The electric bass was invented by none other than Leo Fender, the same guy that invented the Stratocaster, in the early 1950's. It was developed to be able to compete with more and more amplification for guitars and other instruments. The traditional acoustic bass was not loud enough to be heard above the other instruments.
Using many of the techniques and electronics from building electric guitars, he built the electric bass. The bass Leo built is what all electric basses from then on are based upon. Things like having four strings, 34" between the bridge and nut, the types of pickups, and even the bridge design are standards still in use today.
The more popular basses out there are the Fender Precision and Jazz, Gibson, Alembic, Rickenbacker, Spector, and Carvin just to name but a few. They come in many shapes, sizes, sounds, control knobs, number of strings, electronics and pickups.
Hipshot Bass Xtender
Your choice of a bass is going to depend on three main things; sound, feel and budget. And the formula usually works like this, if the budget goes up, the sound and feel go up. If the budget goes down, the sound and feel goes down. Just be realistic and if you are just getting started, there is no reason to invest in an expensive bass.
I would suggest starting with a fretted four string bass and working your way up to the five and six string basses and even fretless basses. Fretless basses are difficult to learn to play.
If you go with the five or six strings, they have the low "B" string and they will require a real good amplifier and speakers with a good low end response. That "B" string is very low and many amplifiers can't handle it without distorting or just not producing a good volume.
If you need to get lower than "E" try tuning down to "C" or "D". Check out a "Hipshot Bass Xtender ". It is a device that attaches to your "E" string tuning head and allows you to tune down and back up at the flick of a lever.
The electronics on the bass include the pickups, volume controls, tone controls, bass boost or cut, switches and so forth. There are two basic types of electronics on basses. Active electronics or passive electronices.
Passive electronics refers to the type of circuitry used to produce a signal from the strings through the pickups and to the output jack. Most basses made before about the early to mid '70s had passive electroncs. Most low-cost basses today use passive electronics.
The way the signal is created is when the strings vibrate above the magnetic field of the pickups, they distrupt that magnetic field. As the strings vibrate at a certain frequency (note), the magnetic field of the pickups start to change at the same frequency of the strings.
This is in essence the "signal" that is then sent to your tone and volume controls and finnaly to your output jack. Passive electronics don't use batteries and they don't amplify the signal. The tone controls don't boost as well, they only cut.
For instance, the treble knob will not increase the treble but allows the full treble at one end and some amount of reduction in treble at the other end of the turn of the knob.
With passive electronics, you don't get as much versatility at the bass in controlling your sound. Typically, you set your bass to one setting and leave it there. The range of tones isn't very large.
You don't get as good of a signal when running it direct into the mixing board for recording and such. You will typically need at least a pre-amp to run direct into a mixing-board or recorder.
Active electronics require a battery inside the bass to power the electronics. This can be a drag because you usually have to take an access cover off or the pick guard off to get at it. Usually they are activated when you plug the cord into the bass. So, if you leave your cord plugged in overnight, you will probably find that you have a dead battery the next day. Real drag! You can usually tell when the battery is low or dead when your bass distorts easy, you are not getting a loud signal from the bass, or you get no signal at all.
The good news is that under normal usage, the battery will usually last a couple of months at least. Active electronics are very popular now because they give such a hot, higher voltage, output signal and provide a greater range of sounds right at the bass.
This is good for both recording and playing live. It is much easier to process a good clean sound and color it. Playing live, you get more flexibility in your sound with less engineering of your amp and the PA sound.
The pickups are what picks up the vibration of the string and converts that motion into electronic pulses that get amplified. The pickups are electro-magnets that generate a magnetic field.
The strings run through these magnet fields and because the strings are metalic, when they vibrate or move, they disturbe the electro-magnetic field of the pickup. This disturbance creates pulses in electricity and that can be amplified. After all, music is just vibrations.
The pickups are made up of several magnetic posts wrapped by a copper wire. The posts are the metalic round things on top of the pickup.
What you are looking for with the pickups is a good clean sound. Does the sound distort? Use all the switches and make sure they do what they are supposed to do. Listen for scratchy switches and knobs. Often times the switches will select between multiple pickups and make a single output from combinations of those pickups.
A single coil pickup is a set of magnets with a single wrapping of copper wire around the magnet. Single coil pickups have a good high end response. The price you pay is that single coil pickups tend to hum. If you don't have a good amp the noise can drive you crazy.
