned to a B below the E that is the lowest available note on a traditional 4-string bass. This extension of the instrument’s range further into the bass spectrum has proven popular among a few different sorts of bassists. Metal players probably like the way it provides a more punishing low-end grind; virtuosic jazz fusionists might appreciate the additional handful of notes it gives you when you’re soloing.

We wouldn’t advise any beginner to pick up a 5-string as their first bass, but if you’ve been playing a 4-string for a while and feel ready to upgrade, Yamaha’s BB435 is a great affordable pick. It has several of the features discussed above that make the BB734A so appealing—PJ pickups, smooth and comfortable body shape (but not the active electronics)—plus that additional string to take you as low as you want to go.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Yamaha BB435

$550.00, Guitar Center

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a close up of a guitar: Ibanez SR1605D ($1,500) © Pitchfork Ibanez SR1605D ($1,500)

Ibanez SR1605D ($1,500)

If your tastes in 5-strings run toward luxury, Ibanez’s instruments may be up your alley. The first thing you’ll notice about the SR1605D is its incredible multicolor finish, and your reaction to it should be enough to determine whether or not this is the bass for you. Beyond its looks, the SR1605D has high-end appointments from top to bottom, from its panga panga wood fretboard to its onboard three-band equalization controls.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Ibanez SR1605D

$1500.00, Adorama

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a close up of a guitar: Fender Player Mustang Bass PJ ($700) © Pitchfork Fender Player Mustang Bass PJ ($700)

Fender Player Mustang Bass PJ ($700)

The tallest person in any given band often seems to be the bassist. Maybe that’s because basses are big instruments, and having some extra stature of your own helps to play them. (Or maybe it’s because big guys like us feel awkward going onstage with a puny little guitar.) In any case, it doesn’t have to be that way. Short-scale basses have been around since the 1960s, offering just as much low-end—even more, some short-scale fans will tell you—in an instrument not much bigger than a standard electric guitar.

Though Fender’s Mustang Bass may not be quite as ubiquitous as the Precision or Jazz Basses, it is nonetheless one of the most popular short-scale basses around. True to its name, this particular Mustang uses a PJ pickup configuration (as we saw on the Yamaha basses above) for a wide array of tones in a small package. Mustang fans include a few guitarists and multi-instrumentalists who pick up the bass occasionally—PJ Harvey, Thom Yorke, Tom Morello, Danger Mouse—perhaps because of the way its neck profile resembles a guitar’s. If you’re a guitarist looking to branch out, or you have smaller hands, or you just prefer the way short-scale bass looks and feels, the Mustang PJ is a great option.

a close up of a guitar © Provided by Pitchfork

Fender Player Mustang Bass PJ

$700.00, Guitar Center

BUY NOW

To close on a philosophical note: there’s one major aspect of the bass that may at first feel like a limitation for a new player, but that you’ll eventually learn is perhaps the most beautiful thing about it. With a few exceptions, it’s not really a solo instrument in the same way as, say, the guitar or the piano. It’s extremely difficult to carry a song by yourself on the bass. You may find yourself getting bored, jamming alone in your room. But the flip side is the way it comes alive when you start to play with other people, sliding in and out of the pocket of the drums, subtly coloring the harmonies of the keys and guitar. “For me, there’s nothing quite like locking with a great drummer, and just the sense of being a team player in that way,” Palladino says. “I think bass generally draws personalities that are drawn to being team players.”

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