What’s the difference between bass and guitar, anyway?
They both look alike. They kind of sound alike. Even the way they’re played seems to bear some resemblance.
So, why the differentiation?
In this guide, we’ll look at the difference between bass and guitar, which is easier to learn or play, and a great deal more.
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What’s The Difference Between Bass & Guitar?
In virtually every modern band, the guitar, bass, and drums form the foundation.
There are exceptions of course. Some bands don’t have guitarists (e.g. Rasputina), some bands don’t have bassists (e.g. The White Stripes), and some bands don’t have drummers (e.g. Phoenix).
But it’s no accident that these instruments form the core of most musical projects because each instrument brings something to the table.
Here, we’ll look specifically at how bass and guitar differ, but how these instruments interact with the drums is an important factor too, so we’ll get into that as well.
Number & Thickness Of Strings
The first thing you need to understand about bass and guitar is that they’re equipped with a different number of strings. And the thickness of the strings is different too.
A typical bass comes with four strings, and they are considerably thicker than guitar strings.
One of the key factors here is that the bass holds down the low end (bass) of the frequency range, while the guitar floats on top at higher frequencies.
Size Of instrument
In most cases, basses are bigger than guitars. This is for some of the same reasons we’ve already talked about.
Basses come with thicker strings and are designed to handle bass frequencies.
The shape of the body and the materials it’s made of, however, don’t make much of a difference to the instrument’s overall tone.
The Way They’re Played
Basses are often played with fingers, especially the index and middle finger in alternating thumps.
Skilled players usually know how to slap and pop as well, which is done by “slapping” down on the lower strings with your thumb, and “popping” higher strings with your index, middle, or both, by “lifting” the strings and letting them slap against the neck of the instrument.
Most of the time, bass players only play single-note sequences (one note at a time). Especially talented bassists (like Geddy Lee or Billy Sheehan) will play double stops, and even chords at times, but because of their experience, they also know when it’s tasteful and when it doesn’t sound that great.
Guitars are typically played with a guitar pick (or plectrum). The strings are strummed or picked using the pick.
Sometimes, guitars are played with a combination of pick and fingers, or just fingers, depending on what the player is trying to accomplish.
Where bassists usually play one note at a time, guitarists often play three or more strings at a time (chords).
This isn’t to say there aren’t also single-note or dyad patterns on guitar (riffs), and solos can utilize a variety of techniques, even if most solos consist of sequences consisting of single notes.
You can slap and pop a guitar too, but it doesn't sound the same, and it can be a little harder to do well.
The Role The Instrument Plays In A Band
One of the reasons bassists only play one note a time is because even single notes can sound huge and powerful on bass.
The mindset of a bassist is different than that of a guitarist too. They basically have three key roles:
- To keep the rhythm locked tight with the drummer
- To provide harmony and interest (guitarists typically play full chords, which already have all the essential notes in them)
- To bridge the gap between drummer and guitarist (who can be on completely different wavelengths!)
This isn’t to suggest bass playing can’t be flashy and technical. Just look at Victor Wooten, Stu Hamm, or Davie504.
But when a band is tight, it usually means the bass player is providing a strong foundation for the rest of the band.
A guitarist typically plays or supports the melody. They’ll provide the chording or riff for the singer to sing over, fill in the bars where nothing is going on, and even solo, if the song calls for it.
There is no “one right way” to play the guitar, however, and virtually every player is different.
Just listen to Eddie Van Halen, The Edge, and Django Reinhardt. They all play the same instrument. But they all sound incredibly distinctive.
It just goes to show that different approaches work, depending on the style of music and the band.
Bass Vs. Guitar – Which One Is Easier To Learn? Difficulty Compared
So, here’s what we know about each of these instruments.
