One of the most common questions among new bass players looking to choose their first bass is whether to start with a Jazz bass (J bass) or a Precision bass (P bass).
When you go looking for a first (or tenth) bass, you need to sift through countless options that eventually boil down to these two bass archetypes.
A Precision bass, because of its simplicity and versatile use, is a fantastic bass for students. Beginners can easily obtain a reliable tone from it out of the box without any tone sculpting skills. It sounds powerful and at home in many styles due to its excellent tone and rich low-register.
That said, every bass player – new or experienced – hits a point when he/she is torn between the Precision and the equally iconic Jazz bass.
What are the unique features of these solid body giants, and how can you decide which one is more suitable for your first rig?
In this post, we’ll explore the key differences between Jazz and Precision-style bass guitars, from the point of view of a beginner, to help you pick the right one to start your journey.
P vs J for a beginner: neck & ergonomics
Since both these bass guitars were originally designed by Fender, they share a classic look, which has set a benchmark for future designs.
The P-bass has a Fender Stratocaster (electric guitar) inspired body and the J-bass takes after Fender’s Jazzmaster electric guitar.
The contours and streamlined body of the J-bass make it more ergonomic and a touch lighter than the P. There is no drastic difference in playability due to the body shape.
Weight-wise, they both are relatively heavier than the median weight of most present-day bass guitars.
All the P and J models in Fender’s catalog use C-profile necks. The P bass neck is 43mm at the nut and remains consistently wide throughout. J-basses have tapered necks that are broad near the body but narrow down to 38mm at the nut.
In other words, a P-bass neck is wider from side to side but thinner from front to back – between the thumb and fingers when you pinch it. The Jazz bass, on the other hand, is narrow from side to side but a little thicker from front to back.
If you’re a smaller player or have small hands, the J-Bass may feel more playable. That said, some contend that beginners benefit from the wider string spacing of the P-bass as it strengthens their fretting hand in the formative stages of learning.
A P-bass may feel a tad strenuous at first, but over time it will ensure better gripping strength and a proper arch in the left hand.
In short, newer bass players typically enjoy the ease of use and body shape of a P-bass and the neck profile of the Jazz bass.
The good news is that Fender has designed both basses with the same neck pocket so their necks are interchangeable. If you are hesitant to swap necks, Fender and several other manufacturers like Peavey (Milestone II, Fury) and Squier (Eva Gardner Signature) offer the grouping in a stock design.
P vs J for a beginner: electronics
The P-Bass is all about simplicity. It carries one of the most unpretentious electronic systems possible – a single split-coil pickup with one knob for tone and one for volume.
Despite that, its unique pickup placement grants it a signature tone that sounds fantastic in most genres.
Think of it as a plug-in and rock-out instrument with a killer inherent tone and a rock-solid build. This makes it a highly coveted instrument as a professional gigging workhorse.
The Jazz bass features two single-coil pickups and a 3 (or more) knobs EQ panel depending on the variant you choose. The additional knobs make it relatively complicated as you need some know-how to tap into the expanded tonal spectrum.
P vs J for beginner: tone
While both are useful in the right context, the J-bass might sound more pleasant to a beginner. It is also more suitable for slap-players than a P-bass.
P-basses have only one tone but it is a great tone. It only requires you to tune up and play on and focus on your learning.
The P-bass has a distinctly old school vibe. It sounds full and deep, which sits well in most mixes and styles that need commanding lows. It is powerful but boomy and lends well to playing with a guitar pick as the sharp attack adds more definition.
A Jazz bass sounds bright with a distinct mid-range growl thanks to its two single-coil pickups that have rich treble and mids as compared to the P-bass. It sounds better solo (when playing by yourself) because the tone cuts better and sounds more modern.
Despite being accused of being a ‘one-trick pony’, the P-bass tone simply sounds great in almost every situation, making it a good choice for a learner.
In contrast, learning to tweak a J-bass to find your sweet spot needs some legwork. Nevertheless, it’s worth the fuss if you want to access to a wider spectrum of tones as a beginner bass player.
Examples of good P or J bass for beginners
Fender basses are the original design and a flagship model is the most apparent choice. With Fender, you have three main options:
- A Squier by Fender model
- A Mexico-made (MIM) model
- An American-made (MIA) Fender model
Squier is a sub-brand of Fender that offers entry-level and mid-market models for beginners and players on a shoe-string budget. They offer excellent value for money and are widely used by students and beginners.
MIA models are expensive and best suited for people who are cash-rich and committed. MIM options like the American Performer Series (formerly American Special) are relatively cheaper and can also be a good choice for a beginner player.
Between the three options, Fender covers dozens of variations in specs, finishes, and electronics. You don’t really need to go looking beyond that as a beginner.
Other brands like G&L, Lakland, or Ibanez also offer noteworthy Precision and Jazz-style basses.
Sire, a brand associated with bass legend Marcus Miller, also makes high-quality instruments at a great price point, well-suited for newer bass players. All their instruments have tapered J-style necks with rolled edges.
The Sire V3 and Sire V7 are a great place to start as they enjoy a formidable reputation among bassists.
You can also look for a MiM Fender Deluxe P Bass Special online or in some stores. They have a P-style body, J-style neck, and active pickups, a great combination for a beginner player.
These models are now discontinued but easily available in the used market. They make a very good middle ground between a Precision and a Jazz bass for an affordable price around $400 to $500.
So… should a beginner get a P or a J bass?
The P-bass and J-bass, by Fender or others, dominate the bass guitar market. Both are universally admired for their sound and specs.
It will likely take a few years before you start to really feel and make yours the subtle difference between these two types of bass, through sound theory, dynamic playing, and a solid rig.
In the early stages of learning the bass, the tradeoff between Precision and Jazz is primarily one of simplicity vs. versatility. You can’t go wrong with either, though, just choose the best option within your budget.
Some bass manufacturers have altered and/or improved upon the traditional P and J bass designs in their own ways. Several models from Ibanez SR Series or Yamaha (TRBX) have become famous for their lightweight bodies and ergonomic design.
There are also PJ style basses with a split-coil in the neck position and a single-coil in the bridge position. Such hybrid basses can also be very suitable for a beginner player.