Make sure that the bass is shielded. This will help keep the noise down. Shielding the bass simply means lining with copper strips or plates and or using a special coating on the inside cavities of the bass where the pickups and electronics are. If you hear a radio station from your amp, which does happen, it usually means your bass is not shielded very well.
A double coil or stacked pickup is two sets of magnets with each wrapped with their own set of copper wire. Double coil pickups are generally more quite than a single coil pickup.
The noise you experience with single coil picks cancels themselves out on double coil and stacked pickups. Double coil pickups have three packagings or form factors. Double row of poles, two separate offset pieces ( one for two strings, one for the other two strings) or single stacked (looks like a single coil but it's not).
The Neck is one of the most important parts of your bass. It has the most effect as to how your bass will play and to a great degree how well it will sound and how long the notes will sustain. They come with different types of wood and finishes for the fretboard. The popular surfaces are rose wood, ebony and finished maple.
The neck is usually made of three or more laminated pieces of wood running the length of the neck. The more layers you have the stronger the neck is.
The frets are the metal bars that run across the neck. They are counted from the head stock to the body starting with the first fret next to the nut and the 22nd or 24th frets at the body of the bass.
The neck has almost everything to do with how the bass plays. What you should look for in so far as how the bass plays, is you should try to play each note at every fret on each string to make sure there are no dead spots or areas that buzz. Make sure that you are using good solid fingering.
In other words, make sure you press firmly but not too hard. If you press too lightly, it will buzz or the sound will be very weak. Look at the frets to see if they are worn. Look for grooves or low spots on the top of the frets. Uneven or worn frets will cause a lot of buzzing when fretting the strings.
If the frets look worn, they can be fixed either by replacement or by filing them down to the lowest common height. Fret work can be expensive especially if you have a binding around your neck or have a finished maple neck. But they can be fixed, so if you really want to buy that bass with the worn frets, just figure the cost of the fret job into the price of the bass.
The nut separates the fingerboard from the head stock. It is what the strings run across before they reach the tuning heads. Look at the nut. No not the drummer! If it is plastic, you will need to replace it.
Brass nuts are good for a bright open string sound, harmonics and longer sustain, however, they don't have much effect after that, meaning that nut has very little affect on fretted notes.
A bone nut will give you a thicker sound, however, as with the brass nut, it only matters on open strings. Brass nuts tend to wear out faster than bone nuts.
To see if the nut has worn, look at how close the string comes to touching the fretboard at the bass of the nut. If it is almost touching, your action is probably real low and you have a lot of buzzing when you fret notes. Even the open strings may buzz.
You will need to replace or shim the the nut in this case. If the space is too high, your action will be difficult to adjust to a low setting and you will need to file down the string grooves.
The bridge is what anchors the strings to the body of the bass. Some basses will also have the tuning heads at this end as well. When you look at the bridge, make sure that each string has its own saddle so they can be individually adjusted for height and string length. This is important for setting the intonation and the action of the bass.
The trusrod is a metal rod that is inside your neck and runs from one end of the neck to the other. The trusrod is used to adjust the amount of bow the neck has. There is usually a place to adjust the trusrod located at the headstock of the neck or at the point where the fretboard ends and the body of the bass begins.
To adjust the trusrod, tighten it to decrease the bow. In other words, when you tighten the trusrod, the middle of the neck will move closer towards the strings. So, if the neck is extreemly bowed, the action is too high, or you just changed to lighter guage strings, you will want to tighten the trusrod.
When you losen the trusrod, you will create more of a bow in the neck. Do this if your action is too low or you are changing to a heavier guage of strings.
Check the action of the bass. The action refers to the distance between the strings and the frets. A lower action makes it easier to press the string down to the fret. This also allows you to play faster because it requires less movement to finger the notes. With low action it is much more critical that the frets are not worn or you will get a lot of buzzing.
A higher action will make it harder to fret notes, however you won't tend to have as much buzzing. What I usually do to check the action is to finger the first fret with your left hand and then finger the last fret with your little finger on your right hand and then the first finger to reach as far up the neck towards the nut as you can.
