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Electronics in electric guitars is often as simple as a pickup selector, a volume pot and a tone pot. Many guitarists consider even that excessive as the tone pot deteriorates the signal even in neutral position, and one can easily turn the tone knob accidentally. If sound needs adjustment it's rather done on the amp or effect units.

Of course that's a generalization, but represents certain overall trend.

On the contrary, electric bass guitars often have elaborate controls like 3-band equalizer or pickup blend. Where the difference between basses and guitars come from? Are there reasons why bassist may want to fine-tune their sound using knobs on the instrument? Does it depend on the music genre? Or perhaps it's an advertising point rather than an actually used feature?

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  • @ToddWilcox of course there are so many guitars around that you can find exception to any "rule", but just looking at instruments I see musicians use, or instruments in the stores I see a trend. 2 or 3 band eq or potentiometers to balance two pickups are very much bass guitar domain. Oct 26 at 14:43
  • Related to question, the Wizard of Odd series at Premier Guitar is an interesting read. Before guitar manufacturers settled on the current volume/tone/pickup selector convention there were a lot of inventive, complex and ultimately failed control setups.
    – ojs
    Oct 27 at 7:48
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    i have a precision bass, it has only two knobs and no pickup selector Oct 28 at 13:46
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The difference is that guitar technology is hopelessly stuck in the 50s, whereas bass technology has moved on to actually make use of what was available in... the 80s or so.

Namely, these basses with many knobs use active circuitry, which means you can tweak the frequency response as you wish – or leave it completely neutral. By contrast, the passive electronics that are found in almost all electric guitars (and a lot of basses, to be fair) are always colouring the sound in the extremely crude, hardly controllable way which is what you get from the simple filter character created by the PUs' inductance plus cable capacitance plus passive pots&tone-cap.

“But that extremely crude sound is all we want”, the guitarists will say. Well, except it's not, they will tweak the heck out of it with all kinds of pedals. That's of course still an option you have on bass as well, but why not include the essentials right there in the instrument, where you can fine-tune anything at any time without going to the amp or kneeling down to the pedal board?

It's particularly useful when you're arriving to a small festival where there's some bass amp on stage the bands are sharing, you can just plug in and dial in the sound from your own instrument, rather than needing to fiddle with the dials on that unknown amp.

(Well, in theory... in practice it usually turns out that the amp has, like, all the mids completely pulled, and at that point there's only so much an EQ in the instrument can do...)

It also has to do with how guitarists and bassists approach sound changes. Guitarists often switch between dramatically different sounds in the sections of a single song. That's best done by switching an effects pedal or amp-channel, or possibly to a different pickup.
On bass, you'll more typically run broadly the same sound throughout, and only fine-adjust to fit the dynamic context. And these adjustments may be quite different depending on room acoustics, placement on stage, what kit the drummer is playing on etc. etc., so they can hardly be pre-programmed into stomp boxes.

Finally, as was commented in other places in this thread, guitarists seem to have more of a problem with accidentally moving the pots on their instrument. Well, that's not all that surprising – first, guitarists simply tend to move more than bassists (there are of course exceptions), bassists tend to pluck more than they strum, which keeps the hand away from the pots, and even when they use a pick the palm usually stays anchored somewhere over the strings or bridge, whereas guitarists may well strum all over the instrument.

