The question of which of bass or electric guitar is easier to learn has always been asked and keeps triggering endless passionate debates. I’ve started learning both instruments but have made much more significant progress with bass guitar than electric guitar – which didn’t click as well with me. Does this mean bass is easier to learn?
For me, learning bass guitar at a beginner level is much easier than learning acoustic guitar since the bass focuses on single notes and rythm, whereas the guitar is first about playing chords and arpegios.
Finger placement for playing chords on a guitar is very hard at first and takes a lot of practice. In contrast, playing simple basslines is easy and enjoyable from the start, enabling you to play with other musicians relatively quickly.
For some people, however, placing their fingers into the right chord shape on a guitar is much easier than plucking a simple rythmic pattern on the bass alongside another instrument. Also, some people (like me) have a more innate feel for all things rythm, while others more naturally learn chords and harmony.
Of course, the answer to the question of which of bass or electric is easier to learn also depends on how advanced once wants to go. At more advanced levels, both bass and guitar involve mastering harmony and rythm. However, the bass guitar also requires an ear for orchestration since the bass line is what glues together the other instruments in the band by putting down the groove and harmonic anchor.
Let me briefly go over each of the aspects of learning bass and electric guitar that I went through and compare my experience on the two instruments.
I find playing simple notes easier on the bass than on the electric guitar. The neck on the bass guitar is thicker and wider and the frets further apart. Some people find it harder to hold the strings down for this reason.
Granted, the strings are thicker and require a bit more finger muscle to press compared to the thin guitar strings, but I find it more pleasant and easier to place my finger at the right sport (right behind the fret) due to the ample space between frets vs tiny frets and crammed space on the guitar.
On the bass, you typically lay out your four fingers (all but the thumb) flat across contiguous frets even when playing just one note – pressing with only one of the 4 fingers. Placing my fingers flat across the fretboard over the 4 frets feels great as the spread matches my hand’s natural relaxed position.
On the guitar, typically you’ll need to place your hands in a chord shape even when playing single notes, which means you have to know these shapes first. Unless you’re soloing, single notes are generally played as a bridge between two chords. Which brings us to the next point.
The most-often mentioned reason for bass guitar behind easier to learn than electric is chords. Beginner bass players don’t have to play chords, whereas beginner guitar players do. Playing chords is without a doubt the main reason for learning electric guitar.
The thing about chords is that they’re not at all natural to the beginner guitar learner. You have to really twist your fingers into crazy shapes and cram them across 2 or 3 small frets and 4 or 5 strings to make a minor, major, or power chord.
To avoid ugly buzzing noises you have to press the strings hard against the frets with the tip of your fingers – which end up hurting bad – so as to only touch a single string. Sometimes you need to simultaneously mute the adjacent string (but only that string) which means you must place each of your fingers with military-like precision each time you play the chord. And of course, you must do it again for each subsequent chord with fast and seamless transitions.
Learning chords on the electric guitar is hard enough as you need to decipher guitar tabs and finger out which fret and which string to pinch with which finger. Then when you pluck the string with your non-fretting hand, you get this horrible sound until you adjust your fingers and hurt your skin a bit more. Learning to play a few chords without muffled or buzzing sounds can take hours, and learning to transition between them a lot longer.
When learning the bass guitar, in contrast, you’re initially free from chord hell since as I mentioned earlier, you will learn to play bass lines composed of single notes (e.g. G – G . E – G -A). You will likely learn chords but only to understand which notes are included in a given chord, so you’ll know which notes you can play when the guitar or keyboard player is playing say a Bm.
In other words, you won’t need to press more than one finger on a string at a time and learn those crazy chord shapes, at least for a while. You will however need to acquire great finger independance and flexibility so as to play successive notes with random fingers on the same or adjacent string at high speed.
Sounds easy right? No chords, only single notes! So why all the debate about which of bass or electric guitar is harder to learn, right ?
Right hand pluck vs strum
So far, I’ve only discussed the left hand (or the right hand if you’re a lefty), the hand that presses the strings at the right frets to make the notes. The other hand (which I’ll call right hand, reverse that if you’re a lefty) however, is the one that actually make the strings play the sound.
Here again, I find the bass to be much easier than the guitar. On the guitar, the strings are so close to each other it’s hard to train yourself to play only certain strings and not the others, or even muting a string. Again it’s a high-precision exercise. On the bass, the strings are thick and relatively spread out form each other so it’s much easier to control which you’re playing.
When learning the electric, strumming (with your right hand) can also hurt your fingers since the metal string are so thin and sharp. Finger picking may not hurt but it’s hard, again because the strings are so close to each other (especially if you have fat fingers).