Usually this is the 12th fret. Use that finger to tap on the string. It should only be just off the fret and when you tap it, the string should buzz very lightly. If the string is way off the neck, your action is very high and usually not desirable. If the string is against the fret, your action is too low and will probably cause a lot of buzzing.
If you play real hard using a pick, you will probably want higher action to reduce the buzzing. If you play much softer, you can get away with real low action. The buzzing, by the way is caused by the string vibrating and touching other frets on the neck. Again, all of this is really personal preference.
Another thing to check is the trueness of the neck. Contrary to what many people think, your neck should not be perfectly straight. It will have a slight bow to it. What you are looking for is to see if it is flat from the first string to the fourth string across the fret board.
Hold the bass so that the head stock is away from you. Face a light source and then look down the neck. Try to line up the frets so that they line up with no shadows or dips. It should look like a railroad track. If the neck has waves or has more than one bow to it or the bow is extreme, you probably wont want to purchase this bass.
The only exception is the depth of the bow. This can usually be fixed by adjusting the truss rod. The truss rod is a metal rod that runs up and down the neck to provide additional strength.
There are three ways you can connect the neck to the body; neck through the body, bolt on, or glue on.
A neck through the body means that the neck piece runs from the head stock to the bottom of the bass and the body of the bass is actually the two sides of the body and they are glued onto the neck. This type of bass gives the best sustain and usually the best action and ability to reach the upper frets by the body.
Because there is no bulky junction where the neck meets the body, unlike bolt on and glue on necks, it is easier to play the upper frets. Because of the strength of this type of neck and lack of a neck/body junction they easily accomodate a full two octave (24 frets) fretboard length. Most two octave necks will be neck through the body rather than glue ons necks.
Popular neckthrough the body basses are the Rickenbacker 4001 and 4003, Alembic, and Spector. Neck through the body basses are usually more expensive but worth the extra price. A Steinberger bass is simply a neck through the body bass without the body glued on.
A bolt on neck is what Fender as well as most other low end basses use. This is not to say Fender is a low end bass. It is just very inexpensive for the manufacturer to build this type of bass as compared to a neck through the body or a glue on neck.
The disadvantage to this type of bass is that you don't get as much sustain because of the junction where the neck is bolted to the body. This junction can also make it more difficult to fret the notes towards the body of the bass.
One advantage of the bolt on neck is you can replace the neck if you don't like it and you have more control in regards to adjusting the action.
A glue on neck, which Gibson basses use, is kind of a cross between bolt on and glue on and gives you most of the advantages of both of the other types of neck attachments. Like the neck through the body, glue on necks are impossible to replace and can get to a point where short of major work, you are not going to get good and low action on the neck.
Another important factor is the number of laminates of the neck. Usually the neck will be made up of three or more pieces of wood glued together. This adds additional strength to the neck. Avoid necks that do not have laminates as they will eventually go out of alignment and are very difficult to fix.
One last factor to the bass is the actual wood it is made from. I won't get into that because there are many nuances each wood gives and is beyond the scope of this document. If you know a good luthier, try to corner them for a few minutes to get their thought on the various woods. Woods most widely used are mahogany, poplar, alder, and maple.
There are three basic types of strings. Round wound, Flat wound and Ground wound. All of these come in sets of various gauges.
Strings come in several thicknesses. Not only from one string to the next but also for each individual string. The name for this measurement and signification of thickness is guage. The guages used in a particular set of strings is usually defined by the individual string manufacturer.
Sets are usually found in Extra Lite, Lite, Medium, and Heavy. The lighter guage strings are usually easiest to play and bend but may not give as good of a bottom end as the heavier guages. Be careful about what guage you put on your bass. The heavier guages will put more tension on the neck and create more of a bow.
If you are switching from lite to heavy, you will need to adjust the trusrod in your neck. Medium guage strings are a good start unless the manufacturer of your bass specifically indicates you must use a certain guage.
Round wound strings have a center core round piece of wire and it is wrapped with another round wire for the length of the string. These types of strings give you a bright fat sound with lots of sustain.
These types of strings are the most abusive on your fret board, especially if you like to bend your strings or do vibratos. However, if the sound is what you like, then the price is new frets every few years or so.
The flat wound strings have a round center core wrapped by a flat wire for the length of the string. This type of string is very common in the jazz world and will give you more of a mushy, midrange sound and not much sustain.
