Bass vs. Guitar: Difference, Difficulty and Which Is Better for You
Bass or Guitar?
If you are trying to decide between guitar and bass, then you have a lot of thinking ahead of you. Maybe you’re picking up an instrument for the first time and you’re having a tough time choosing which to learn. You may not know much about either instrument, and your mind may be filled with dozens of questions.
Rest assured: Even though this might seem like the decision of a lifetime, if you take a step back and think things through you can make the best choice for your situation right now, and worry about everything else later.
Or, maybe you already play guitar and your buddies are bugging you to switch to bass and join their band. This is a path many musicians follow when first deciding to pick up the bass guitar, this author included.
I played lead guitar for fifteen years before ever joining a band as a bassist, and it was really a hard decision. In this case, it’s very important to understand what you’re getting yourself into before you commit to a project and spend money on gear, only to end up regretting it.
In this article we’ll examine the electric guitar and the electric bass guitar. With each, you'll earn some facts and information that will help you make the choice between two great instruments.
What’s the Difference Between Guitar and Bass?
If you are an absolute newbie to music you may not even understand the basic differences between guitar and bass. The two instruments are more similar than you probably realize.
The electric guitar is a six-stringed instrument, and standard tuning is: E-A-D-G-B-E. That means the lowest string is tuned to the note E, the next to the note A, the next to D and so on. But knowing the notes isn’t really important right now, as much as understanding how the guitar and bass are related.
The standard bass guitar has only four strings, and is a slightly larger instrument. The tuning of a bass guitar is the same as the lowest four strings of a regular guitar, except one whole octave down in pitch. Therefore, the strings of the bass guitar are tuned E-A-D-G, just like the lowest four strings on a regular guitar.
In many ways, the bass is exactly the same as the guitar, except with two fewer strings and lower tuning. The same scales, chords and music theory you might learn on one carries over to the other. The two instruments are directly related.
This is important to realize, because many players think they have to learn one or the other when first starting out. Realizing there is a direct correlation between the two might make your choice seem a bit less stressful. What you learn on guitar will apply to bass and vice versa. You can make the switch at any time.
Keep in mind, there are all kinds of different tunings used on both instruments, and all kinds of variations of each instrument. There are 7- and 8-string guitars, and 5- and 6-string basses. Don’t let any of that worry you. Once you understand the basics of one instrument, the rest is easy to figure out.
The Role of Bass vs. Guitar
Even though both instruments are theoretically similar, sonically there are major differences. Also, their roles in modern music are usually very different.
One thing many young musicians wonder is why a rock band ever needs a bassist. I know I always did — until I became one! They’re just in the background, and many bands are so drum and guitar-heavy on their albums that you can’t even hear the bass.
This is especially true now that so many guitarists are detuning down to the frequencies once occupied only by the bassist.
In truth, while average bass players may be content with taking a backseat, a good bassist knows that his or her job is to carry the band. They provide the backbone that holds up the other instruments. In genres like jazz and blues, this means settling into a groove and working with the drummer. In metal and hard rock, it means supplying the meat of the guitar riff, that part of the sound that puts the audience through the back wall.
Good bassists are indeed very valuable, so if bass is the path you decide on, then wear your choice proudly!
Guitar has a much more varied role than bass. Where the drums and bass are generally considered the “rhythm” section of a band, the guitar player has more freedom to go off-script with solos and embellishments.
Of course, in most genres the guitarist needs to provide a certain amount of rhythm support too, but the whole band is less likely to go out of whack should the guitar player miss a beat.
Don't be confused by terms like "lead" guitar or "rhythm" guitar. Of course, these guys both play the same instrument, but lead guitarists are more likely to play solos and other intricate pieces, where the rhythm guitarist plays mostly chords. In many rock bands, two guitar players share these duties, or one player takes on both roles.
Guitarists are generally considered more musical than bassists, and in rock music they tend to attract a great deal of attention. After all, it’s their riffs and solos that are most memorable in many forms of modern music.
To sum up: There’s a reason there is a video game called Guitar Hero and not one called Bass Hero. As a guitarist, your job is to write great riffs, play great solos, and know how to play rhythm when you need to. As a bassist, you need to be the driving force behind your band, and you’ll most likely be an unsung hero.
Remember, this is all very general. Many musicians have and will continue to push both instruments outside of their traditional roles. Try telling Geddy Lee of Rush or Steve Harris of Iron Maiden that they can’t write riffs like a guitar player, or tell Les Claypool of Primus that bassists can't be as musically expressive as guitarists.
Les Claypool and Primus
Which Is More Difficult to Play?
Which is easier, guitar or bass? You may think that because the bass only has four strings that it’s an easier instrument to master, but that’s not necessarily true. Depending on what musical genre you’re interested in, and how hard you want to push yourself, both guitar and bass can be fairly easy or extremely hard.
Kurt Cobain proved you don’t need to be a good guitar player to succeed in rock. From that perspective, it’s pretty easy to learn a few chords and start writing songs on a guitar.
On the other hand, guys like Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen, and Jimi Hendrix made their marks by being great musicians and pushing the guitar to new heights. Looking at it from this angle, you could spend the rest of your life practicing and still never live up to your own expectations.
The same is true of bass. Sure, you can join a band as a bassist and, in some genres, as long as you play the right basic notes you’re doing all you need to do. Then again, if you want to play progressive rock or jazz, then you have a long road ahead of you as a bassist, and a lot to learn.
