Precision Bass and Jazz Bass are among the most popular bass guitars out there. However; it is hard to decide which one you should buy. This article covers my (partially subjective) experience on the matter.
A common Precision Bass has a straight body, thick neck and a single pickup; which will produce a singular low-middy thumpy sound. But the singular fat sound sits in the mix really well, which typically attracts groove players looking for a solid foundation.
A common Jazz Bass has an offset body, thin neck and two pickups; which produce various sounds. It won’t get as thumpy as the P-Bass, but the sound variety typically attracts players playing melodic lines and solos.
To me; one of the most significant differences is how those basses affect my note choices. P-Bass sound resembles a thick straight marker line, which makes me play simple, economic and solid lines to fill out the low-mid range. J-Bass sound resembles a thinner but wavy line, which makes me play fiddlier and more melodically to support the harmony.
Versatility: Both basses have been used in all genres across the history of music. Theoretically; you can play any style of music with either bass guitar on ideal situations. Some people associate P-Bass with rock, but Michael League of Snarky Puppy uses a P-Bass in jazz context. Some people associate J-Bass with funk & slap, but Geddy Lee uses a J-Bass in rock context. I rest my case.
Familiarity: Professional sound engineers, recording studios and band leaders know both basses very well, and they are happy to see an industry standard bass in your hand. They know in advance how the bass will behave.
Aftermarket: Being proven industry standards, there is a very large aftermarket for both basses. You can find spare parts easily, they are very modifiable and can be sold / purchased easily on e-Bay.
Precision Bass Perks
Simplicity: Precision Bass is really a plug & play instrument. It’s natural low-mid oriented sound sits in the mix really well, and you don’t have to turn a lot of knobs to sound good. Jazz Bass occupies a wider frequency range and has more knobs; which can be bad tone traps for some players.
Noiseless: Precision Bass has a hum cancelling split coil pickup design, which eliminates the 60-cycle hum completely. So if low noise is a priority for you, P-Bass has the upper hand here. Jazz Bass is silent only if you balance both pickups; if you favor any pickup, you’ll get hum. Some Jazz Bass pickups are hum-cancelling, but they don’t sound vintage; which can be good or bad depending on your tonal goal.
Thump: Precision Bass naturally produces a thumpy, chunky sound with bumped low mids; which covers the low-mid area of the sonic spectrum really well. You definitely hear and feel that deep warm vibe. Jazz Bass can get close to that, but it won’t sound & feel the same.
Jazz Bass Perks
Thin Neck: If you are a guitarist or have small hands in general, the thinner neck of the Jazz Bass would suit you well. P-Bass has a chunky neck, which is claimed to contribute to its chunky sound.
Soloing: If you are going to do a lot of soloing or busy & fast phrasing, Jazz Bass would be a better choice due to its faster neck and bridge pickup sound. However; some modern P-Bass players solo and sound equally well with the help of pedals; such as octave-up. Obviously, you can solo on a vanilla P-Bass too; but the vanilla Jazz seems to cut through the mix better.
Tonal Versatility: Jazz Bass has two blendable pickups, and they can be dialed to get various different tones. Some typical tones are:
- Neck pickup favored: Warm thumpy sound, resembling the P-Bass (but not as thumpy)
- Pickup balance: Scooped sound, suitable for slapping
- Bridge pickup favored: Growly sound, resembling the MM-Bass (but not as growly & bassy)
- Bridge pickup solo: Jaco (enough said)
In my opinion, the sonic differences between those basses are easily overlooked; but are rather important in decision making. Those differences won’t really be audible in a music store or bedroom amp; they become obvious in a band mix.
A common precision bass may sound a little dull on its own; but actually, it has a natural low-mid bump which sits effortlessly right above the kick drum and below the guitars. Therefore, it shines in a mix – especially on rock’n roll or crowded bands. It sounds good without tweaking too many knobs, and can be heard without being too loud because it occupies a naturally idle space in the sonic spectrum – without clashing and fighting other instruments on common sound frequencies.
A common jazz bass may sound nice and tasty on its own; but its natural sound is a little tricky to set into a mix. Typically, a J-bass will have a mid scoop; which means it will be strong on bass (may clash with the kick drum) and high-mids (may clash with guitars) but weak on low-mids (where a P-bass would sit effortlessly). On the other hand, this scooped sound is very articulate and ideal for some scenarios; such as:
- Less crowded bands where the bass may occupy a wide spectrum
- Melodic / solo playing where articulation is important
Theoretically speaking; given the time and energy, any bass can be used in any setting. Band members need to agree on the frequencies to occupy and EQ their instruments accordingly, while sound engineers ensure that the same logic is applied into the FOH & monitor speakers.
