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Bass vs. Guitar: Difference, Difficulty and Which Is Better for You

The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.

Bass vs Guitar: Do you want to be a real-life guitar hero, or hold down the low end like a boss?

Bass vs Guitar: Do you want to be a real-life guitar hero, or hold down the low end like a boss?

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.

Bass vs. Guitar Tuning Difference

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.

Similarities Between Guitar and Bass

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.

Bass

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.

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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 the bass is the path you decide on, then wear your choice proudly!

Steve Harris of Iron Maiden is a bassist with tremendous skills both on his instrument and as a songwriter.

Steve Harris of Iron Maiden is a bassist with tremendous skills both on his instrument and as a songwriter.

Guitar

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.

Lead and Rhythm Guitar

Don't be confused by terms like "lead" guitar or "rhythm" guitar. Of course, these guys both play the same instrument, but lead and rhythm guitarists play different roles in a band. 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.

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.

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 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.

Guitar and Bass Scale Length

The difference in size between guitar and bass is illustrated by a measurement called scale length. Put as simply as possible, the 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, the 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 to helping newbies choose their first instrument, so there is no reason to feel embarrassed by any questions you might have.

Eddie Van Halen played mind-blowing solos as well as held down rhythm guitar duties.

Eddie Van Halen played mind-blowing solos as well as held down rhythm guitar duties.

Getting Started

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 here:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 beginners, and you can get an awesome starter amp for around $100. There are also starter packs that come with everything you need.

Should you take guitar lessons?

I advise at least considering it. After you have your instrument, you have to pick a path. 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!

Guitar vs. Bass Frequently Asked Questions

Got more questions? Here are more answers:

What’s the difference between bass guitar and lead guitar?

Bass guitar is an instrument whereas lead guitar is a role in a band, not an instrument. Very generally, we can generally divide guitarists into three groups: Lead guitarists, rhythm guitarists, and those who do both. Both rhythm and lead guitar players use regular guitars.

Are bass and guitar chords the same?

In the strictest sense, they are. Any chord you play on the lowest four strings on a guitar you can play on a four-string bass. However, because the bass has such a deep sound, chords can often sound muddy and inarticulate. For this reason, bassists fret the same chords slightly differently than guitarists.

Is the bass guitar a percussion instrument?

No, the bass is an instrument in the strings family, the same as the guitar. Percussion instruments are drums, xylophone, timpani, and similar. Some people may mistakenly think the bass is in the percussion family because it is so closely associated with a song’s rhythm.

Can bass guitar be played without an amplifier?

You can practice both bass and guitar without an amp. In fact, that is a good way to go about working on simple scale practice and dexterity exercises. You don’t need an amp for that. You may not even need an amp for playing in a band. The bass is an instrument that is sometimes run directly into the house system. I suggest at least using a direct box or pedal so you have some control over your sound.

Why is the bass guitar important?

The bass guitar is a key part of the rhythm section of a band. The bass works closely with the drummer to help form the backbone of the music. In addition, it adds depth and low-end to the sound. Without the bass, music would sound thin and lifeless. Unfortunately, the bass guitar is underrated by people who don’t fully understand its importance.

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 improve and learn, whether it’s on guitar, or bass, or both.

Comments

Guitar Gopher (author) on December 09, 2019:

@singerwithabass - Thanks for the kind words. What a great story you have! Thanks for sharing it. You are an inspiration!

singerwithabass on December 08, 2019:

