The Difference Between Bass And Guitar – An Essential Guide

There are many differences between a bass and a guitar – Let’s learn what they are!

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In this free lesson you will learn…

  • What is a bass guitar?
  • How is it different from a regular guitar?
  • Tips for deciding which instrument to learn first
  • The different types of each instrument

How Do We Tell the Difference Between Bass and Guitar?

Great question!

  • The similarities between the two instruments can make them difficult to tell apart.
  • Without being pretty well-informed about the difference between bass and guitar, it can be difficult to know which one you want to learn, or which instrument you’re listening to.
  • There are a lot of ways to categorize musical instruments, and one way is by the way sound is produced from the instrument.

Generally speaking, there are three such categories:

Stringed instruments such as the violin, dulcimer, sitar, autoharp, banjo, guitar, and bass

These instruments have strings that are plucked, strummed, or bowed to produce sound.

Wind instruments like the tuba, tin whistle, trumpet, saxophone, oboe, ocarina, and harmonica, With these instruments, sound is produced by blowing through the instrument.

Percussion instruments such as the claves, bongos, cajon, cymbals, bodhran, marimba, and bass drum

These instruments have a surface that is struck to produce sound.

Due to the fact that the bass and guitar both belong to the stringed instrument family (and because their body shapes might look similar), at first glance they might look like the same instrument.

If you know what to look and listen for however, it gets much easier to tell the difference between bass and guitar.

If you are trying to decide which instrument to learn, or to have your child learn, read on for some useful information!

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Acoustic Basses and Guitars

The difference between bass and guitar is pretty simple if we look at the acoustic versions of each instrument..

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For starters, they are completely different sizes.

The acoustic guitar is played on your lap while seated, or with a strap while standing.

This instrument has six strings and one sound hole, with the bridge situated below it.

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Basses have four strings: E, A, D, and G. The strings have the same names as the low four strings on the guitar, whose strings are E, A, D, G, B, and E.

  • The difference between bass and guitar strings is that the bass E, A, D, and G are an octave lower than those on the guitar.
  • This is important to know when thinking about the relative functions of a bass and a guitar.

Although a bit less common, there are acoustic bass guitars that look a bit like an acoustic guitar.

difference-between-bass-and-guitar

This might look similar to a guitar, if you’re a few yards away. The features look similar, and the only way to tell for sure is to look at the strings or tuning heads

Some basses have five strings, and some even have six – but you can be sure that at some point any bass player who has a six-string bass will go out of his way to make sure you don’t mistake it for a regular guitar.

Some guitars have 12 strings. You will be able to tell on the headstock, which will have 12 tuning machines.

The six strings of a guitar are doubled, so there are two Es, two As, and so on. Some of those doubled strings are an octave above the regular string.

Where basses and guitars get visually difficult to tell apart is when they are of the electric variety.

difference-between-bass-and-guitar

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Electric Basses and Guitars

The difference between bass and guitar is not so easy to make out from the 30th row back at a concert, or even at a guitar store that sells both. 

When you get down to playing one, though, you’ll be able to perceive some distinct differences.

Playing the Guitar

The guitar’s range of notes is much higher than the bass’s range. 

  • This makes the guitar a good instrument for playing the melody, which in any decent song arrangement is pretty prominent.
  • The strings of a guitar are smaller in diameter than bass strings, which makes it suitable for strumming multiple strings comfortably as well as playing individual strings quickly.
  • Due to the guitar’s range of notes being broader than the bass, covering a wider range of octaves, it also sounds and feels good to play chords on the guitar.

This feature makes the guitar an uncommonly versatile instrument.

You can play rhythm guitar or lead guitar, or make the guitar sound like several instruments at once.

The best part is you often don’t even need effects pedals or other sound engineering sorcery to do this because of the guitar’s natural range.

The guitar is also a smooth instrument to play. The proximity of the strings means that you can strum easily, reach notes easily, and play as quickly and fluidly as you are able.

The guitar is very much a front-row instrument, generally prominently featured in a band – this is another main difference between bass and guitar.

difference-between-bass-and-guitar

Playing the Bass

Why bother with the bass? 

Answer: Because the bass is FUN.

It’s a little bit simpler to figure out as a first instrument, or if you are coming from another instrument like the piano.

  • This is because the main function of the bass is clear: Hold down the rhythm, keep the groove consistent and guide the ensemble.
  • One remarkable difference between bass and guitar is that the strings of the bass are significantly larger than those on a guitar.
  • This means that the entire low-end of the song is the province of the bass player.

The bass is not an instrument that is meant to be strummed, although some players will from time to time.

The bass is primarily a melodic instrument, meaning that you play one note at a time.

Although the bass is not in charge of playing the melody of a song, the bass can provide a counter melody. Some bassists like John Paul Jones and Phil Lesh excel at this.

Another great thing about playing the bass is that with just a little bit of knowledge and work, it is very easy to gain some basic competency.

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Pro-tip: Basses come in different sizes. Although the neck of a bass is generally longer than the neck of a guitar, there are “short scale” basses that enable players of all sizes to enjoy playing the bass!

The Sound Difference Between Bass and Guitar

The bass and guitar feel different to play because of the size of the strings and the distance between them.

  • The main difference between bass and guitar however is their function, and the relative functions of the bass and guitar are more easily heard than felt.
  • Whether you are interested in playing guitar or bass, it’s very useful to be able to pick out the sound that the bass is making and distinguish it from the sound of the guitar.