The ground wound strings are basically round wound strings that have had the outer part of the wrap string ground down so that it is flat. As you might suspect this will give you the in between sounds of the round and flat wound strings.
There are three ways to tune your bass. Using an electronic tuner, using the 5th fret note or using harmonics.
The first thing is to get yourself an electronic tuner. There are lots of them out there. You can pay around $20 to $50 for a standard tuner or you can get a Chromatic tuner for around $100. The major difference is whether or not it is a chromatic tuner or not.
The less expensive tuners are typically not chromatic so you have to use a different switch setting for each string. For instance it has an "E" setting, "A" setting, "D" setting, and so forth. These are okay if you are on a strict budget, however, the extra $$ to get a chromatic one are worth it. Check the classified ads for your local music store or news paper.
The major advantage with chromatic tuners is that they are hands free. You can hit a note or string and it will show you what note you are playing and if it is sharp or flat. Excellent for practicing on a fret less bass. Works great for tuning down to E Flat.
Some tuners have only LED readouts. Try to get one with a VU meter, the one with the needle. This is important for setting the intonation.
Once you are plugged in and ready to tune, start from your "E" string by hitting the open note or if you know how to play harmonics, you can use the 12th fret harmonics. Starting from a flat setting, tune up to the note until the tuner indicates you are in tune. Make sure you don't tune down to the note. If the note is sharp, loosen the string to make the pitch go lower and tune up to the note. If you tune down to the note, typically the string will go out of tune almost right away. Repeat for each string.
If you are tuning a fretless bass by using the 12th fret harmonics, be sure to also finger the 12th fret position while the bass is amplified. Check with your ears to make sure that the harmonic is being played in the correct place by making sure the harmonic and fingered pitches are the same. This is not a problem with fretted basses because you play the harmonics directly above the 12th fret.
The second way to tune your bass is to use the 5th and 7th fretted notes. Start by getting a reference pitch by using a tuning fork, recorded song, keyboard player, or your guitar player. Use the "A" string or the "E" string as the first string to tune. These two strings seem to be easier to hear for most people and you can typically find an "A" or an "E" in a song so that you can tune to it. If you don't tune to a song or other instrument, usually you will tune to an "A 440" tuning fork.
What you do is play the reference note first, (e.g., tuning fork, guitar player's "A" string). Then hit your open "A" string. If the note on the bass sounds sharp, higher pitch than the reference note, then use the tuning head to reduce the tension on the string and then you will hear the note go lower. When the note is lower than the reference note, hit the reference note again then your "A" string again. Always hit the string you are trying to tune after the reference note is sounded.
Now listen very closely for a wave in the sound. It kind of sounds like "wah-wah-wah-wah". As you tune the string up, the waves should sound slower and slower until it goes away. When the two notes are in tune, you will not hear any waves.
If you go too far you will start to hear the waves get faster and faster and that means you went too sharp. Reduce the tension of the string again and tune up to the reference note. NEVER tune down to a note. If you tune down to the note, you will go out of tune in a very short time if not right away.
If you just put new strings on, you will need to stretch them by fretting the string at the 5th or 7th frets and pull the string up around the bass pickup and wiggle the string. Tune the string again and stretch it again. Repeat as needed until the string stays in tune. Don't be afraid to be aggressive with how you pull and wiggle the string to stretch it out. Unless you pull REAL hard, you wont break the string.
When you have your first string in tune, in this example we will use the "A" string as the first string that is tuned, fret the "E" string at the fifth fret. Play an open "A" string then play the "E" string fretted at the fifth fret. If the "E" string is flat tune up to the open "A" string as described earlier.
To tune the "D" string, fret the "A" string at the fifth fret and tune the open "D" string the same way you did the "E" string. To tune the "G" string, fret the "D" string at the fifth fret. When you think you have all the strings in tune, repeat all the steps to make sure none of the strings got "whacked" out of tune.
Start by tuning the "A" string by playing the 12th fret harmonic and matching it to a reference note as described above. See below to find out how to play a harmonic. Once you have the "A" string in tune, play the harmonic on the seventh fret of the "A" string and match it to the harmonic played on the fifth fret of the "E" string. Then play the fifth fret harmonic on the "A" string and match it to the harmonic at the seventh fret of the "D" string. Play the harmonic on the fifth fret of the "D" string and match it to the harmonic at the seventh fret of the "G" string.