First, The Bass Difficulty:
- Bass players usually play one note at time, and overall, tend to play far fewer notes than guitarists
- Bassists tend to harmonize with guitarists instead of just following the root notes in the chord changes
- Bassists do shoulder a significant responsibility though – locking in with the drummer rhythmically, and offering communication between the drummer and guitarist is kind of a big deal
Now, The Guitar Difficulty:
- A guitarist will lock in with the bass player and drummer as well, but are freer in terms of what they can do – they can strum chords, play riffs, bust in with fills and solos, and jump between these responsibilities
- When guitarists aren’t taking the lead and playing the melody, they’re supporting it
- In a power trio (like Rush or King’s X), the guitarist tends to provide most of the texture, color, and embellishment in the music
Based on these summaries, which would you think is easier to learn?
If you guessed bass, you’d be correct!
When you’re playing in a band, the pressure’s always on for every member. But the joke you’ll sometimes hear among musicians is that, assuming the bassist is holding down the right rhythm, it doesn’t matter much which notes they’re playing!
And there is some truth to that, assuming the bass player isn’t off in “Jazz Odyssey” land.
When it comes to playing the bass, the pressure is mostly on in terms of keeping the beat/groove. If you can’t do that, the drummer’s certainly going to be mad at you, and overall, it can make the band unworkable.
But do keep in mind that if you want to become a virtuoso bassist like Stanley Clarke, you’ve got a long road ahead of you. And that road will likely be the same distance a virtuoso guitarist travels to become great.
Learning the guitar is considered considerably harder. A bass player can get away with holding down one note at a time. Meanwhile, guitarists must learn various chord shapes, some of which require the use of all four fingers!
And, depending on your job description, you might even need to be able to switch between rhythm and lead fluidly. Even the most experienced guitarists like Rick Derringer consider this hard.
Finally, a guitarist generally needs to figure out their tone, style, and approach, which can be a much longer road. To sound like yourself, you’ve got to be willing to put in the time and effort!
Which Instrument Is Better?
One instrument is not objectively better than the other.
Bass has its strengths. The guitar has its strengths.
The bass doesn’t make for a great guitar, and the guitar doesn’t make for a great bass.
Both instruments are considered important in most band contexts, as they allow you to cover a broader range of frequencies.
Guitar is heard. Bass is generally felt.
It’s the combination of the two that makes music come to life.
Again, solo bass can be a great thing. Solo guitar can be a great thing too.
But overall, the bass and guitar complement each other quite well, and one enhances the other.
The “quarrel” between online personalities like Davie504 and Stevie T are friendly (it’s like a night at the bar where the guys bust each other’s balls). There’s no basis for one instrument being better than the other.
Bass Or Guitar – Which Is Cheaper To Get Into?
A beginner bass starter kit will generally cost more than a beginner guitar starter kit.
So, it might be cheaper to get into guitar at first. There are some issues with this though.
Long-term, a bassist is probably going to spend less than a guitarist. Why? Because of gear.
A bassist can invest in a combo amp or stack and call it a day. A pro bassist might add a rackmount tuner and effects or floor effects to their rig, but not often.
Meanwhile, guitarists are notorious for buying and trying different amps (combos and stacks), multi-effects units, rackmount preamps and effects, stompboxes, DIs with built-in EQ, and on the list goes.
Many guitarists will buy, sell, and trade for years and years before they settle on anything, and sometimes, they won’t ever settle.
This is all reflected in my journey as a guitarist/bassist as well.
A bassist might play one or two axes for the rest of his life.
The joke that follows guitarists around is this:
“How many more guitars do you need?”
“Oh, just one more.”
And there’s always “one more!”
If you’re just looking to try things out and see where it takes you, then it will be cheaper to start on guitar.
But if it turns into more than just a hobby, you’re almost certainly going to spend more on guitar gear than bass gear.
Which Instrument Is More Widely Played?
Hands down, there are more guitarists than bassists.
You might have assumed it was about equal, but the “guitar hero” image yielded huge influence, especially from the 50s all the way through to the 90s, and the impact of that can still be felt in today’s music.
Ask anyone, and they will tell you guitar is “cooler” than bass. This isn’t an objective statement at all, and bassists certainly have their moments.
But guitar responds to personal touch and is an incredibly expressive instrument. There’s just so much personality in it!
Bass represents a similar opportunity, but it’s not generally played the same way guitar is, and much of the time, it would be impractical to do it that way.