Technically, they are both guitars, so the sound is similar – but you can listen to the two different instruments and get different types of information about the song you are listening to from each one.

The Bass as Rhythm and Harmonic Foundation

In Dreams”, Fleetwood Mac’s bass player, John McVie, is locked in with drummer Mick Fleetwood with a regular steady rhythm, and for most of the song, he is only playing two notes. 

  • This is one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time, and the bass is providing all of the harmonic stability of the song.
  • This gives the guitar and keyboard freedom to play different chord voicings and lead fills.

The bass keeps the song moving and rocking against the snaky guitar sound and the warmth of the keyboard’s chords.

understanding-what-a-bass-is

The Bass as Melodic Counterpoint to Guitar

In “The Real Me”, John Entwistle is playing fills in every space. 

  • He is playing a melody to compliment Pete Townsend’s guitar work, and he is using the entire bass, low to high, to comment on everything else happening in the song.
  • Entwistle’s playing is obviously much busier than McVie’s.

The bass is a lead instrument in this song, communicating with the vocals as much as the guitar.

The Guitar as Lead Instrument

It is much easier to pick the guitar out of a band’s sound because the higher-pitched strings of the guitar tend to distinguish it from the other instruments.

In this section of Led Zeppelin’s “Bring It On Home,” Jimmy Page kicks off the repeated riff with the guitar, and John Paul Jones follows a few bars later, harmonizing with him.

The guitar is setting the pace, defining the groove, and providing the backbone of the song. All the other instruments follow to fill it out.

This is a great example of a guitar and bass playing together, while the guitar is behaving like the lead melodic instrument.

Bass-guitar

The Guitar as Rhythm Instrument

In this example, the guitar is also setting the pace, not with a riff so much as with a rhythm figure – although the lines are blurry between lead and rhythm when things get interesting.

In “Angie” by the Rolling Stones, things don’t kick in with the rhythm section for a while, but Keith Richards leads the song from the start with a simple chord progression and embellishments.

There is a lot of space in his playing, but the beat always there.

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Pro-tip: It is not advisable to play a guitar through a bass amp, or a bass through a guitar amp. You can do it at low volumes, but the sound will not be optimal.

  • If you push the sound even a little bit, you can easily blow out your guitar amp with a bass, and a guitar just won’t sound clearly through a bass amp.
  • The amps are just designed to handle different frequencies differently, based on the instrument.

If you plan to play both, you may want to invest in a PA setup, speakers that can handle the whole spectrum of sound.

Now That We Know, How Do We Choose?

Given the difference between bass and guitar on so many levels, it can be difficult to choose which to learn, or which to learn first. Here are some things to consider.

In Favor of the Guitar

The guitar is a self-contained instrument, whereas the bass is not a solo instrument. If you choose the guitar, you will be able to play it by yourself.

  • You can take it to an open mic and play and sing yourself.
  • The guitar is the instrument that shines!
  • Its versatility means that you can hang back and play chords and have an accompanying role, or you can step into the spotlight, play melodies, and be in the front of the band.

Let’s not forget about guitar solos, either.

  • There are tons of different styles of guitar to play, and you can mix and match and stretch yourself in any musical direction at any time.
  • There are guitar styles from the northwest of the US to Patagonia, from Ireland to Mali, and you can always find a way to explore guitar through the magic of the Internet.
  • The guitar is lighter, and an acoustic guitar is completely portable.

There are types of guitars that will fit a player of any age.

Small children at about eight years old have developed most of the fine motor skills they will need in order to begin learning to play the guitar (although individual results may vary), and guitars are built for people of all sizes to boot.

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In Favor of the Bass

If you are looking to join a band and have gigs somewhere in your future, you will have infinitely more opportunities to gig on the bass than you will on the guitar. 

Writer’s Note: I was getting asked to gig on the bass before I OWNED a bass.

  • If the guitar is the instrument on which to shine, the bass is the instrument on which to learn about relationships.
  • The bass will always have you thinking about what other instruments are doing and make you a good listener and a responsive musician.
  • The bass has a much easier learning curve than the guitar – you can learn a few patterns and be on your way on the bass.

The guitar, on the other hand, is more front-loaded with things you have to learn before you can make a meaningful sound on it.

It is easier to learn your way around the bass. Two fewer strings makes a huge difference!

The even spacing of intervals between the strings means that there is a certain symmetry on the bass that does not exist on the guitar.

what-is-a-bass

If you are a guitar player looking to switch to the bass, don’t be one of those people who “plays bass like a guitar player!” Check out this article from Fender.com on 5 Tips to Move from Guitar to Bass.

Why Choose? Vive le Difference Between Bass and Guitar

Now that you have a better idea about the fundamental difference between bass and guitar, if you are still not ready to choose, there’s no reason to rush your decision. 

  • If you have a music store nearby, many of them will rent you an instrument for a month or two while you try it out.
  • Better yet, a music school may have an introductory class with instrument rental included with the class tuition!

Whichever instrument you choose, we have fundamental lessons, guides to instruments and styles, and plenty of support for you, so pick one and get going!

Recommended resources

If you enjoyed this free lesson on the difference between bass and guitar, you’re going to love these other lessons we’ve got for you:

https://nationalguitaracademy.com/how-to-hold-a-guitar/

https://nationalguitaracademy.com/first-guitar-lesson/

https://nationalguitaracademy.com/best-beginner-guitar/

https://nationalguitaracademy.com/how-to-play-bass-guitar/

https://nationalguitaracademy.com/guitar-chord-chart/

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