Why do you need to set the intonation? The reason you need to set the intonation on your bass is so that the open string notes and the fretted notes from fret number 1 to 22 or so are in tune up and down the neck. What you are really doing is making the whole neck real close to being in tune instead of having one area in tune and another area out of tune. If not, you will play an "A" note at the fifth fret of the "E" string and you will be in tune. Then you play the "A" note at the 17th fret and you are now out of tune. Setting your intonation will fix this problem.
Setting the intonation requires a tuner with a VU meter. Ones with only LEDs will not work well. Start by playing the harmonic on the "E" string at the 12th fret. Then fret the note at the 12th fret. Make sure you don't press too hard and try to use the same pressure that you normally use to play that note. If you press too hard or softer than you normally do, you will not set your intonation accurately. This is also a good reason for doing it yourself as compared to having your local repair guy do it for you. The needle should go to the exact place that it did when you played the harmonic.
If the needle is before then you need to move the saddle on the bridge closer to the nut. In other words your fretted note is flat and you need to shorten the length of the string to sharpen it. If the needle moves past where it was for the harmonic note, then you need to move the saddle away from the nut or lengthen the string. Repeat these steps until the fretted note is in the same place as the harmonic note. Repeat for each string.
If you have a bridge that is a single piece and it doesn't allow you to adjust the saddle for each string, you may have to accept some compromises like, "Well I mostly play strings 4, 5, and 6", so get those as close as possible and let strings 1, 2, and 3 be more out of intonation. The saddle by the way is the piece on the bridge that the string runs across.
There are three basic ways to hold the bass. Up high at chest level, waist level, and down around your knees. You will see slap bassists, jazz bassists and six string bassists position high on the body somewhere between the waist and chest.
The up high position gives better leverage of the neck and its typically easier to play closer to the body of the bass. It also allows you to play slap with a thumbs up position, more about that later.
Playing with the bass in the waist area can make it harder to play with a thumbs up position when playing slap although playing with a pick will feel more comfortable. This is a common position for rock and contemporary bassists.
Down around your knees... well... you can really look cool this way and you can also play slap in a thumbs down position. Doing any complex tapping will be almost impossible to do. It really does look cool though...
You can use your fingers to pick the strings. You can use a guitar pick or slap and tap in a percussive fashion. All four styles of playing the bass are valid and no one is better than the other. They just have different feels and sounds. Use that as your basis for selecting a style for a song.
When you finger pick, you will get a soft warm sound. This style is common for Rock, Blues, and Jazz. Make sure your finger nails are clipped short. Otherwise they will hit the strings when picking them with your fingers. This causes a clicking sound that will drive engineers crazy.
Picking will give you a crisper brighter sound. Harmonics really chime when you use a pick. Some people think you can play faster licks and chops with a pick vs finger or slap, however I have found all three can be fast. It just depends on who is playing. Just don't get into the idea that "I need to use a pick to play fast!" Use the style that fits the song.
Slap bass used to be a "Funk" thing, however, it has become very popular in Rock as well as other styles of music. Slap gives a much more percussive sound thus allowing you to be more rhythmic than with your fingers or pick.
Taping is a relatively new style and puts the bass into more of a lead/rhythm roll. People like Stu Hamm and Jeff Berlin have really mastered this technique and if you want to learn it, get their videos which are excellent. I would advise that you wait until you have become proficient with the above styles before attempting this one. If you don't you can become very disappointed easily. It requires lots of practice to get it to sound good. New strings, a low action, a good bass, and a good amp, in that order will help improve how loud the notes ring out.
When playing with your fingers there are three ways to hold your right hand. You can float it, which means that you hold your hand off of the bass and the only things on your right hand that touches the bass are your finger tips. This is difficult to maintain, however, you will probably do this periodically naturally.
You can anchor the base of, or the right side of your palm on the body of the bass, the strings or the bridge. Doing this makes it a little difficult to play unless you are trying to mute one or more of the strings by placing the palm on the strings while you pick the strings with your fingers.
The other way is to anchor your thumb on the bass, the top of a pickup or the bridge. This is the most common position to play from. You have full reach of the strings by pivoting on the thumb. If you find you can't reach the 1st string, try moving your thumb closer by anchoring to the 4th string. Just remember, this will most likely result in the cost of loss of speed simply because you have to move your thumb on and off the 4th string. This can be good if you are trying to mute the 4th string.
