Many guitar players feel attracted to the bass and its beautiful low end. Should they make the switch?
Guitar players can learn bass if they aspire to the foundational role of basslines that function as a bridge between drums and guitar. Those who transition successfully from guitar to bass will enjoy more opportunities for gigs/recordings since bassists are less common as compared to guitarists.
A genuine love for grooving and for sounds of the low register, and a keen sense of the musical context, is a prerequisite for a guitarist who aspires to switch to bass.
Bassists ought to be modest team players who play a pivotal role in the song but don’t get the lion’s share of the spotlight.
Don’t make the switch thinking that the bass is easy or a quick way to make inroads into a band. Bass playing is as rigorous a discipline as any other instrument. You may pick up certain things faster than a guitar, but the overall effort to attain mastery remains largely the same.
Is it easy to go from guitar to bass?
While a guitar player can easily transition from guitar to bass, the real challenge is to learn to think like a bassist. Guitarists have a different mindset which they carry with them while playing the bass.
In bass playing, your note selection will impact the rhythm and harmony very differently. Busy basslines or overcomplicated grooves can ruin the feel of the song.
You may need to spend some time unlearning old habits and reorienting your thinking to align with the role of a bassist.
Lock in on the kick drum
The drummer and bass player are in a ‘three-legged race’. Locking the bass with the kick drum is one of the essential mantras of any good groove. Coming from the guitar, this is a skill that needs to be acquired
If this relationship is messed up, it can instantly make the song sound sloppy and ‘loose’. When done judiciously, this will make the song come to life.
A guitarist already knows notes, scale, chords
The biggest advantage of switching from guitar to bass is that you already know the fretboard layout, strings, notes, and their relation to each other. This means your time spent on the theory of scales and modes will not go to waste.
Hand and muscle memory transfers over
The bass to guitar transition is one of the smoothest because they involve similar use of fingers. The hours you’ve spent woodshedding and drilling out scales/phrases to jack up your motor memory will not be squandered.
However, there is an additional learning curve, especially for your right-hand technique. Initially, you can play with a pick to ease into the instrument. As you progress, you can work on your fingerstyle playing and eventually learn to slap to become a well-rounded bass player.
Bass: fewer notes
Bass is all about playing grooves. You’ll only see chords played in erudite passages and solo work. Generally, bass players drive the music with economical notes and a ‘less is more’ approach.
Busy fills, complex runs, and other shenanigans should be tasteful and sparse and restraint will ensure that you don’t sacrifice the groove for embellishment, contrary to the guitar.
Also, each bass note on strong beats can add to the chord voicings, for better or worse. This can significantly change the underlying harmony. Bassists should choose notes that complement (not contradict) the intended harmony and everyone else’s voicings.
Switching is easier for rhythm guitarists
Pocket-playing on the bass is frugal, to-the-point, and sounds tight. This gives the rhythm a solid backbone and drives the song. It is the main role of a bassist in various genres and styles.
Luckily, this is something a rhythm guitarist will instantaneously relate to. Lead guitarists are accustomed to playing more involved parts. They may even get away with embellishments when they are not needed. Rhythm guitars, on the other hand, are accustomed to playing a locked part and holding it without flash.
Passing tones can be challenging
Guitarists often start out on the bass playing the root-fifth-octave and eventually add the third note of the scale to define the chord they are playing over. However, you should start working with more passing tones to create movement and melody.
Passing notes are ‘connecting notes’ from the scale that are played on the weak beats between two chord tones. In jazz and blues turnarounds, guitarists-turned-bassists also need to experiment with chromatic lines and ‘out of scale’ notes to create tension and resolution.
Lower sonic frequency
The guitar notes are distinct and defined. Bass, on the other hand, falls in the lower register that simple isn’t as expressive. Note bends, trills, whammys, and various modulations commonly used with the guitar are hard to pull off in a bass rig.
Guitar players will need to recalibrate their thinking (and their ear) to work within the confines of bass playing.
Neck and string thickness
Novices tend to think that the bass is easier because you don’t have to struggle with barre chords and other chord shapes. While this may be true, on the bass you play with your fingers on really thick strings. Bass necks are also longer and chunkier compared to electric guitars.
