Genome-wide association studies (GWASs) have the potential to reveal the genetics of microbial phenotypes such as antibiotic resistance and virulence. Capitalizing on the growing wealth of bacterial sequence data, microbial GWAS methods aim to identify causal genetic variants while ignoring spurious associations. Bacteria reproduce clonally, leading to strong population structure and genome-wide linkage, making it challenging to separate true ‘hits’ (i.e. mutations that cause a phenotype) from non-causal linked mutations. GWAS methods attempt to correct for population structure in different ways, but their performance has not yet been systematically and comprehensively evaluated under a range of evolutionary scenarios. Here, we developed a bacterial GWAS simulator (BacGWASim) to generate bacterial genomes with varying rates of mutation, recombination and other evolutionary parameters, along with a subset of causal mutations underlying a phenotype of interest. We assessed the performance (recall and precision) of three widely used single-locus GWAS approaches (cluster-based, dimensionality-reduction and linear mixed models, implemented in plink, pyseer and gemma) and one relatively new multi-locus model implemented in pyseer, across a range of simulated sample sizes, recombination rates and causal mutation effect sizes. As expected, all methods performed better with larger sample sizes and effect sizes. The performance of clustering and dimensionality reduction approaches to correct for population structure were considerably variable according to the choice of parameters. Notably, the multi-locus elastic net (lasso) approach was consistently amongst the highest-performing methods, and had the highest power in detecting causal variants with both low and high effect sizes. Most methods reached the level of good performance (recall >0.75) for identifying causal mutations of strong effect size [log odds ratio (OR) ≥2] with a sample size of 2000 genomes. However, only elastic nets reached the level of reasonable performance (recall=0.35) for detecting markers with weaker effects (log OR ~1) in smaller samples. Elastic nets also showed superior precision and recall in controlling for genome-wide linkage, relative to single-locus models. However, all methods performed relatively poorly on highly clonal (low-recombining) genomes, suggesting room for improvement in method development. These findings show the potential for multi-locus models to improve bacterial GWAS performance. BacGWASim code and simulated data are publicly available to enable further comparisons and benchmarking of new methods.