The Difference Between Bass And Guitar – An Essential Guide

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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!

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