Practically speaking; unless you are an A-level professional artist, not every musician or engineer will have the experience, ear sensitivity, time and willingness for such precise sound calibration. Therefore, most of us will need to pick the instrument which will naturally serve them best in less-than-ideal conditions.
Considering the sonic differences mentioned above (Ceteris Paribus); I would prefer…
- …a common P-Bass for rock’n roll, groove playing or crowded bands with multiple kinds of instruments where the audio spectrum is congested
- …a common J-Bass for melodic playing, soloing or less crowded bands where the audio spectrum is free to occupy
Versatility of the P-Bass is based on its singular but perfect tone; which sits in the mix really well, but that has some drawbacks:
- If you need any other tone than the P-Bass thump, you are out of luck
- Some players prefer a less dominant sound on certain types of music
- Tonal singularity might limit your musical discoveries
Versatility of the Jazz Bass is based on tonal diversity, but that has some drawbacks:
- It won’t get as warm & thumpy as the P-Bass; which is a drawback for some players
- More tonal options = more bad tone traps
- Single coil pickups hum when favored, which is disliked by some players and sound engineers. There are noiseless Jazz Bass pickups out there, but they sound different.
With the appropriate playing technique, an experienced player can get many different sounds out of the P-bass as well. But the tonal versatility of the J-Bass is easily accessible and much higher, which is preferable for some players.
Bronze Medal: P or J
You can pick either a P or a J and call it a day. I can’t really say that a common P is better than a common J or vice-versa. Their strengths & weaknesses make them equal; you got to pick whichever corresponds to your requirements better.
Therefore, a common P and J would share the bronze medal.
Silver Medal: PJ Hybrid
There is a hybrid option called PJ-bass, which is basically a P-Bass with an additional J-pickup close to the bridge. It gives an authentic P tone on the neck pickup, a very good Jaco’ish solo tone on the bridge pickup, and a convincing Jazz/MusicMan kind of tone when blended. In my opinion; the J tone of the PJ bass is more authentic than the P tone of a J bass.
Comparing a PJ with common P / J basses;
- Common P-Bass
- Great neck thump, but no JJ sound / J-bridge sound
- Good choice for blues, rock, pop, electronic, picking and sub-woofing
- Get this if you absolutely want that mojo of simplicity over everything else; otherwise PJ is a better choice
- Common J-Bass
- Weak neck thump, great JJ sound and great J-bridge sound.
- Good choice for jazz, latin, fusion, acoustic, soloing, slapping and tapping
- Get this if you absolutely want the genuine JJ sound over everything else; otherwise PJ is a better choice
- Great neck thump, good JJ-ish / MM-ish sound and great J-bridge sound
- Good choice for any genre; best all-around desert island bass
- Get this by default
In case you want to hear a sound comparison, here is a video.
Gold Medal: Vintage ’60s J-Bass
We talked about default sonic characteristics, perks, disadvantages, etc; but finding a good sounding wood is a very difficult hunt which requires a lot of luck. That’s why two basses of the same brand & model can wildly differ from each other.
I got lucky on my Fender CS ’62 Jazz Bass. It has a very light & resonate wood and moderately chunky neck; which have emphasized low-mid characteristics. The true vintage pickups and the thin nitro finish seem to help too.
By emphasizing the neck pickup, cutting the tone and boosting low-mids on the amp; it sounds upright-kind-of-woody and P-Bass-kind-of-middy; for lack of better terms. It doesn’t sound exactly like a P-Bass, but gets into the ballpark – packed with more bass & treble. I subjectively find that tone more usable than a P in my rock and jazz bands.
Other typical settings sound growly and barky like a J-Bass should – unlike some of the “too-warm” custom shop basses I played before.
Although a common PJ will provide a similar versatility, a vintage (especially ’60s) J-Bass with naturally strong low-mids sounds subjectively better. It is more pleasurable to play and listen to.
However; I must add that such J-Basses are very rare and probably not cheap either. If you can’t find or afford such a J-bass, you can lean towards a common PJ bass.