The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Fender Bass Guitars
The Fender Jazz Bass and Precision Bass are classic instruments built by one of the biggest names in the music world. Fender bass guitars are used by the best bassists in the industry, and it’s been that way for over sixty years.
If you are in the process of searching for a new bass, or if you’re just dreaming about that perfect instrument, you’d be smart to have Fender at the top of your list. The only problem is deciding which Fender to choose!
The Fender Precision Bass made its debut in 1951 and quite literally changed music. No longer did a bassist have to lug a massive upright bass around. Of course, many purists still did (and many still do today), but others plugged in and cranked up, embracing this newfangled technology called the “bass guitar.”
The Jazz Bass would come along almost a decade later. This new instrument featured a more diverse array of sounds and a slightly different feel. But we’ll get to all of that! By the early 1960s the Jazz and Precision basses had taken the forms we know today, and while there have been improvements to hardware and technology along the way, the standard designs have stuck.
That’s about enough with the Fender history! The point of this article is to help you to understand the differences between the Fender Precision Bass vs the Fender Jazz Bass and hopefully get you closer to making a decision about which bass is right for you. Fender is one of the best bass builders in the world, and you can count on either.
On to the gear!
Fender American vs MIM vs Squier Basses
It’s important to realize that Fender reaches out to all levels of player and budget with almost every instrument they build. The Precision and Jazz bass guitars are no different. Of course, the best of the best are American-made Fender guitars and bass guitars. But even they vary in appointments, materials and, to some degree, quality.
For the working or intermediate player, for a long while, Fender had the Standard series. These instruments were built in Fender’s factories down in Mexico, and because of this have earned the nickname “MIM”, as in “Made in Mexico”. These are very good instruments, and will come in at around half the cost of an American Professional bass. The Standard Series has been rebranded as the Players Series in 2018.
For beginners and the budget-minded, Fender gives us the Squier brand. Squier bass guitars are built to Fender specs but cost significantly less than either a MIM Fender bass, or the American-made version.
Because of this, they are a great option for newbies, but even some veteran players appreciate Squier for the value. In fact, their Vintage Modified Jazz Bass is, in my opinion, pretty close to the MIM series in sound and quality.
As you can probably guess, the specs vary wildly between these different levels of Fenders. So, for the purpose of this review, we’ll be looking at the Fender Player Series, which is roughly in the middle of their price range.
You'll also see some references and information on the American Professional and American Elite Series, just for comparison. If you have the cash for these guitars you should consider them.
It is generally true that the same differences between the Player Jazz and Precision basses will be accurate for the other Fender and Squier lines.
Here's a quick look at both the Jazz and Precision Bass, followed by more in-depth info.
The Precision Bass
While I love high-end Fenders, I think the Player Series is more realistic for many players. Certainly, I've had more experience with the intermediate-level Jazz and Precision. They've good enough for any level or player, including working pros, so don't feel like you're missing out. Yes, expensive Fenders and fantastic, but these basses are really good too.
The Precision Bass is punchy and powerful, with a full sound. To me, it is the perfect bass for rock, especially played with a pick. However, guys like Steve Harris of Iron Maiden might argue it sounds better fingerstyle and with a set of flatwounds!
Despite the name given its stablemate below, the P-Bass does very well in jazz too. In fact, it can find a home in just about any genre.
The Jazz Bass
Even though I think very highly of the Precision Bass, the Jazz Bass is the instrument I've gravitated toward more than any other Fender bass guitar. It has a slightly slicker feel, and the pickups allow you a little more flexibility.
Like the P-Bass, the Jazz transcends just about every musical genre. I've used it for rock, blues, even metal, and yes, of course, jazz.
On both basses, I prefer a maple fingerboard. They also come with the option of pau ferro, and older models had rosewood fretboards.
P Bass vs J Bass Construction and Materials
Both bass guitars feature a similar double-cutaway design, but there are some differences. The Precision Bass has a slightly bulkier body, something like an over-sized Stratocaster. The Jazz Bass is a bit more contoured. Both bodies in the Player Series are Alder with a gloss finish. Alder is a bright-to-midrange tonewood utilized in most Fender guitars and basses.
Both basses feature modern “C” shape maple necks with 20-fret rosewood or maple fretboards and a 34-inch scale.
On paper, these basses look almost identical, but the Precision Bass has a bit more substantial feel. This is largely due to the difference in body shape, but also due to a slightly wider nut width.
According to Fender's website, the Jazz comes in a 1.5" at the nut, where the Precision measures 1.625". It’s a subtle difference, but one veteran players will notice.
Obviously there are aesthetic differences as well. The Precision Bass has a larger pickguard that extends down to the volume and tone knob. The Jazz Bass has as smaller pickguard, which some J Bass players remove so that more of the wood is shown. The pickguard on a Jazz Bass is much easier to swap out than on the Precision Bass.
So, with the exception of a different body shape and a slightly wider nut for the Precision Bass, which can make it feel a bit heftier, its seems we’re looking at very similar instruments. But as we move on to electronics we’ll see some major differences pop up.
