Are you still a little confused about what precisely differentiates the bass and the guitar? Are you on the precipice of choosing one or the other for yourself or a child to learn and want a definitive answer so you can rest easy that you have made the right decision? Do you simply wish to know which of the two is categorically easier than the other?
Then you are in the right place, for today we will be exploring the various differences between the experience of learning a bass guitar and an electric guitar, as well as why you should not immediately try to call one better or easier than the other.
For many, a bass guitar is considered for the fact that it is easier to hop straight in and learn your favorite songs. Playing bass in rock music is all about those basslines, which are often just simple strings of single notes in sequence. To play bass in some genres like punk, for instance, involves little more than this, and many musicians will go their whole career performing in this way.
The point is that, though this is similarly true for a playing guitar, the bass does not require the use of extended guitar techniques like guitar chords, at least not straight away. As with anything, bass can be as simple or as complex as you like, but for a lot of rock contexts, bass is oft regulated to the single root note sequences that fuel the rock and roll dream state.
And this is not necessarily a bad thing, for it can feel darn good to play bass guitars in such contexts, feeling those deep vibrations surge through the scene and knowing that you are their cause.
People often, when looking to ascribe each instrument of a band to a relative body part, call the bass the blood of the band, it is not hard to see why for they are the relative pulse in these contexts as well as the glue that seems to wrap all the other elements so neatly together.
The number of variations in this band scene is so vast as to be infinite, so it does a disservice to describe it like so, though it is less common that an electric guitar assumes this central role of adhesive within a band context – electric or acoustic guitars for that matter. For the electric bass guitar, this is its bread and butter, what it traditionally does best.
Though this is a more subjective truth, it is one that is validated by many bass players, who believe this element alone is enough to deem bass guitar easier than guitar. And though it does assume that to strum guitar players have to use a plectrum, it is still oft believed that to finger pluck as a bass player often does, is easier than to play guitar.
Many of this persuasion are simply of the belief that bass lines that are finger plucked are far easier to play than rhythm guitar chords that are strummed, the use of one’s own body parts providing a more immediate way to access the instrument than through the use of a separate implement.
To finger pluck on a bass is simply to use one’s index finger and middle finger in a set position to up stroke the strings.
For a bass guitar player this way inclined, it is precisely this notion that will send them off into a rant about such things, after which they will need satiating with a cuddly toy and / or an estrogen shot. Their idea is that it is simply harder to get to grips with a plectrum, at least at first, especially in contrast to just using one’s own body parts.
Likewise, they believe that the use of a plectrum at this stage encourages improper use of both up and down strokes, at a point in a guitarist or bassist’s development where it might otherwise be too early for them to think about such things.
To learn bass through finger plucking of the bass strings is thus deemed better for the development of the musician in question, fostering a natural use of simply up strokes with the fingers plucking naturally upwards.
Though they can be of use at a later point in a bassist’s development, extended techniques like guitar chords are usually not deemed essential, at least until later.
In the words of bass maestro Thundercat, ‘the bass plays a role somewhere between melodic and harmonic and rhythmic. When you think of the rhythm, you think of the drums. And you think about harmonic and melodic, you think of piano. But it’s the in between of that and it creates a bit of its own rhythm and it carries its own melody. If you know a bit about it then it becomes a lot of harmony.’
Even through the use of single notes, a bass can extended and provide harmony that other instruments might seek to implement through the use of chords. Thus, a bass will do the job of rhythmically and harmonically pushing the song forward, occupying an uncanny valley between several other elements of an instrumental unit.
Likewise, there are certain genres like rock where this harmonic progression is more often than not completely missing, relegating the bass to that single sequence of root notes aforementioned, where the bass does little else than reinstate the inherent harmony already established by the other instruments, filling out the sound like an adhesive.
Even still though, and in remarkably similar styles of music, there are bassists like Lou Barlow who use chords on bass to dramatic and notable effect. In his work with his bands Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh, he has pioneered the use of bass chords to devastating effect. Being only a 3 piece, Lou has heard and fulfilled the call to arms whenever fellow band member and guitarist J Mascis sought to display his own relative mastery in the upper echelons of the fretboard, using the bass as a guitar in these instances.
Larger Frets; Bigger Gaps
It is all too easy to make mistakes at the beginning of one’s time learning an instrument, and in fact it is encouraged; as with all things, the tired idiom that one cannot learn without making mistakes scarcely rings more true than in the case of learning an instrument – an act that asks so much of both the conscious and subconscious mind.
Even the most unseasoned musician or the most innocent bystander ought to be able to see the visual and aesthetic differences between the guitar and the bass, even if they do not understand the minute differences between bass amp tube vs solid state.
The fretboard alone is completely different, with these larger frets that excuse at least somewhat the various mistakes that a novice musician is likely to make while getting to grips with an instrument. These larger gaps between the frets provide a wider space for one’s flailing fingers to land on when feeling out the fretboard at the beginning of one’s learning journey.
That being said, these larger frets can sometimes provide a larger obstacle than they remove. Such wide gaps between the frets might at first seem like a blessing, but they can be particularly unforgiving on musicians with smaller hands, meaning that there is a far wider space to cover when moving around even simple bass lines.
So, for all the good it can do in helping a beginner musician with not hitting the right notes or stumbling over frets, it can equally prevent moving between frets properly in the first place, installing a massive gap to cover for a newbie, one that is especially unwelcoming to a beginner musician who is not so well endowed with massive hands with which to cover these larger distances. Thankfully, it is not too difficult t learn how to play guitar with small hands.