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  • So you say it's frequent for the bassists not to use any effect pedals, and if they also don't use their own amp, the controls on the instrument are the ones they are the most familiar with to adjust the sound? Oct 26 at 5:38
  • @ToddWilcox What you wrote is not untrue, but I'd like to focus on pots, not switches. Switches are much more robust, at least in the extreme positions, but dialing the tone with a knob on the guitar, while on the stage seems a difficult task to me. Is it easier for a bassist than for a guitarist? Oct 26 at 14:48
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    @ToddWilcox I did say only “almost all” guitars are passive, as well as that many basses are passive too. But the difference is, lots and lots of basses are active out of the box and have controls that are based on that from the get-go, whereas even those guitars that have some active elements are typically designed like passive guitars with some extra, optional features. Oct 26 at 16:52
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    The end of the first sentence seems like a joke, but it's true! I bought a new bass in 1992 with EMG active pickups & electronics. I never got the a manual and wanted to find out the function of the dip switches on the preamp board, so I emailed EMG, and also asked about upgrading to their latest product. They sent me the instructions, and said that the current product has the same circuit. (It can't actually use the same LF442CN operational amplifier, because it's obsolete, but EMG didn't even bother trying to sell me on the latest so they mustn't have made much improvement.)
    – Theodore
    Oct 26 at 19:48
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    @ToddWilcox ... That guitars only have tone and volume controls and a pickup selector is not a "trend", it's universal. You could walk into any guitar shop anywhere, and I'm including the big shops with thousands of instruments in stock, and I would confidently bet you a hundred bucks against any solid-body electric guitar in that shop having even a basic 3-band EQ.
    – Graham
    Oct 27 at 23:30
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I don't believe it's true! Most of my basses have 4 - a couple have 3. Gibson electrics have 4, Stratalikes 3. So where's the difference?

Pups for one. Basses generally have 2, guitars 2 or 3 (my custom has 4, but that's an oddity).

So what do the pots do? With basses (2 pups) there's either two volumes, or one volume and a mix pot, leaving the other 2 for tone - bass and treble, for want of better terms. Difficult to see how that could be pared down.

With guitars, 1 volume is deemed sufficient, and for those with 3 pots, the other 2 are tone, with much less control as each is bass/treble in one for a pup. Leaving the 3 pup guitars with a missing tone pot. O.k., the pup switching isn't bad - compared with the original 3 position (which soon became a concocted 5) or real 5 position switch, sadly missing a bridge/neck blend, which I use a lot. So, really, a simplification for guitar players. Maybe they prefer simple?

As already aired, actives are more prevalent in basses, so the tonal qualities more usable, so control is needed. Pedals are far more common alongside (or in front of) guitars than basses, and get their fair share of use for tonal quality a well as all the other effects, so taking the pressure off the guitarists fingers, transferring it to their feet !

So, maybe the question has false premises, maybe not..?

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    Where's the difference? Gibsons have 4 knobs, but that's two volume and two tone pots. If one selects only one of the two humbuckers at a time only two of these knobs are actually doing anything. On the contrary if a bass has 4 knobs (which in various basses can have quite different functions), often all 4 of them affect the tone, in an elaborate way. Oct 26 at 15:00
  • Two humbucker guitar designs often have a middle position toggle switch where all four pots are active, in my experience that is the default a three position toggle: neck, bridge, combined pickup selector. Oct 27 at 14:17
  • @MichaelCurtis That could be another community/genre specific aspect, as my observation is exactly the opposite: most guitarists most of the time either use only one pickup, or they toggle the switch between the two extreme position. And I can easily see the logic behind: placing the switch in (one of the) the intermediate position(s) requires much more attention and practice. If you know guitarists who explore a lot the intermediate switch positions I'm interested to learn about them, though I'm more interested to know: do the bassist do it more, and why? Oct 28 at 14:36
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Not a generalization. Simply is not true. I've never heard a guitarist complain about accidentally turning the tone knob.

Anyway, there are more or less electronic controls on an instrument depending on the design. And, if the controls aren't on the instrument, there can be just as many or few added in the amp or effects chain.

It's only a matter of preference.

The Fender Precision Bass is one of the most iconic electric basses. It has one pickup, one volume knob, and one tone knob.


Mostly, because I want to post a picture of a Teisco...

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

You can get as many or few strings and gizmos as you want.

