To the unitiated, a six-string bass is nothing more than a standard 4-stringer with 2 more strings. In reality, it is an entirely different instrument with an entirely different feel, response, and sound. To compare the two is to compare a rifle to a shotgun. One has to know what to look for when hunting this strange beast, as there are alot of six-string basses that are inexpensive, but no bargain. At worst, a cheap Sixer sounds flacid and, at worst, is almost unplayable.
You can get one new at a music store, or find a used one for sale on Ebay or in the want ads. Whether you choose a new or used six-string bass, you can assure a successful purchase if you know what to look for.
First, choose one made by a company KNOWN for building quality six-string basses (would you expect to buy gourmet cuisine from McDonald’s?). A few good companies are Clevenger, Zon, Warwick, Dean, and PRS (Paul Reed Smith). Prices vary; a Peavey Grind 6 costs about $400, while some Warwicks fetch upward of $4,000. Most of us want the best bargain, but remember, when it comes to the Deep Six, you really do get what you pay for!
Next, look for a nice, long scale (the longer, the better). There should be at least 34″ – 36″ from the bridge to the nut. This is because the low “B” string is so thick, it requires extra length to sound bright and clear. Yes, the length of the low “B” will determine whether it’s sound goes “BOOM” or *thud*.
Now look at the pickups. They should be big, powerful, and have active electronics. Look around back for a battery compartment. The battery powers a small preamp inside the bass, which makes the pickups more sensitive. This gives the bottom string more punch, sparkle, and sustain. Some companies manufacture sixes with passive pickups, but they don’t sound anywhere as powerful.
The neck is where to look next. There are three ways the neck attaches to the body. The most common and cheapest method is to bolt it to the body. The next most common is the glued-in, or “set” neck. This eliminates the air gap between the body and neck that exists with the bolt-on configuration, thereby giving each note longer and more powerful sustain. The best and most expensive basses have a “thru-the body” neck, where the neck and body are one continuous piece. This is the strongest configuration, and gives the best sustain and overall tone, because there are no joints to interfere with the transfer of vibrations from the strings to the body.
A good six-string neck (affectionately known as the “2X4”) has a thin, wide profile, and an almost flat fingerboard radius. The fretboard should be made of a hard, dark wood like ebony, rosewood, or walnut. Ideally, it should have a full 2-octave-per-string range of 24 frets. The lower cutaway should allow unrestricted access to the higher frets for soloing and arpeggios. This is important, because some six-string basses may have a 24-fret neck, but also have a poorly designed body that makes upper-fret access difficult.
The nut should be made of graphite, bone, or hard nylon. Some companies use cheaper, softer plastic nuts, which can break or wear down with normal use. Stay away from these. The headstock should have at least a 5 degree backwards pitch to ensure even string tension. Make sure the wide, flat neck has dual truss rods instead of one like a 4 or 5 string. Only select one with heavy tuning machines with sealed backs and thick tuning posts. They should have at least a 15:1 gear ratio to ensure extra fine tuning and no slippage.
Now, look at the bridge. It should be heavy and solid, usually of brass or steel. If it is strung thru-the-body, make sure the ferrules in back are large and heavy. If strung through the bridge itself, look for at least 6 bolts holding the bridge to the body. Lastly, the body should be a solid piece of wood, not layered or composite. The best tonewoods for the sixers are koa, walnut, wenge, mahogany, and maple, to mention but a few. Once it passes these critical inspections, the next step is to test drive the thing.
First, strap it on! How does it feel? Ideally, you want it to be light and comfortable, as you will probably be standing with it for many long gigs. Thanks to active pickups, the best six-string basses can weigh as little as ten pounds and be less than an inch thick, yet still pack the punch of an old 30 pound J-Bass. Make sure the neck is smooth, with no jagged places or fretwires hanging over the edge.
Now plug it into the same kind of amp you intend to use regularly. Test all the volume and tone controls, make sure they turn smoothly and quietly. Now hit a string; Listen to it’s “voice”. Pluck an open low string, like an “E” or “B”. It should go “BANG!” and sustain until you stop it yourself. Test the action by playing every note on all six strings. They should be very easy to push down without any buzzing notes. Test the intonation by playing a harmonic directly over the 12th fret. The harmonic should ring out loud and clear. These can be adjusted by a competent music store. Ask your salesman to make sure it is balanced properly.
Now buy a quality case or gig bag for it. It is a delicate instrument, the wide, flat neck easily succeptible to temperature and humidity extremes. When not in use either store it in its case or on a quality guitar stand.
This is pretty much all you need to know to select a good six-string bass. It does seem like alot to remember, but if you follow this advice carefully and patiently, your new Deep Six will be a satisfying investment that will last a lifetime!