For some, the fact that the bass guitar’s role is one that operates more in the background of things might appeal to some people. The bassist in a couple of bands I am in, for example, relishes being the bassist, pulling the rhythmic and harmonci strings from the back without having to be in the limelight.
The bass, despite even visually being at the back of the stage sometimes, is integral to so many different types of western music. Some bands do without them, sure, but where would certain band be without those vital frequencies filling out the sound. Where would a band like the Beatles be without someone like Paul McCartney, whose melodic and mellifluous basslines ascended many a song of theirs, especially from their back catalogue.
Another aspect that appeals to some about the bass is the fact that it oft seen as the cool instrument.
Take a bassist like Alex James, low end machine from the britpop band Blur. His whole aesthetic on stage seems built upon this premise, where he is typically dressed in a hoodie, wearing a bass low slung around his neck like a piece of jewellery, playing it with an air of apathy, all while smoking a cigarette, which itself is either tied to his lips or to the headstock of the bass, letting valuable dregs of tobacco float off into space.
Mastering the Bass
With all of this in mind, however, it would be worth considering the fact that, while it might be in some ways easier to pick up a bass for some, it can also be a difficult instrument to master.
While there are certain aspects of the bass that are physically easier to grapple with than a guitar, there are also a whole bunch that are actually more difficult.
For one thing, basses are bigger and sometimes heavier. I have been playing more bass than usual recently, attempting to start up a more noisy project with some of the members of another band that I am in, and the weight has quite obviously been taking its toll on my own neck, which feels tried and tested when I wake up each morning.
The fretboard is longer and the strings are thicker, both of which mean there is added dexterity and strength required to flit around the fretboard that would not otherwise be necessary on a guitar, which will inherently have a lighter gauge of string.
Crazy Rhythms (& Harmony)
There are other aspects that might be more demanding for a bassist, though these have more to do with the style of music that is being played (in tandem with the physical reality of the instrument of course).
Certain styles, for example, will require a more in depth knowledge and application of complex rhythms. If you were to be playing bass in a funk or jazz band – or even, say, an afrobeat band – then you would need to exercise judicious restraint and a cunning knowledge of more complex rhythms over a longer period of time, for afrobeat songs tend to last for at least 10 minutes or longer.
Similarly (and often simultaneously), there are certain harmonic requirements of the bass that might make it a more difficult instrument to master within the context of certain stylistic constraints; see jazz, wherein the harmonic and rhythmic expectations of a bassist are taken to great heights, especially in the heyday when bands would play for hours and hours.
One of the more specialist techniques of the bass involves slapping the strings to create a rhythmic popping sound.
There are many running jokes about this technique within bass circles, especially as there are a number of bands that use it to ill effect in musical contexts which it simply does not suit (though this ill effect be sometimes intentional).
It can be a very useful technique, especially if a bassist is wanting their instrument to sound out above a host of other instruments that might otherwise be cluttering the mix. The lower frequencies that the bass is usually called upon to broach make it difficult for individual notes to stand out among a panoply of other instrumentation in a band context.
This technique’s usefulness is, however, mirrored in the veritable difficulty of acquiring, and this is certainly not a skill for the faint of heart or short of temper.
5 String Bass (& More)
Some bassists are even inclined, for similar reasons, to bridge further the gap between bass and guitar by using a bass that has 5 or even 6 strings (sometimes even more).
Needless to say, the addition of more strings only serves to further complicate things. A bassist like Thundercat uses just such a 6 string bass, frequently playing it like a guitar, almost as though he is combining all of the things that makes each so difficult together in one package for the fun of it
That being said, the addition of these strings enables him to perform in ways that many other bassists are otherwise unable, enacting dizzying runs up and down the fretboard, as well as playing murky and complex extended chords beneath his silky and adorably soulful voice. Once fed through the various squelchy effects that he uses live, you have a very unique package indeed.
So, there you have it! Hopefully your curiosity has been satiated and you are feeling better able to properly weigh up the pro’s and con’s between both the bass guitar and electric guitar. It is also my personal hope that you are now longer attempting to figure either the bass guitar or electric guitar as easier than one another, and that you are instead seeing each as offering differing things to the user.
FAQs Is Bass Easier than Guitar?
Traditionally, yes, though it does depend what kind of strings you use. If, for example, you were to use a bass that is strung with flat wound strings then it would no doubt hurt more to play a guitar with round wound strings than a bass with flat wound strings. The inverse is, of course, true aswell. Bass can, however, be more physically demanding, even if only through the sheer force necessary to press down the strings into the frets in comparison with a guitar.
Stereotypically, yes, though I know a number of bassists who would say otherwise and who might even get a little upset at your saying so. The saying goes, as with other instruments, that the bass is easy to learn but difficult to master, and though this is a worn idiom it does serve to illustrate how the bass is perceived in a number of rock and pop contexts. The bass can easily and fluidly metamorphose between being a rhythmic and melodic and harmonic instrument, often doing all three within the space of a single song. However, to do so without exhibiting the very seams of the song, one has to be adept at their instrument, almost spiritually taming it.
I know many who might agree and I also know many who would disagree, and I hope that this is at least in some way illustrative of the fact that there is no definite answer. Though they look fairly similar, the traditional role of each is rather different and thus it does not even really bear comparing one as better than the other, lest we neglect what makes each unique. I have of late been drawn to playing the bass guitar in place of an electric guitar because I am fond of the tonal characteristics and how big a band can sound with two bassists, and yet I still would never choose one over the other, nor would I say that either is better.