What a great article! I really enjoyed it. I started playing bass 15 years ago, so happy I did. I was a mother of 2 young children and 38 (2004) years old. I was already a singer for about 15 years and wanted to play an instrument. I had played a bit of acoustic guitar for about 5 years but because I was a singer, I couldn't play without singing, therefore I never concentrated on the playing part. So I never got very good at it. My husband (guitar player) bought me a bass in 2004 and I decided to make a commitment to learn it. When I started, I couldn't even speak a word when I was playing, much less sing, so I was able to concentrate totally on the instrument. I spent about 30 min to an hour every day learning songs from tabs, cds, music books of songs I liked. My interest grew and grew. Within 2 years I was going to blues jams with my husband and finding other women to jam with (that was actually pretty difficult to find). My husband and I started a band in 2008 which we still have today. Flash forward 11 years, we currently gig about 20-30 times a year, have a successful 80s tribute band. I am a lead singer and bass player along with another lead singer and bass player. I get to do both. When I'm singing, the other player plays bass and vice versa. I'm able to sing backup vocals while I play. I consider myself an introvert but I love being the center of attention for short periods of time and I love being part of the backbone of the band. Bass is definitely my instrument. I only wish I would have started with it much sooner. I'm 53 now with grown children. My husband and I are enjoying empty nest life playing in our band. I consider myself a solid player with still so much learn and that's what I love about it, you can take the instrument as far as you want! There is always more to learn. I know that I will continue playing (and singing) as long as I am able to...60..70..100?

MegF27 on November 20, 2019:

Interesting article. I am seriously considering a bass guitar. I took lessons years ago and can read music but I am out of practice and never really felt comfortable playing the regular guitar. I learned keyboard as a child. Music will always be a hobby, since I just don't think I have a natural ability.

B A S S on October 21, 2019:

B A S S

Guitar Gopher (author) on September 02, 2019:

@SeleneMac - Is your goal to play guitar or bass? If your goal is to switch to guitar why not start with guitar? If you'd rather focus on bass first I suggest advancing beyond the beginner level before adding another instrument. This may take six months or a year, but many less, but it really depends on how fast you learn and how hard you work.

SeleneMac on September 01, 2019:

I want to learn both, and I have learnt piano and a bit of drums previously. I'm starting off with bass, and I'm trying to convince my friend who already plays to give me lessons (he's not patient enough but i'm getting there). How long do you think I'll be able to switch to guitar?

Rod on August 25, 2019:

Sounds good advice thank you

Godhimseelf on August 17, 2019:

If you chose bass, don't immediately try slapping or anything fancy. I'll admit, as a bassist i had it so easy starting off not needing to learn chords and fretting a million notes at once. The best thing you can do is start on really easy basslines and slowly go onto more intricate lines.

Guitar Gopher (author) on July 11, 2019:

Thanks, Dan, and good luck. Here is an article you might find helpful:

https://spinditty.com/learning/10-Reasons-Youre-Ne...

Dan on July 10, 2019:

@Guitar Gopher

Thanks a lot for the reply and words of inspiration! I will take that advice on board and use it to my advantage.

Great article by the way :)

Guitar Gopher (author) on July 09, 2019:

@Dan - If you are inspired by bass you should give it a shot. Take it slow and have realistic expectations and there is no reason you can't do it! In my opinion, there are few things in this life worse than regret. If you really want to play, you can certainly make it happen. Good luck!

Dan on July 08, 2019:

I wish I could play Bass. I got a guitar about 10 years ago but never really had the motivation to stick with it. I think, like most people, I expected results way too quickly and I needed to learn perseverance. I am a software developer, so for me, it was a major distraction from instruments.

As I get older (30's now) I am finding my love and appreciation of the bass guitar is growing very strong. Main influences for me are Duran Duran, Chic, Bernie Edwards (ofc) - So much talented musicians out there.

I like to think that the deep, thunderous bass touches the body and soul, while the guitar provides the mind journey with facemelting solos.

Rory Casey on June 10, 2019:

Learn to play the bass you will always be in demand there are not enough bass players around.

Guitar Gopher (author) on June 06, 2019:

@Chuck - Not exactly sure what you're asking. Are you saying they recommend a better quality bass over a Chinese-made bass? In my opinion there are some good instruments made overseas, especially for beginners and intermediate players.

If that's not what you mean please clarify.

Ash on June 05, 2019:

I wanna play bass 'cause of Mikey Way. But after I learn bass, I'm gonna learn guitar 'cause of Frank Iero, but I'm not going to play on the floor. The band MCR sparked my music. I kinda wanna learn bass first 'cause um, I originally played trombone, so yeah...kind of know how to hold a long instrument. (I'm really short, so I had to stretch to reach 7th position) And, low brass to bass. And I'm used to playing the bass-line, cause that's all the low brass would play. :)

Chuck on June 05, 2019:

the local music store put emphasis on the quality over non-Chinese made bass.comments?