Fender Pickups, Electronics and Sound
Fender must have known they already had something great going on with the Precision Bass when they introduced the Jazz Bass back in the early ‘60s. It wouldn't have made sense for them to change everything, but a few tweaks were in order. They made the body a little sleeker, and they gave their new creation a different sound.
The Precision Bass has a deep, punchy tone thanks to a Fender split single-coil pickup mounted just in the right spot. A single volume and single tone control manage the sound. It’s a simple but effective design that has helped to shape the sound of rock music for decades.
Many musicians have come to rely on the Fender P Bass for heavy, aggressive sounds that power through a mix packed with distorted guitars. But it’s an instrument equally at home crafting smooth jazz or holding down the bass line in a country standard.
This is the original electric bass, and it has stood the test of time.
The Jazz Bass has a different set of tricks up its sleeve. Two Fender Single-Coil Jazz pickups are controlled by a pair of volume knobs (one for each pickup) and a tone control.
The J Bass is a bit brighter and offers more flexibility thanks to its dual pickups. Jazz players love it for its velvet-smooth tones, but cranking the pickups will bring growl that any rock bassist will find more than usable.
Every Jazz Bass player learns to find just the right blend between the two pickups to nail that tone they want.
Precision vs Jazz Tone Shaping
You may be thinking, since the Jazz Bass has an extra pickup, you can go with the J Bass and turn off the bridge pickup when you want it to sound like a P Bass. If only things were so simple! The Precision and Jazz basses have their own unique vibes, and once you’ve been around for a while you can tell them apart by ear easy enough.
Still, it’s a little too easy to generalize and say the Precision Bass is punchy and aggressive where the Jazz Bass is smooth and more flexible. Geddy Lee is a great example of a bassist who uses the Jazz Bass for heavier rock music, and he sounds pretty darned good to me.
It’s also important to note that both basses utilize passive electronics. This means you won’t have the sweeping tone-shaping options that you see in many modern basses that feature three-band EQs and other bells and whistles.
The sound of the Precision and Jazz bass is all about wood, construction quality and simple but effective electronics. You can go with a high-end bass if you want, but often intermediate-level bass guitars offer the best value while still sounding great.
Oh, and your hands. Remember, the most important factor governing the tone of your bass is you!
This brings me to my last point about sound and a little anecdote:
Tone Is in Your Hands
A few years back, by happenstance, I saw a jazz band perform. They had an old-timer on bass and this guy had to be in his 70s. He was playing a Precision Bass that, from the looks of the case, he'd probably owned for decades.
His tone was round and deep, as you’d expect from a P Bass, but also had a special vibe to it. It was so smooth, so textured, and every note just seemed to melt into the next. I was in awe of this guy’s sound, even after several decades as a musician myself.
A couple of very important points were reinforced to me that day. First, as a musician, if you keep your eyes and ears open you never know who you can learn something from.
Secondly, the tone really is in your hands. This guy’s sound came from him, not the bass and not his amp. It was a mojo all his own, honed by, who knows, maybe 50 or more years of playing bass. Amazing.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stick around and talk to the guy after his set, but man I would have loved to pick his brain.
Which Bass Should You Choose?
By now maybe it is clear which instrument is right for you.
If not, take a step back. Remember that, while we’ve seen that both can be used for any style of music, if you haven’t yet found your sound stick to the basics.
- If you play in a heavy rock or metal band the Precision Bass is probably a better choice. It has the guts to hang with heavy guitars, especially if you plan to play with a pick.
- If you play rock music you need to choose between the punch of the P Bass and the growl of the J.
- If you play in a cover band the Jazz Bass might give you the flexibility you need to cop the right tone in each song.
- If you play country or blues the Jazz Bass brings a brighter sound that might serve you better.
- For jazz players, it may seem like the choice is clear, but remember my anecdote about the old dude with the P Bass.
Of course, you really can’t make a bad choice, and hopefully, this article helped to outline the differences and similarities between the Fender P and J Basses. They’re both great instruments, and unfortunately this is one of those cases where you’re probably going to eventually want one of each. Which will you choose first: Precision Bass or Jazz Bass? Good luck with your decision!
P-Bass or Jazz?
Greg Furtek on May 01, 2019:
I've owned quite a few of both the Jazz and the Precision but the P Bass always had that tone. After playing mid sixties P basses for years I recently settled on a 60s midnight precision bass limited edition. It's Made in Japan and it blows away the American one.
John on February 10, 2019:
Love my pbass with a mid sixties jazz neck it's old rosewood with block inlays and no binding just upgraded to EMG active pick ups should have done that years ago I replaced the bridge 30 years ago with a Schaller high mass roller bridge love my fender with mods due to worn out parts the old wood is very warm and smooth sounding
Brian Eichelhart on November 29, 2018:
I have been a Bassist for over 40 years having performed for Wayne Cochran, Soul Ballet, Staple Singers, Bill Withers and Mark Isham. I always preferred the Jazz Bass because I can translate musically quite well.