The body of the bass guitar is usually the largest part of a bass. This part plays a big role in resonating the vibration of the strings as you play. The type of wood used for the body has a big effect on the tone of the bass. Softer woods add warmth while harder woods make for very bright, percussive tones. If you are interested in playing a lot of slap bass, you might consider a bass with a lot of hard woods like paduak, wenge, and maple. If you are looking to play most other styles you might want a warmer sound with swamp ash, alder, or basswood woods.
You will see that, while the woods used have a sizable effect on tone, the electronics, pickups, and bass amp can shape your tone quite a bit. If you are buying your first bass guitar, I wouldn’t get too obsessive over the woods just yet.
This is a matter of personal preference and doesn’t affect the tone much. The curved sides of the body are referred to as the waist of the body. Sometimes you will hear the term offset waist meaning an asymmetrical waist.
Finish refers to the outer appearance of the body. On acoustic instruments the finish can make big sonic differences, but on electric basses you won’t perceive too much difference.
Types of Finishes
Lacquer finishes are thick, glossy coatings. They have a very shiny wet look. These can be solid, opaque colors, or transparent. Transparent finishes allow you to see the wood grain beneath the surface. Lacquer finishes are easy to clean and maintain, but can ding fairly easily. This is what you’ll find on most entry-level bass guitars.
Some finishes are referred to as sunburst finishes. This means the center is transparent and it gradually moves outward toward solid colors. It is a very nice effect. Sunbursts come in different colors like cherry sunburst (a red sunburst) or tobacco sunburst (a yellowish-brown sunburst).
Satin finishes lack the wet look of lacquer finishes. They look soft and satiny. It’s kind of a matte finish. Satin finishes are usually transparent. Satin finishes are also easy to take care of and clean, but can also ding.
Oil finishes are exposed woods with a light oil coating applied to them. Oil finishes will require a little more maintenance. You will need to apply oil to it every couple of years (which is not a big deal). Small dings won’t be as visible on a lot of oil finishes.
Finishes are cosmetic. Pick the one you find the most attractive.
Something to note: You will generally see really cheap bass guitars with opaque lacquer finishes. I always wonder what the wood used under that finish looks like. It might be very scary. At least with transparent finishes you will see the wood you are getting. On solid color basses, try knocking on the wood and listen for an even tone all over.
Pickguards are pieces of plastic covering a portion of the bass body. They are there to protect the body from scratches if you use a pick. A majority of bassists now use their fingers to pluck rather than a pick. (Both ways to pluck the strings are legitimate and common.) Early basses tended to have pickguards since the bass guitar was seen as an extension of the regular electric guitar and players often used a pick. Many modern basses don’t have pickguards since many people use their fingers to pluck.
Some pickguards are several layers of plastic sandwiched together. You may see terms such as 3-ply laminate pickguard. It’s simply a decorative effect like the mats in a picture frame. It’s not an important feature.
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