There’s a “B” word that when mentioned puts the thought of “Eww!” into many bass player’s heads, and that word is basswood.
Why the “Eww”? Mainly because it’s such a common wood material used for guitar body building these days. And, of course, that means that it’s everywhere, including the cheap bass guitars as well as some expensive ones.
As a tonewood, basswood is considered by most players to be “okay”. Not necessarily bad and not necessarily good. Just “okay”.
You’ll notice that on pricier models by some major manufacturers that if the body material is in fact basswood, it’s barely mentioned or sometimes not mentioned at all. And that’s simply for the reason the “B” word for many means “cheap”, even though on expensive models that’s not the case at all. Yes, the body material on its own is inexpensive, but if there’s a lot of good craftsmanship around it, that justifies the higher cost for an upper-end model.
An example of “cheap wood, good craftsmanship” are some Japanese Fender Reissue bass guitars, several of which do in fact have basswood bodies. And Fender guitars made in Japan are known to be of good build quality, generally speaking.
There is however one undeniable fact about a basswood-bodied guitar that most people gloss over:
It’s weighted very well.
The one complaint you never hear about basswood is “it’s too heavy” or “it’s too light” concerning its weight when playing a basswood-bodied guitar sitting or standing.
The weight of basswood is very close to alder (also considered to be a very good choice, weight-wise), and for Fender-like builds, you can say “Eww!” to basswood all you want, but nobody can argue the “just right” weight of it when constructing standard body shapes.
Does weight truly matter that much?
You’re darned right it does.
What players like for body weights is something that for all intents and purposes feels like a natural extension of the player – with no neck dive, thank you very much. And it just so happens that basswood really fits the bill there.
Many of you have at some point probably played an exotic bass or two (meaning exotic woods were used). And with the exotics, a very common complaint is that the instrument is either too heavy or too light. Yeah, it’s got the picture-perfect craftsmanship, perfect frets, perfect sound and perfect everything… except for that darned weight.
Here’s what happens with weights that don’t agree with you:
If the instrument is too heavy, the moment you stand with the instrument strapped on, you really feel the pull of the strap. That bothers you, and no matter what alternative strap you try (maybe the thicker/wider variety made of leather?), you feel that pull on the shoulder and there’s really nothing you can do about it.
If the instrument is too light, you either get “body slap” (the body pulls away and then slaps the body as you play the instrument), and/or whenever you turn while playing the instrument standing, the bottom of the body lifts away from you (which is very annoying).
Believe me, it’s a true disappointment when you strap on a $4,000 bass that was made with ultra-exotic wood materials only to find that no amount craftsmanship can fix a weight problem once the instrument is completed.
Not once have I ever heard any player complain about basswood concerning its weight. There’s just something about it that feels “just right”.
A few quick tips to those thinking of putting together a budget-build basswood-bodied bass guitar
1. Use a solid-color or “heavy sunburst” finish
You’re not going to get those cool grain lines out of basswood compared to other wood species, so going for a natural finish isn’t recommended. Stick to solid colors or a heavy sunburst (meaning a thick black outline with decidedly darker hues near the middle).
2. Know that basswood dents easily
This is one of the major complaints of basswood. The only advantage to an easy-dent wood is that it does make for an easy “relic” job, but chances are that’s probably not your style. When applying your finish, yes you are better off spraying on a few more coats to accommodate for the softer nature of basswood. While that won’t prevent denting, it at least slows it down.
3. Flat finishes work very well on basswood
Many players like a super-glossy finish, but if you ever wanted to try your hand at a flat finish, basswood works very well here. Being that the grain is a bit “flat-looking” to begin with, you can get that super-smooth flat look with a basswood body fairly easily.
With flat finishes, colors that work well are charcoal (dark gray with hint of blue), “deep sea blue” (same as charcoal with more blue in it and a small amount of green), brown (slightly darker than the color of a walnut), dark pastel green (yes there is such a thing), and so on.
Of course, you don’t have to go totally flat. You can do your flat finish and then add on a light gloss so the body has some sheen to it.
Yes, basswood may not be the premier tonewood of choice and it may dent easy – but the weight is great and you can experiment with finish types that you wouldn’t ordinarily try on other wood species. So before you say “Eww!” again to basswood, give it a try in your next build. You may really like the result.