Daniel Flaherty on April 29, 2019:

I've been playing Guitar since January of this year. I think its easier for me to learn how to play guitar since I know how to read sheet music in Treble clef because of playing Trumpet since 6th grade.

Guitar Gopher (author) on April 03, 2019:

@ Lil chicken strips - Nobody knows anything when they start. Just start somewhere!

Lil chicken strips on April 02, 2019:

im having a proplem myself idk if i should play gutar or bass but the problem is that idk how to play any of them

Steve from Brooklyn on February 16, 2019:

I saw on your first blog a gentleman, Sam Chapman, near my age, who was having some similar issues as I. Maybe my experience could help him. I also have a Strat. I almost gave up at first, but it's gets better the more you do it.

Guitar Gopher (author) on February 16, 2019:

@Steve - Good advice, and congrats on getting back into music! Thanks for sharing your inspirational story.

Steve From Brooklyn on February 15, 2019:

I played bass in a band when I was 15 - 18 years old. Regrettably, I stopped for 40 years! When I decided to return to playing, I knew I loved the bass, but would be mostly be playing alone. I taught myself acoustic 6 string, acoustic 12 and finally, at the old age of 68, got into electric! Love it. My first song - Jimi Hendrix's the Wind Cries Mary. (Hey, why start at the bottom.) Frustrating at first, but getting the first verse down.

I absolutely love it and do regret waiting so long to return, but it's never too late! My advice: Play and don't stop. Enjoy it. It's often frustrating, but the rewards outweigh the pain of learning.

Oh, I also returned to bass. I missed it too much!

Enjoy!

Guitar Gopher (author) on February 01, 2019:

@Daniel - If you like bass you can certainly stick with it. You have plenty of time ahead of you to learn any instrument you want. Also remember that you can play more than one instrument. So, if you decide to learn guitar or keyboard or drums it doesn't mean you have to quit bass.

So there is no reason to feel pressure or confusion. Play the instruments you are interested in, practice every day, and everything will become clearer to you in time. Good luck!

Daniel on January 31, 2019:

I like bass because it is the first instrument I learnt to play on my own ,

unlike drum and keyboard I also like bass for the fills and gaps it occupies even if I am still confused plus Mr gopher I need your advice I'm still 14yrs and I am very determined .

Owen on December 03, 2018:

I like bass because of the feel that it makes

Guitar Gopher (author) on November 29, 2018:

@Kya - I think it's great that you intend to continue with music even after school. Good luck with your decision! Remember there is no wrong answer here and you can always learn the other (bass or guitar) later on.

Kya on November 29, 2018:

What a coincidence, I'm actually looking to transition from bassoon to bass or guitar!! (still deciding). Played for 6 years but now that I've finished school I can't use theirs anymore and I definitely can't afford my own yet (hopefully one day!). I really miss playing in a band though and want to play different genres of music, so hoping to start bass or guitar in the new year. I always loved the versatility of bassoon, you really get to play everything from bass lines and harmonies to the melody and some great solos, so I'm still having some trouble deciding between bass and guitar. Thank you for this article though, definitely gave me some new perspective and things to consider :)

Guitar Gopher (author) on November 26, 2018:

@Elston - Me too! He is a great musician and a huge influence for me as a bassist. I think new and experienced players alike can learn from him.

Elston on November 25, 2018:

I want to be steve harris

Guitar Gopher (author) on September 14, 2018:

Hi Lilli. Glad you are so excited about bass! In addition to the bass and amp you'll need an instrument cable, an inexpensive tuner and probably a strap if you intend to play standing up. You can get some guitar picks if you wish, though many bassists play with their fingers. You may also consider an instruction book, but I think new players can learn anything they need to know online for free. Good luck!

Lilli Schneider on September 13, 2018:

Very helpful and great article! Thanks for helping me choosing, I'm in love with the bass since my childhood, so I'm definitely going for BASS. Please what do I need to buy besides the bass and the amp, any other necessary purchase for a beginner? Thanks for answering me