You can use one or all of your fingers to pick the strings. I would recommend not using your thumb to pick. You can and if you do just be aware that, you lose speed going from the thumb to your other fingers and the thumb sounds different from all the other fingers. So unless you are playing slow and only using your thumb, use your other fingers to pick.
Most people feel comfortable playing with the fore finger and middle finger. Otherwise know as the 1st and 2nd fingers. Some people use the ring (3rd finger) and even little finger (4th finger) to pick with. Try it. It may feel right for you. Otherwise don't worry if you cant. You can play pretty darn fast with only two fingers.
When you pick the strings you want to kind of rake them. By pulling straight back towards the next string and even finishing the pick by landing on the next string. Don't pull up away from the bass. Pulling away from the bass can give you a pop sound that is sometimes desirable, however rarely is it ever wanted note after note. This also slows down your ability to play fast.
There are many picks of all different shapes, sizes, thickness, material, and of course color. Try to find one that is comfortable for you to hold onto without it slipping out of your fingers. Listen to how it sounds. Thinner harder ones will be bright and tinny sounding. There are picks made out of felt and are intended to simulate playing with your fingers.
Playing with a pick has a certain kind of feel in the song. Driving quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes with a pick works well. You can strum two or more strings at the same time and get more of a guitar feel to the bass.
Your right hand position will usually be to rest the back part of your hand near your wrist on the bass somewhere.
There are two basic ways to play slap with the right hand. The first is what I'll call a thumb up position. The other is a thumb down position. You typically have more control in a thumb up position. You will usually see bassists that play their basses strapped low using the thumb down position.
Tapping is a technique where you use both hands to play notes on the fretboard. You tap on the strings to get them to make a sound. This style has been perfected by bassists such as Jeff Berlin and Stu Hamm. Get "The Urge" by Stu Hamm. It has some really clever tapping. One of the things you can do with tap is to play piano parts by using your left hand to play the bass parts of the song and the right hand to play the melody and or rhythm.
When you fret a note on a fretted bass, you will place your finger just behind the fret and press firmly but not too hard. Pressing too hard will cause the note to go sharp. Press it as hard as is necessary to keep the string from buzzing. Use the ball of your finger. Don't use the tip of your finger.
When fretting a note, use the other fingers to keep muted the strings you don't want to hear. If you let other strings ring, your fretted note will sound out of tune and undefined. This is very critical when you are slapping. If your hand is big enough, you can wrap your thumb around the back of the neck and mute the "E" string and even the "A" string.
On a fretless bass, you are going to place your fingers precisely where the frets would be on a fretted bass. Use a chromatic tuner when you first start out. Play a note and look at the tuner to see if you are sharp or flat. If you are sharp, move your finger away from the body of the bass. If you are flat, move your finger towards the body of the bass. Keep practicing until you can consistently hit the note in tune. After a while your ears will become tuned to how each note should sound. The type of music will determine how accurate you will need to be, but it's always best to strive for perfect pitch. If you are playing clean Jazz, you better be real accurate. If you are playing grunge or a type of music where the bass is not loud in the overall mix you don't need to be as accurate.
A hammer on is where you strike the fretboard hard enough to make the string sound out. Using new round wound strings on a fretted bass will give the greatest loudness when doing hammer ons. Hammer ons can be used to give the illusion of a fast lick or chop because it allows your right hand to not have to pick each note of the lick.
Pull-offs are where you are fingering the note as normal, however, instead of lifting your finger straight off the string, you drag your finger off the string like you would with our right hand to pick the string. This causes the next lowest fingered or open note to sound giving a quick high then low pitch. Again, this is a good trick to make your lick or chop sound faster because your right hand is not having to pick both notes. Only the first one.
There are several tricks to making left hand transitions easier so you can move around the neck much more freely. The idea is to move your hand as little as possible. Find the points where you absolutely must change left hand positions, change and then try to stay at the new position as long as possible before changing again.
Once you do have to move, think about the previous couple of fingerings. Was there a place where you could slide from one note to the next thereby allowing you to set up your left hand? Was there a note that could be played on an open string? As the open string rings, you simply move your hand to the next position. Make sure you don't make noise as you slide your hand or allow other open strings to ring out.