So, there are more guitarists than bassists, and it will probably always be that way. And that also means bassists will always be in demand.
Some guitarists even transitioned over to bass depending on what the band needed. Paul McCartney from The Beatles was just as much a guitar player as a bass player, and so was Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Are There More Opportunities For A Guitarist Or Bassist?
This question is a little harder to answer, but I’ll offer my personal perspective on the matter, as well as some thoughts anchored by experience, anecdotal evidence, things I’ve read, or otherwise.
So, I started playing guitar when I was 17 – a little late by many people’s estimation.
But it was perfect for me. In the first six to eight months, I was already playing Hendrix. In two to three years, I was playing Van Halen.
Opportunities presented themselves right away. As soon as my church found out I was learning to play guitar, they wanted me to come and play on their worship team, which I did for many years.
I started jamming with friends almost immediately and started contributing to music compilations with original music as well as covers.
One of my first bands ended up getting booked to perform at a local coffeehouse, where all Christian oriented music was welcomed. We looked a little weird lugging in our drumkit and big amps on a small stage, but hey, we were open to performing anywhere.
Repeated performances ended up connecting us to a singer, who we immediately recruited. He was a barista at the coffeehouse, and he just happened to sing along with one of our covers (“Message in a Bottle” by The Police).
The singer, though, ended up clashing with other band mates, and the band had little choice but to break up. But I stayed connected with him and continued to collaborate for a while.
That introduced me to the singer-songwriter world. I always wanted to play in a rock band. It felt like the right place for me. And even though I would play in a few bands (and another church worship team) over the years, my ties to the singer-songwriter crowd only strengthened over time.
As of today, I’ve performed and recorded with, and have even produced, a couple dozen singer-songwriters.
Keep in mind – I’ve played in punk and rock bands, worship bands, country bands, cover and tribute bands, wedding bands, as well as jazz duos and quartets. I’ve even done my share of solo gigs.
Somehow, I ended up getting drawn back into the singer-songwriter world every single time. And after a while, I had to embrace it.
Suddenly, I went from having low-paying and pro bono gigs, to gigs that payed $50 to $150 per show. And it was typically easy work for me. Play a few licks between the vocals and sing some harmonies. Hang out with the guys at Denny’s after the show.
And if you think there’s typically more money in the singer-songwriter world than the rock world, you’re wrong! The best paying gigs I’ve had have all been country band and tribute band gigs. Although admittedly the highest paying gig I’ve ever done was a singer-songwriter gig.
I’m quite competent at the bass, but I haven’t been called upon to play it all that often, and the most I ever played was a few gigs with the tribute band, where I normally played guitar.
All that to say… guitar is more in demand than bass? No!
Because there aren't enough bassists in relation to guitarists!
But I can see a few factors playing into it.
- Location. Although we live in a globally connected world, let’s face it – where you live will make a big difference in the opportunities department. If you live in a nowhere town, then it doesn’t matter that you play bass, which might be more in-demand in general. You’d be better off on guitar, because then you could write your own songs and accompany yourself.
- Skill level. A beginner bassist is more likely to be able to find opportunities than a beginner guitarist because a beginner bassist can still lay down a solid groove, while a beginner guitarist can’t do much of anything!
- Songwriting. I don’t totally understand musicians who say they can’t or don’t write their own songs, but okay, I’ll play. If you can’t write at all, then by all means, play the bass. You’re bound to find more opportunities that way.
- Niche. If there’s anything you can learn from the above, it’s that you don’t choose your niche. Your niche chooses you. I would recommend embracing it sooner rather than later, even if it isn’t what you planned for. Try a few things, see what works. If guitar sticks, go with that. If your bassist reputation precedes you, stick to the bass.
Bass Vs Guitar Difference & Difficulty; Final Thoughts
I sincerely hope you now have a better understanding of the bass and the guitar and can even explain to others how they are different.
Again, from the outside looking in, you might assume they are the same thing. But they are generally played differently, play different roles in a band context, and are better served with different mindsets.
Both instruments are great to learn and are a lot of fun to boot.