I wrote this a few years ago and published it as an Ebay guide. This is an updated version.
Chances are you won’t be spending a lot of money on your first bass. I assume you won’t know that much about guitars or basses and probably will be looking at secondhand to make your money go further. Don’t despair – you can still get a good, useable bass for less than £150 if you bide your time and check out a few things like make and condition.
Makes to consider are: Squier Precision (these do sound good and are very playable once set up), Ibanez (well made, reliable, good tone), the Jay Turser version of the Hofner Violin bass, Epiphone (their EB0 is just really nice) and my favourite..the Westone Thunder 1a. The Thunder 1a was made by the Matsumoko factory in the 1980s, the build quality is fantastic, lovely to play and it has an active pickup which allows an awesome range of sounds from real deep thud to almost “fuzz” lead guitar. Plus if the battery fails it can be switched to passive which still gives an acceptable tone. I’ve played bass for over 30 years, own Rickenbackers, Guilds, Gibsons and many others but in my opinion the Thunder 1a is a terrific bass and competes well with the “top” brands. Buy one! I did and I love it.
Condition: Obviously best if you can view the bass but if not, email and get answers on the following:
1, Overall condition – a bit of buckle rashes, minor marks are ok and to be expected. Don’t worry about them. However, major hacks/holes etc are not good and costly to repair. I would avoid.
2. Any structual damage e.g. broken headstock etc. If there is ..avoid.
3. Neck: is it straight and wobble-free? Most necks should be just about straight, a SLIGHT curve towards the nut is ok. And the neck should have a truss rod. Curved or wobbly necks should be avoided.
4. Fret wear. How much? A bit is to be expected on an old bass but a lot means a refret (or a dressing) which can be expensive.
5. Tuners. Original or replacement? Do they work? Check prices of replacment tuners before bidding.
6. Action at 12th fret. My basses are set at around 5mm but check that the bridge allows plenty of height adjustment to suit your playing style
7. Intonation at 12th fret. Should be an octave of the open strings. If it is not can the bridge offer enough adjusment to get the strings in tune? If not avoid.
8. Bridge and nut: mechanically sound? If not think carefully about the cost issues of a new bridge and woodworking skills to put a new nut in. Changing the bridge is usually straightforward but changing the nut is a skilled job and probably best not to do yourself unless you are “handy”. I’d recommend choosing another bass unless the damaged one is ridiculously cheap.
9. Electrics: do they work? Its easy to change pickups but costly. Volume/tone controls and switches can usually be sorted by moving them a few times or with a blast of switch cleaner. If all else fails these are cheap to and easy replace – perhaps £1 or less for a volume/tone control, switches well under a fiver.
Follow those 9 points and you will end up with a perfectly reasonable bass! Good luck