Guitar players have a natural attraction to the bass. Why wouldn’t we? At a glance it looks like a big guitar with four strings instead of six. Cool!
The bass can be particularly appealing to composers and songwriters who want to lay down a bass part for a demo. Maybe you want to expand your job opportunities as a musician. Whatever the case may be, it can be tempting to go buy a bass.
I started playing bass not too long after I took up the guitar. It wasn’t until I started learning about recording and audio production that I realized how terrible my bass skills were.
My timing was awful. Every note buzzed and rattled against the frets. Open strings rang out when I didn’t want them to. My bass skills only improved when I started to develop my overall musicianship.
A guitar player with good technique and solid knowledge of the fretboard can become a passable bass player with a little practice.
Notice I said “passable.”
It’s true that bass players typically play one note at a time instead of chords. But the feel of the instrument, as well as its function in a band, is completely different than a guitar.
Guitar and bass are similar in many aspects. The strings of a standard bass guitar are tuned to the same notes as the lower four strings of a guitar: E, A, D, and G.
The strings are tuned an octave lower than a guitar. Those low frequencies mean you’ll be competing with the kick drum. And the midrange frequencies can clash get drowned out by wailing guitars and sizzling cymbals.
Let’s discuss the differences between guitar and bass, as well as a few tips for working around those differences.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you pick up a bass is the huge amount of space between the strings.
You may not notice the difference if you stick to one string. Bass strings are essentially oversized guitar strings.Things get awkward when you try playing a riff across two or more strings.
Even if you have good technique with a pick (plectrum) on guitar, each stroke has to jump almost twice the distance you’re used to. A Fender Strat has about 7/16″ of space between each string. Meanwhile, a Fender Precision Bass has closer to 3/4″ (for reference, that’s 12/16″).
Switching from guitar to bass exposes an auditory illusion that we usually forget: Sound takes time to travel. That means your hands have to start playing a note a split second before the note is sounded. Our ears trick us into thinking we hear the note at the same time we played it.
It takes more time to pick a bass string. When you subconsciously play bass like a guitar, your timing will be off. Your hands and ears need time to recalibrate.
Tip: Overcoming this obstacle requires practice. Use a metronome or drum track when you practice. Try to keep each note on top of the beat. You will probably be frustrated by how often you play the notes early or late. This will improve with time.
Basses not only have longer necks than guitars. They also have more space between each fret. This makes it harder to stretch for notes.
Say goodbye to all that time you spent practicing 3-note-per-string scales on guitar. While the note placement will transfer from one instrument to the other, you would need massive hands to make your fingers stretch across five frets.
To be clear, there are plenty of bass players with large hands. But it’s not necessary. You can handle a full-scale bass with average-sized hands just fine.
Just in case you truly have smaller-than-average hands, there are short-scale basses that aren’t much bigger than a normal guitar.
For the sake of comfort and efficient movement, bass players tend to keep their fingers fairly close together. Instead of stretching for notes, you will need to know all the different places to find a note.
The wider you stretch your fingers, the slower and weaker they become. Bad news on those big ol’ bass strings.
This calls for solid knowledge of the notes on the fretboard.
Tip: If you have trouble playing a bass part that requires an uncomfortable or painful amount of stretching, look for other locations to play the offending notes on the fretboard. See if you can play the part higher up the neck, or whether playing an open string would solve the issue. There is almost always another way to play a bass part.
Other than playing with pick—a method that is highly controversial among bass players—there are three other ways to pluck the strings of a bass guitar. They are:
- Finger Style: This is the standard way of playing bass. Notes are played by alternating the index and middle fingers. Some players, like Billy Sheehan, use their ring finger, too.
- Thumb: Playing with the thumb only permits downstrokes. The main advantage to this method is a “thumpier” tone that can match well with certain types of songs. Sting has incorporated this technique into his playing since the late 1980s.
- Slap: This style was first developed by Larry Graham, best known for his work with Sly and the Family Stone. Graham wanted to mimic the sound of a bass and snare drum. The style involves bouncing the thumb off the strings in a “slapping” motion. This is often combined with the index or middle finger, which can hook under the D and G strings for a “popping” sound.
All three of these techniques require practice before a guitar player can successfully use them. Guitarists with a background in classical or flamenco guitar might have an easier time with finger style bass. However, the difference in string spacing may still cause poor timing.
Tip: Experiment with different picking techniques. That’s the only way to find what is most comfortable for you. But it’s good to be proficient in all of these styles in case the song—or the mix—calls for a different tone.
Function in a Band Setting
Bass is perhaps the most under-appreciated instrument in popular music. Rock and pop songs lose their groove and sense of motion without the bass part.
Because it is a melodic instrument with a percussive tone, the bass acts as a bridge between the drums and the rest of the band.
You’ll often hear about a bass player “locking in” with the drummer. This refers to the rhythmic interplay between the bass and drums. It is a delicate balancing act where the bass and drums complement each other, rather than competing.
While bass parts in many rock songs play notes on each kick and snare hit, it’s best to find rhythms that sneak in between the beats.
Guitar players tend to gravitate toward basses with thinner or shorter necks. This can be a blessing and a curse because it allows you to play more notes. Too much activity in the bass part can make the song feel chaotic (not in a good way).
Tip: Make a deliberate effort not to play directly on all the beats. If you’re writing a bass part, try skipping a beat or two in each measure. Play on the upbeat. Anything to make the music rhythmically interesting. That’s the real job of a bass.
Hopefully this article has made you reconsider the idea that bass is easier than guitar because it only has four strings. Or the absurd notion that bass is for failed guitarists.
If you failed at guitar, there is a good chance you’ll fail at bass, too. The only exception is if you quit playing guitar because you enjoyed bass more.
Guitar players have a lot of advantages when it comes to playing bass. They are similar instruments. If you’re willing to put in the work to apply what you already know and overcome the challenges of learning a new instruments, you’ve got a good shot.