Learning to play with a pick is another big thing, for me it was just completely unatural. Learning to control the pick to only strum across certain strings is hard. Using a pick to play single notes is even more challenging and takes a lot of practice (I almost gave up).
Learning to pluck the bass guitar strings with my right-hand fingers was heaps easier. You only play with 2 fingers (unless your name is Jaco Pastorius), you just need to train yourself to always alternate between your index and middle fingers at all times, including when playing different strings.
Rhythm & groove
When learning any instruments, including bass guitar or electric guitar, rhythm is essential. Without good rhythm anything you play will sound crappy, whether your playing on your own or with others.
Learning the bass, however, requires something extra, which you may call groove. Groove is not merely about playing in time with the rest of the music, it’s actually laying down the ground for the rest of the music. That’s probably the hardest part of learning the bass guitar, something which is not so crucial at first when learning the guitar.
Ever noticed how sometimes, a song starts, and as soon as the bass comes in with just 2 or 3 notes, your body wants to start dancing? That’s groove. The art of playing a few notes, but the right notes at the right time.
The groove includes the choice of rhythm pattern (on/before/after the beat and bass drum), the choice of note to play with a given chord from the guitar/keyboard player, the length and percussiveness of each note, how high or low to play the note at, etc..
Learning to lay down a solid foundation on the bass is really an advanced skill that the good bass players take years to master. When learning the bass guitar, however you need to start acquiring some of these skills right away to be able to play with others. Without the ability to lay down a good simple groove, you’re more likely to break a band than contribute to it.
As I mentioned, rhythm is also an important aspect of learning the electric guitar. Rhythmic guitar, for example, involves strumming chords using potentially complex right-hand techniques and patterns. Unlike bass players, however, learner guitar players can typically get by in the beginning with basic rhythm skills (i.e. playing on the beat) and still be able to play in a band.
Which leads me to…
Playing with others
This is probably where the biggest difference between learning bass guitar vs electric lies. You typically learn bass to play in a band, rarely for playing on your own. It’s like learning drums, aside from practice, most people do it to play with other musicians – something that generates an incredible amount of joy.
On the other hand, many people also learn to play the guitar so they can play the songs they love on their own at home, or for singing in public as a standalone player (or with one accompanying instrument). Although, electric guitar is typically learned more with band playing in mind than acoustic.
Along with rhythm, this is the #2 thing that makes learning the bass harder than the guitar. Playing the bass in a band requires an ear for music, orchestration, arrangement.
As I mentioned, your role as a bassist is to build a solid rhythmic and harmonic foundation for the group. Other instrument players (guitar, keyboard, winds etc) depend on you for structure and groove. And the dummer works hand-in-hand with you to lay down that groove.
The most challenging thing when learning the bass, beyond learning your fretboard and chord composition and coming up with good simple lines and patterns, is to be able to listen to other players while you play and give them structure with breathing space.
The bass player is always in the background (including physically) and often goes unnoticed, but s/he can make or break the whole band. It’s like your spine: you never think about it and you take it for granted for your movements, until you get an injury – then you realize how important it is.
So even though you’re able to play good-sounding notes smoothly and swiftly and you know how to hold a good groove, the rubber hits the road when you plug in and start playing with say a guitarist and a drummer. The resulting sound will tell you how much you’ve learned so far and how much work remains for you to learn the bass.
If learning the guitar, on the other hand, you may start playing the chords for a simple tune and sing along after just a few weeks of practice and be happy with your results. You may even find it easy play those chords alongside a drummer and a keyboard. And a good bass player!
I find practicing the bass harder than the guitar for a few reasons. First, the electric guitar is smaller and lighter, so it requires less physical effort, especially if you like to play standing. A guitar with a small amp is also much less bulky to store and carry than a bass with a combo (let alone amp head & speakers).
Another things is, as I mentioned before, you can easily play and practice the guitar on your own and be motivated by the new songs or riffs you learn. Playing the bass alone can be a bit dry, many people need at least a beat or a tune (or a guitarist or drummer) to play with (see this post for more about playing the bass alone).
Lastly, the first thing you learn as a guitar learner may be a 2 or 3-chords progression (read “Let it be”). As a bass learner, you’ll likely start with a 2 or 3 note line played on the beat (“Knocking on Heaven’s door”). The guitar chords sound like the real song, while the bassline alone doesn’t. For some learners, this can make a huge difference in terms of motivation.
To learn the bass, you must be the kind of person who really gets kicks out of rhythm and groove -a bit like a drummer, but with the need for melody on top. If that’s the case, you’ll likely find learning the bass guitar much easier than learning electric.
Featured image: “IMG_5325-1” (CC BY 2.0) by Bengt Nyman
(2) “IMG_7946-1” (CC BY 2.0) by Bengt Nyman