Physically, some newbies may find the guitar easier. The bass is a larger instrument, with thicker strings, and some new players struggle to fret the notes correctly. But if your heart is set on the bass, don’t let this stop you.
The verdict? If you just want to join a band and get playing as quickly as possible, then it is probably easier to be a bassist. But, if you’re really interested in mastering the instrument, neither is an easy choice. They are both extremely challenging if you want to be one of the best.
Nothing Yngwie Does is Easy
Let Your Personality Decide
Ultimately, you may want to make your decision after taking a hard look at your own personality. This might be the best way to decide if you’d be happier as a guitar player or a bassist. Consider the following:
Do you enjoy the spotlight? Are you a “Type-A” personality? Do you want to be the major creative force in your band, and write the majority of the music? Are you willing to put in the necessary time it takes to learn music theory? Is personal creativity and expression the main reason you are interested in music?
Or . . .
Do you consider yourself unconventional, even among other unconventional people? Does being part of a team mean a lot to you? Does the rhythm of the music move you more than the melody? Does the enjoyment of working hard on something mean more to you than the accolades? Do you prefer to lay low rather than being the focus of attention?
If you said “Yes!” more often in paragraph #1 you might be happier as a guitar player. If paragraph #2 got more yesses then you could be better off on bass.
Once again, this is all generally speaking. There are plenty of bass players who are the focus of attention in their bands, and lots of guitar players who work on in obscurity.
Guitar vs. Bass Size
Up until this point this article has dealt with inspirational issues. I think it is important for new musicians to start out on a path that inspires them, even if that path eventually leads them somewhere they never expected. In the beginning, choose whichever instrument gets you the most excited!
Unfortunately, this advice still leaves some new musicians stumped. What if both guitar and bass get you equally fired up? Or, what you simply want to choose the instrument that gives you the best chance at success, with the understanding that you can learn the other later on?
In those cases, you may wish to consider some of the practical aspects of guitar and bass. The bass guitar is a bigger instrument, with thicker strings. This can make it a bit daunting for new players, especially smaller people.
The difference in size between guitar and bass is illustrated by a measurement called scale length. Put as simply as possibly, scale length is the distance from the end of the fretboard on your left (if you are a right-handed guitarist) to where the strings meet the bridge.
Put more accurately, scale length is calculated by measuring the distance between the nut and the middle of the 12th fret, and then multiplying by two. But you don’t need to know that right now.
Here is what you do need to know: Most six-string electric guitars have a scale length measuring between 24.75 inches and 25.5 inches, where most four-string electric basses have a 34-inch scale length. That doesn’t mean bass guitars have more frets, necessarily. It just means the instrument is bigger.
There are also “short-scale” basses with a scale length of 30 inches. They’re smaller than full-size bass guitars, but still a bit chunkier than electric guitars.
If you are having trouble visualizing this, hop in a car and head on down to a local guitar store. Spend some time with both instruments. Hold an electric guitar on your lap, and then try a bass. Which feels more comfortable? You might find the bass is too large to manage. Or, it might feel perfect in your hands.
Let the person at the guitar shop know you are trying to decide between guitar and bass. Those folks are used helping newbies choose a first instrument, so there is no reason to feel embarrassed by any questions you might have.
I hope you’re a little closer to making your decision. If you’ve already made your choice there is no point in delaying things. One of two things is going to happen from here:
- You’re going to start learning an instrument, and never regret it. Maybe it will be guitar, or maybe it will be bass, and maybe you’ll switch in a few years. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you choose, get started in music. Because choice #2 isn’t the one you want to make.
- You’ll put off learning an instrument. You’ll procrastinate. It won’t happen this year. You’ll put it off again next year. Suddenly, one day, you’ll realize years of your life have passed, and you’ll find yourself wishing you had gotten into music long ago.
If that sounds harsh, it is meant to be. I do everything I can to encourage people to get into music, because for me it was one of the best choices I ever made. I don’t care if you learn guitar, or bass, or the drums, or the bassoon. If you have a desire to get into music, do it!
As a new guitarist or bassist your road is relatively easy (as opposed to learning the bassoon). There are excellent beginner guitars and bass guitars for under $200, and you can get an awesome starter amp for around $100. There are also starter packs that come with everything you need.
After you have your instrument, you have to pick a path. Should you take lessons? I’d advise at least considering it. Guitar lessons are not for everyone, but if you can find a good teacher and you learn well in that environment you will move along much faster on the instrument.
There are also many online learning resources available, and there's even software available for your computer. If you want to learn bass or guitar, you'll have a lot of help.
Once you’ve gotten started, the important thing is not to quit! Even if you only have a little bit of time to spend with the instrument every week, keep it up. Quitting is another regret you want to avoid!
Guitarist or Bassist: What Does Your Future Hold?
Here are a few final things to consider:
Firstly, the instrument you choose today may or may not be the one you eventually go on to make your mark with. Plenty of musicians, this author included, play guitar and bass, and it’s great to be versed on both instruments. That way more opportunities are open to you when it comes to finding a band. It also helps you understand where the other guy is coming from when composing music together.
The point is, it’s good to be versatile. Right now, make the best choice you can between guitar and bass, but don’t feel like you can’t change your mind later on. And, don’t be afraid to learn both.
Know also that it doesn’t matter which you learn first. Because the tuning is so similar, much of what you’ll learn can transfer from one instrument to the other. In fact, most guitar instructors teach bass too.
Good luck on your journey to becoming whatever musician you are meant to be. There are no wrong choices, as long as you commit yourself to improving and learning, whether it’s on guitar, or bass, or both.