This makes both right and left-hand technique significantly different and arguably harder on the bass if you are used to playing skinny and ergonomic electric guitars. Try pressing down the low-E on a guitar and a bass to feel the difference.
Pros and cons of the bass vs. the guitar
Pro: bass plays a foundation role
In a band, the bassist and drummer ‘hold the rhythm’, and the bass player holds down the low-end with a groove in tandem with a drummer. The bass notes lock with the kick drum to create a rock-solid foundation. Most bassists enjoy doing this immensely.
Pro: bassists get more work
Guitarists are dime-a-dozen because of the mass appeal and popularity of the instrument. Bassists, on the other hand, are relatively few. This means sessions bass players (even average ones) are more likely to find studio session work and gigs, especially if you live in a city with a thriving music scene.
Pro: bass mistakes are not easily noticed
Vocalists and guitar players typically enjoy the spotlight, while the bass player (and drummer) often go unnoticed. Bass players can afford to makes some mistakes on their subtle low-end basslines.
While bassline errors can make the overall band sound weird, few listeners will know to attribute that to the bass.
Pro: spell your chords vs playing shapes
The low-frequency sounds of a bass guitar are not suited to playing multiple notes together. Many players find spelling chords one note at a time easier and more relaxing than memorizing and instantly shifting between chord shapes on the guitar.
Con: bass is harder to play live
Good bassists are known for their timing, note selection, and listening skills. While they may or may not have technical competence, their sense of taste impeccably gels with the song.
This involves restrained and responsive playing combined with the maturity to stay in the pocket to hold a band together. These subtle skills require time and experience.
Con: music theory is important for bass
As a bassist, you may get away with root notes and the occasional 3rd and 5th but if you want to be taken seriously, you need to be well-grounded in theory. Understanding chord harmony helps you select the right notes for a bassline.
Good knowledge of theory also helps you communicate better with other musicians for session gigs. It also helps you understand the nuances of every genre and lay a solid foundation for your creative passages.
Con: you must have good listening
Bass players need to constantly listen to the other instruments to understand how their lines and groove sits within everything else that is going on in the band. A lot more listening is typically required for the bass than for the guitar.
Bassists hold the rhythm and need to be aware of the momentary musical messages to sync up as needed. This can include dialing down the groove during the verse, throwing in a tasty bass run before a solo, or simply playing with a heavy-handed attack in the crescendo.
Is it better to learn bass or guitar first?
The guitar is a good first instrument as it is more holistic. Guitar players learn harmony, melody, and rhythm as they explore their instruments. With the bass, aspects like chords, harmony, and solo only come at more advanced stages.
It’s generally considered easier for a guitar player to switch to bass than for a bass player to switch to guitar.
On the other hand, the bass is a great way to get solid rhythm. If you’re a rhythm-oriented person, you may find it easier to start with the bass, and later switch to the guitar for learning to play chords.
Can you play bass on a normal guitar?
A normal guitar cannot replicate the tone or feel of a bass convincingly to use it like a bass. Guitars have different scale length, neck width, string spacing, and string thickness.
This makes it difficult to effectively play them like a bass with proper right-hand technique. Of course, it’s possible to approximate the sound of a bass by playing the on first 4 strings, using right-hand palm muting, and using an octave pedal,.
Can you play a 6-string bass like a guitar?
A 6-string bass is meant to be played like a bass rather than emulate an electric guitar. That said, you can play a 6-string more like a guitar than you could do so with a 4-string bass.
You can tune it to EADGBE (although typically 6-strings are not tuned that way) and use chord shapes and scales like you would on a guitar. Nevertheless, the role of the instrument doesn’t change and its notes will still ring in the lower register.
For a guitarist switching to the bass, there is a learning curve because you need more right and left hand strength and agility. Stretching across four frets on a bass is significantly more demanding than on a guitar.
Bass players also need a well-trained ear and an excellent knowledge of theory, especially chord voicings. A tight rhythm is also essential to good playing bass.