It’s often been said that bass is for people who can’t play guitar. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While the two instruments share some physical and aesthetic similarities, both serve very different roles in the band and require very different skill sets.
Having knowledge and expertise on one instrument will always present an advantage when learning another. An adept bass player will undoubtedly learn guitar more quickly simply from having prior experience with music and understanding basic fundamentals of playing stringed instruments. And the reverse is also true; a skilled guitarist will learn the bass more quickly for the very same reason. And by extension, both could learn violin, viola, and cello more easily than someone with no prior music experience whatsoever.
What are the key differences in the function of bass vs. guitar?
Bass and guitar play different roles in an ensemble or band. The bass player is responsible for keeping a strong pulse or groove, and supporting the harmonic structures by rooting the harmony with a melodic figure in the low register.
The guitar, by contrast, is primarily responsible for filling out the harmony and harmonic structures, providing rhythmic variety, and adding color to the ensemble. The guitar can also act as the main melodic, or lead, figure as well.
Guitar and bass guitar share a similar aesthetic and shape, but their differences far outnumber the similarities. The most obvious difference is that the bass guitar is significantly larger than the guitar. The reason for this is due to the size of the strings and the sound register of the instrument. The bass guitar traditionally has only 4 very large and thick strings, whereas the guitar will have 6 strings that are shorter with a much smaller gauge (radius/diameter). Many modern basses will have 5 or 6 strings for added versatility, but this is generally the exception to the rule.
Is learning bass similar to guitar?
The question is rooted in the assumption that we’re comparing the guitar with a bass guitar, as opposed to the double bass (also referred to as upright bass).
There are some similarities in learning bass guitar and learning guitar. Both require using a “fretting” hand and both require using a “picking” or “pizzicato” hand. The bass guitar and the guitar are also tuned similarly, so finding notes on one will be very similar to finding notes on the other. But this is where most of the similarities end. Many suggest learning bass before guitar to simply have a working knowledge of the notes and fretboard navigation. Although the reverse is true as well.
Neither is easier than the other, and neither have advantages to starting first. In fact, regardless of which is learned first, there will be an adjustment period to learning the other, given that the act of playing will feel extremely different due to the sizes of the instruments and the string gauges.
An argument can be made that playing bass is a much more physically demanding instrument. On bass, the fretting fingers on the left hand are typically used differently than the guitar, in order to support the hand in pressing down the large, heavy strings. When playing bass guitar, the right hand can use a pick, or plectrum, to strike the strings and generate reverberation, or it can use the fingers on the right hand for a softer attack on the strings.
The difference in both right and left hand technique is substantial and generally does not translate easily without practice. Playing bass before guitar will require an adjustment to the thin strings and lack of space between them. Learning guitar before bass will require a period of adjustment to the large, heavy strings and the force with which is needed to create sustain.
Do most musicians play both bass and guitar?
Actually, most musicians do not necessarily play either bass or guitar. However, those professional musicians who do play one quite often play the other. This is part of being a professional.
In the same way that most professional saxophone players may double on clarinet and flute, or most professional violin players will have a working knowledge of viola, it’s a healthy expectation that any professional bass player will be able to play guitar to some degree. And more than likely, any professional guitar player will probably have some bass guitar skills as well.
Upright bass, however, presents an entirely different challenge. In fact, not all electric bass players even play upright bass. So the likelihood that a guitar player also plays upright bass is slim.
Should I learn bass before guitar? Or guitar before bass?
If the goal is to learn guitar, then the first instrument you should pick up is guitar. Conversely, if the first instrument you wish to learn is bass, then play bass first. Ironically enough, students may find that bass lessons for beginners are often taught by guitar players. More than likely, many guitar teachers are also principally bassists.
Knowing how to play bass will help learning guitar. However, learning bass before guitar to simply gain an advantage is nonsensical, and simply delaying any progress on your desired instrument. Not only is the technique different, the instrument will feel very different, making a switch uncomfortable at first. Knowing how to play bass will help a student navigate the notes and positions on guitar very well compared to a student with no prior knowledge. And overcoming a technical challenge can be done with practice quite easily. As long as the bass player or guitar player becomes familiar enough with the feel and playability of the instrument, any issues will be mitigated.
There may be some downsides from a performance perspective. The other, more subtle challenge is learning what to listen for when you’re performing with a group. A bass player needs to be locked into the drummer and listening intently to that bass drum. Time, pulse, and groove are paramount. The guitar player is a bridge between the bass and the melodic figure, with a focus on some other group dynamics. Making that change within an ensemble setting is difficult, as the focus will change and can take some getting used to.
Why not learn guitar and bass?
In order to gain a better understanding of music, group performance dynamics, and improve overall musicianship, learning both guitar and bass is the best avenue. Forbes Music works with incredible special teachers of both specialties that make learning fun, rewarding, and can accelerate your skills development beyond expectations.
Whether you pick guitar or bass first, it’s encouraged to make the transition to the other (albeit not permanently!), not for a learning advantage to make the other easier, but to become a more well rounded musician capable of participating in multiple ensemble settings. Learn bass and be a great bassist, and learn guitar and be a great guitarist! Regardless of which, learning any instrument is a lifelong endeavor.