Buying Your First Bass p.2
4-String or 5-String?
For a long time 4-string basses were your only option. Now there are 5- and 6-string basses. The difference is a 5-string bass usually has an extra lower string. This allows you to play 5 lower notes than a 4-string bass in standard tuning. This is pretty low! For most styles of music you don't need these lower notes. A 4-string bass can be tuned lower to get at least two of those lower notes. So you only really gain three extra notes on a 5-string. If you intend to play the hardest heavy metal, you probably do want a 5-string. Those extra notes will be used often.
I think it is easier to start on 4-string. Some of the technique is easier in the beginning and changing over later is not too hard. Also, cheaper 5-string basses rarely sound very good.
What I Recommend
In the under $300 range, I recommend Ibanez basses. They are very consistent in quality. They sound good, are easy to play, and are well-built.
I would also recommend the newer Peavey basses. This company has turned around in the past several years and is producing some quality stuff at great prices. I think they are US made.
Yamaha basses are also good quality basses.
If you are just getting started, Ibanez and Yamaha both have starter packs which include most of what you need (a bass, an amp, and a cord). These are easily good enough to get you going until you can play well enough to make more refined choices.
If you can spend a little more, I think the Tribute line produced by G&L guitars has the best price to quality ratio I have seen. You can get a lot of tonal variety from its excellent electronics.