How Hard Is Learning Bass Guitar? A No-Nonsense Answer

If you’re considering learning bass guitar, you’ve probably heard all kinds of answers regarding how easy or difficult it is and how fast you can learn it.

For most learners, bass guitar is easy to pick up at first as it’s a relatively beginner-friendly instrument. A learner with no musical background can typically play basic bass tabs within a few days, and hold a simple bass line in a 3-piece pop/rock band within a few weeks.

While the bass is easy to get started on, becoming a true bass player is a lot more challenging. Playing the bass requires a solid mastery of both rhythm and harmony in order to interact with and support the other instruments in the band. 

As a bass player, others rely on you and the drummer for laying down the groove. You need to play the right notes at the right time with each chord played by the guitar or piano in the song. This requires a lot of practice, listening skills, and understanding of scales and harmony.

Beginner tip: dozens of bass learners warmly praise Hal Leonard’s bass lesson book series

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Easy start, challenging mastery

As a beginner, it’s easy enough to plug in a bass, listen to a simple 3-4 chord, 4/4 beat pop/rock song, and learn to play the root note of each chord on the first and third beats. After a little practice, you’re already playing that bass.

Moving beyond playing the root notes on the beat, however, takes a lot more effort and skills. You need to become very familiar with your fret board and the notes on it, learn the scales and which notes make up each chord. 

You must develop a feel for when to play notes to build a solid groove. You must also learn to listen to the other instruments while you play so as to lock in with the drummer and work with the harmonic instruments.

Unlike the guitar, on the bass you generally play one note at a time. The challenge, however, is playing the right note (harmony, working with the guitar, keyboard, etc) at the right time (rhythm, working with the drummer).

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See also: Talkingbass vs Scott’s Bass Lessons: Which Course To Choose?

Can you teach yourself bass guitar?

teach yourself bass guitar

Many learners are able to get started on the bass guitar on their own by looking up tablatures for their favorite songs. Tabs tell you where to place each finger throughout the song, i.e. on which string and which fret.

Using bass tablatures, you can typically learn songs pretty fast once you get the hang of how tabs work. Working with tabs allows you to quickly become familiar with the bass guitar and develop muscle memory for both the fretting and plucking hand.

Another approach learners take to teach themselves the bass is deciphering and mimicking the bass lines of their favorite songs by ear.

This can really help get you started as it forces you to build up your listening skills, forcing you to not only distinguish the bass from the other instruments, but also to understand how the bass fits in with the drums, guitar, etc.

Learning to play new songs you don’t know can give you an ever greater boost and help you find your own style and voice.

Learning through tabs or by ear can be great for building your musical skills as a bass player. However, there are aspects of learning the bass these approaches won’t help with, such as left hand position and plucking techniques. 

Watching videos can certainly help with such techniques, but knowing what to practice, how, and when is always a big challenge. For these reasons, once you’ve become familiar with the bass and can play basic songs, my recommendation is to take a few lessons to get you on the right track.

See also: Is Rocksmith Good For Learning Bass?

Is learning basic bass skills hard?

The first major skill for bass guitar is learning where the notes are on your fret board and playing them well. You must learn the notes on each string from the nut all the way to the 12th fret.

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You should be able to play named notes (e.g. A-G-C) without hesitation – it comes with practice.

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You need to build the necessary strength in your left fingers to push and hold the thick strings against the fingerboard close to the frets for a decent sound.

You must also learn to correctly position your left hand taking into account the previous and following notes, and seamlessly shift your hand up and down the fret board to play notes far apart.

Besides fret board and left hand skills, right-hand skills are also fundamental in bass guitar. Learning to use your right fingers alternately for picking takes practice, keeping control over each note, learning how to play soft and hard, and moving smoothly from one to the other. 

You’ll need to coordinate your left hand and right hand to play solid basslines. This is the stage when the learning curve starts to take off and you start to have a little more fun.   

Is learning advanced bass guitar skills hard?

So you now know your fret board, notes, and are able to pick simple bass lines smoothly with a decent sound. The next step is to learn to play melodic bass lines, more complex rhythm patterns, and use more varied right-hand techniques.

While initially, you mostly focus on playing the root or 5th notes of every chord over the course of a song, playing richer melodic bass lines involves playing a lot more notes. This requires  learning how chords are constructed and how chord progressions work.

Once you know the theory, you’ll need to do a lot of practicing to get comfortable with scales, chords, and common chord patterns.

On the rhythm side, as a bass player you’ll need to go beyond the initial simple patterns (e.g. playing on the beat) and build a strong sense of rhythm with more syncopated patterns and dynamics while maintaining a solid time feel. 

You’ll also want to learn percussive techniques such as slapping, popping, thumb playing, fingerstyle, tapping, bending, muting, slides etc. Learning these skills get exponentially difficult both physically and in terms of bass lines.

Other more advanced bass skills include learning arpeggio, double-stops (2-note chords actually played on the bass), and playing solos.

Learning to play with other instruments

At the basic level, all that is required from a bass player is for him/her to be able to play the right note on each song chord and keep time. Many classic rock or blues bands are interested in a low-key bass player with such basic abilities, even if s/he has little experience.

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Even experienced rock bassists will sometimes play a very simple bass line, but play it perfectly in time and in the pocket – which has the amazing effect of making the whole band sound great.

The most important skill for a bass player is knowing how to play rhythm with the drums and melody/harmony with the guitar and vocals.Thus, as a bass player you need to have as much harmonic skills as a guitarist/piano player, and as much groove skills as a drummer. 

Learning how to play with other musicians is a very difficult skill, one that is especially important for a bass player. These interactions require a certain maturity and strong listening skills on the part of the bass player.

All these abilities come with time, practice, and experience. This is why it can be argued that learning to play the bass well is hard. 

See also: bass guitar and drums relationship

Is bass harder than guitar?

Getting started on the bass is easier than on the guitar because the focus is on playing single notes, one string at at a time, as opposed to learning chords on the guitar. Also, bass learners generally start with a 4-strings bass, which is less intimidating than the 6 strings on a guitar. 

The right-hand is also easier on the bass since you initially use a 2-finger approach vs 5 or 5 fingers on the guitar.

See also: is bass guitar easier to learn than guitar?

As mentioned earlier, it’s possible to pick up a bass and be able to play a simple song quickly, whereas initially learning guitar chords and playing them clearly can take days or weeks.

After the initial stage, however, progression can be faster on the guitar. Once you’ve learned basic chords, there are many popular songs you can learn to play in a relatively short period. 

In contrast, as discussed above, progressing on the bass beyond simple lines made of root and fifth notes requires a lot of effort. Blending a tight groove with a melodic flow takes a lot of ability. 

Also, the goal of bass guitar learners is typically to play with a band, which requires a lot more skill. Guitar, on the other hand, can easily be played alone. See this post on playing bass without a band.

The bass guitar is also more physically challenging as it’s bulkier and heavier than a guitar, with a longer neck and thicker strings, which requires more stamina and hand muscle.

Photo credits:
(2) “Bassist in the woods” (CC BY 2.0) by neate photos