Harmonics are natural vibrations of the strings that produce a certain pitch. Natural harmonics occur at half of the string's length (12th fret), one quarter (5th & 17th fret), and one third (7th & 19th fret) of the string's length. The sound of a harmonic is kind of a bell sound and usually sustains longer than a fretted note.
To play a harmonic, place a finger directly over the 5th, 7th, 12th, 17th, or 19th fret. Just barely touching the string. Don't press down to the fret board. It is a very fine touch and this is going to take some practice to get the harmonic to chime loudly so try using less and more pressure on the string.
The harmonics at the 5th, 7th and 12th frets are usually the loudest of all frets so start with one of these. After you finger the harmonic at the fret, play the string using a pick about two to three inches from the bridge.
You can use your fingers to to play the string, however, using a pick will make the harmonic easier to play and hear. Once you have it down with the pick try using your fingers. Harmonics also chime louder the closer you play to the bridge. This also effects the tone of the harmonic so when you get better, experiment by moving closer and farther away from the bridge.
There are other harmonics that you can play and the loudness of them will depend on how good you can play them and the bass you are playing. Pickups, the type of nut (brass or bone) how new the strings are, how loud the amplifier is, all have an effect of how clear, clean and loud the harmonics are. Simply put, the best the better.
If you have a fretless bass, trying playing a harmonic at the 5th fret of the G string then slide your finger up the neck.
The things you will probably have to do to maintain your bass is replace the battery if you have active electronics, change the strings and keep it clean. How often you change the strings will depend on how bright you want your sound, the quality of the strings, how clean you keep your hands, and the humidity where you live.
As a string gets older and diritier or if the strings are of a low quality, they will lose their brightness sooner and you may have to replace your strings once a month to maintain a bright "live" sound. New strings are critical if you are playing tap. Older strings won't sustain as long as newer, high quality strings.
If you are using flat wound strings, they will last much longer as far as the consistancy of their sound. They will sound pretty much the same when you first put them on as they do when they get older. Round wound strings will sound very different from the first day to when they are a month or two old.
Keeping your hands clean and living in a dry climate will prolong the life of your strings. Some people have tried boiling thier strings after they are old and are able to get a second life out of them. You can try this and it does help to remove any dirt build up. Dirty strings will also wear the frets down faster.
Look at the string and notice how it vibrates. If it vibrates in a round pattern, the string is probably okay. If you notice that it doesn't have an even vibration pattern, or kind of has a wobble to it, the string is old or of poor quality.
Keeping the fret board clean will go a long way to keeping the strings clean and prolonging the life of the strings. On finished surfaces, such as are common on Rickenbacker and Fender basses, you can use special cleaners like Tres Amigos, or Martin Guitar Polish, or you can just use your regular furnature polish.
Pay special attention to the sides of the frets where the frets meet the fretboard. Don't let dirt build up there. Clean your frets with Brasso or some other non-abraisive metal cleaner. Again, keeping your frets clean will prolong the life of not only your strings but the frets as well.
On basses with an unfinished fretboard, you can use 000 guage steel wool or a special posish to clean it. Be sure to rub back and forth, up and down the neck which is with the grain of the wood. Don't rub across the grain as this will damage the wood and as well as the look.
It's harder to get the areas where the frets meet the fretboard so use a cotton swab to clean these areas. These types of fretboards are more difficult to keep clean, however, if they provide the sound and feel you like, then that's the price you have to pay.
Keeping the rest of the bass clean only helps to retain the value and beauty of the bass. If the rest of the bass is clean, you are less likely to get the neck dirty. If you sweat a lot, be sure to wipe down the metalic parts such as the pickups and the bridge, etc. Your sweat will rust and corrode these parts very quickly.
After several years you may have to plane or level the frets. You will find that you play certain areas of the neck more frequently than others and those areas will begin to wear faster than the other areas. You will see grooves or dips in the frets. This will cause buzzing when you try to play.
If you have room, and the grooves are not too deep, you can file the frets down so that they are all level. If the frets are too far gone or you have already planed them down a few times, you will need to replace them. Most likely you will need to take it to a guitar repair shop to have this type of work done. The nut and the saddles on the bridge will also wear down over time and need to be replaced or regrooved.