P Bass vs. J Bass: Kings of Low-End
Most bassists will at some point come to a crossroads where they have to ask themselves, should I play a P bass or a J Bass? There is not a definite answer to this question, seeing as everyone is going to have an answer specific to them. In fact, for some, the answer is both or even neither! After all, these two Fender basses are not the only models that exist. But, more often than not, the choice between a P Bass or a J Bass will come up at some point. Below I will break down some of the key differences that you need to be aware of when making your decision. But first, let’s take a brief look at how these two bass models came to dominate the industry.
A Brief History :
In the late ’40s to early ’50s, electric guitars and guitar amps where on the rise. This meant drummers were playing louder and louder and unamplified upright basses were becoming much harder to hear. Thus, Leo Fender came to the rescue. In 1951 Fender released the first Precision basses (now shortened to P Bass). This model was named for the accuracy that guitar frets brought to the instrument. It took another few years before being equipped with the pickups that we now associate with it, but other than that this bass has the same configuration as the ones made today.
It took about a decade for Fender to follow up the P bass design. In 1960 the company finally had a successor to the Precision in the form of the Jazz bass (shortened to J Bass as well). This instrument was Fender making an attempt to make a bass more suited for jazz players. The marketing pitch was that the brighter sound of the dual single coils would be more suited for the genre… sound familiar? This bass can be considered a counterpart to the Jazzmaster guitar. While this neither the bass nor guitar really became specific to jazz, they both became beloved by players across all genres. The J Bass partnered with the P Bass to take over the entire electric bass market. You would be hard-pressed to find a more iconic instrument pair than these two. So, with that in mind, let’s look at how the P Bass and J Bass differ.
The Body :
The best way to compare these two bodies is to look at what they are based on. Coming first, the P Bass was modeled after Fender’s Stratocaster. In fact, when side by side, a Strat and P Bass are very obviously brothers. The J Bass (as previously mentioned) is basing its body off Fender’s Jazzmaster. Now, this comparison is a little less on point than with the Strat and P Bass. However, there is no doubt that J bases are a slightly offset guitar. It’s worth noting that some may consider the J body less comfortable when compared to the P. This may not apply to you though, just pick one up and see for yourself.
The Neck :
A major difference in the feel of these two models is their necks. You may not notice this with a quick glance but there is a pretty significant taper difference between these basses. The taper is simply how narrow the neck becomes by the time you get to the nut. Jazz basses have a rather obvious decrease in size if you look at the nut (38mm) compared to at the neck joint. The P Bass also has a tapered neck, although much less prominent than that of the former. What does this mean? Well, some prefer the J’s narrow first few frets to aid in quick changes in complex bass lines. Yet some would say the consistency of the P’s neck is the better of the two. Yet again, it is all preference.
With that said about these necks being tapered, keep in mind that other neck features are going to very no matter if you have a P or J style. Things like neck shape, fret size, and fretboard radius are all going to be different depending on the year and series your instrument is from. While things like a modern C neck profile and 9.5-inch radius are common on many modern basses, there is no standard specific to a P or J bass.
The Pickups :
Part of the reason for the P and J Bass popularity is because they cover both of the main types of pickups. The P Bass sports a single dual-coil pickup where the coils are wound out of phase, this process in pickup types is often simply called a humbucker. P basses get their warm and fat sound primarily from this pickup choice. On the other side of things, J basses also have two coils, but they are separated individual pickups. You would just refer to a Jazz bass as single coil instrument, hence no hum is getting bucked. These single-coils give the J Bass its signature clean mid-range tone (I often just think of a funk bass tone).
You have probably picked up by now that there is no better bass here, at least not objectively speaking. For you, it is very likely that either a P or J is going to be the better choice. Hopefully, you feel confident enough to make that decision based on the information listed above. Truthfully, I suspect the majority of readers are going to be very content with either model. Additionally, in many cases, it can be more important to pick out the right price point. There are many great options for both P and J styles of bass from Fender and others. But, going outside of Fender may lead to some discrepancies in this list. After all, the concept of the P and J styles of bass is not the exact same as the original Precision and Jazz basses from Fender. Just remember that all companies put their own spin on things to some extent. In the end, these iconic basses from Fender are what dominate the market today. While there are a couple of other companies (Music Man/Rickenbacker) that have had some models take off, none have paralleled the P or J powerhouses that we all know and love today.