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  • "I've never heard a guitarist complain about accidentally turning the tone knob." – this makes me think it's specific to certain communities or music genres? Maybe it's more of an issue for musicians who move more on the stage, or play harder on their instruments? Yes, basses guitars with simple controls exist, but there are also quite many with multiband eq or pickup balance pot or other unique pots. Of course it must be matter of preference, but that's exactly my question: why do the bassists prefer having more tone-shaping potentiometers on their instruments? Oct 26 at 14:56
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    They don't. Most electric guitars - bass and six string - follow a common design: one volume, one tone, per pickup, and a toggle for multi picks. Some instruments will have more, some less additional electronics. Just look at a Fender Strat and P-bass... the Strat has more controls. You're making a generalization "...so many knobs..." that really doesn't hold up. Oct 26 at 15:16
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    If I look at the first ten bass guitars shown in guitar center front page and I find three with 2-band eq and one with 3-band eq. On the contrary first ten guitars are either volume+tone, V+2T and 2V+2T, and depending on the pickup selector switch even not all of these knobs are all active at a time. We may discuss how representative metric it is, but the difference is quite visible. Oct 26 at 15:40
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    That would reflect more what Guitar Center wants to sell than what are the most common instruments bought, or even more importantly, used. Anyway, I admit defeat: basses do have more knobs than guitars, and I supposed that is because bassists don't hit the tone knob accidentally like guitarists. Oct 26 at 15:46
  • @ToddWilcox in the "guitar center" experiment I mentioned above I counted 3 different knob configurations for 10 guitars, and 8 different configurations for 10 basses. I would be a fool to claim that something occurs always, I mention an overall trend I observed. Typically more tone shaping knobs are active at a time in a bass, and there is more variety in their setups. Bass guitars more often have multiband eqs, or use pots (rather than switches) to mix pickups. This makes me think bassists typically pay more attention to setting the tone on the instrument. I want to understand why. Oct 27 at 13:47
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The short answer is that bassists are incredible tone hounds.

True fact: in Bassist Language, there are 37 words to describe the different timbres that can be produced by the open low E string alone.

Tone control doesn't stop at the bass guitar; bass amplifiers often feature graphic equalizers with five or more bands, and parametrics.

Low notes produce numerous harmonics that span the range of the human auditory spectrum. A 40 Hz open E has harmonics at 80, 120, 160, 200, 240, 280, 320 Hz, ... and they all contribute something to the timbre—and all need tweaking. It takes 99 of these harmonic steps to get to 4000 Hz by multiples of 40: that's a lot of frequency bands!

A high note like an 800 Hz E only has 1600, 2400, 3200, 4000, 4800; not a many harmonics to go before we start to get into that area of the spectrum that only contributes perception of "definition" and "air" to the tone.

When you listen to music from now on, try to concentrate on the bass tone and compare different tones. There is lot of complexity and variation!

The bass is versatile. If you're a solid bassist who can read music, you can be useful in almost any gig, playing any kind of music. And that whole landscape needs different sounds. If you have a gig doing reggae, that requires a specific bass sound, which might be different from substituting for a sick tuba player in oom-pah-pah Oktoberfest music.

A whole other consideration is that bass can easily produce standing waves in a closed space, and can have issues in relation to that where you may need to dial in some precise EQ to counteract unwanted resonances. You know how cheap stereos have a "one note bass"? Something like that could happen to actual bass.

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    Yes, but it's not like guitarists aren't tone hounds as well. Only, they seem to prefer buying 10 different guitars for 10 subtly different sounds across a 15-song set (plus of course 20 stomp boxes), instead of bothering to tweak the sound with EQ controls... Oct 27 at 15:21
  • @leftaroundabout Exactly. The bass player is a particular tone hound about numerous aspects of just the undistorted output of the instrument. Contrast that with guitarists who just accept "oh, this is a semi-hollow with a rosewood neck and a PAF-style neck pickup; and that's what it sound like" stick reverb on it and be done. There isn't this level of obsession with the range of what should come out from a single solid-body instrument.
    – Kaz
    Oct 27 at 22:44
  • Having played bass for several decades, I haven't come across any of the 37 different terms - maybe 'cos I've been the only bassist in each band situation. Please enlighten this ignorant soul.
    – Tim
    Oct 28 at 16:05

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