Bass vs Guitar: Differences, Difficulties and Which Is Right For You
While a bass is in the guitar family, it has its own unique size, strings, tuning, and sound. Learn the differences between bass and guitar and which is right for you with Fender.
By Ben Nemeroff
Learning to play an instrument is an exciting adventure. If you’re a music lover and driven to play songs you love and maybe create your own down the line, the prospect of choosing an instrument is thrilling. However, new players just starting out on their musical journey may wonder which instrument is right for them to learn. Two of the most common stringed instruments that new musicians gravitate toward are guitar and bass.
While there are definite similarities between guitar and bass, there are some key differences between the two instruments. Each has their own unique qualities and play a distinct role within a band or musical piece. Deciding which instrument to learn to play first is a matter of preference. However, there are some pros and cons in the age-old battle of bass vs guitar that can help you make the right decision for you.
In this article, we’ll cover some of the differences and similarities between the two instruments and why you may want to learn how to play bass or guitar, as well as why you may want to play one instead of the other. (Or, better yet, learn one first and apply that knowledge to learning the other instrument at a later time!)
Differences Between the Bass and Guitar
Often, you’ll hear a bass called a “bass guitar.” So, is a bass a guitar? While the bass is part of the guitar family, there are some clear differences between the two instruments.
The term “bass guitar” originated as a way to differentiate the smaller, horizontal style of electric bass from its original stand-up form. In many orchestral ensembles (and even some modern jazz ensembles), a large, booming, stand-up bass was commonplace. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the first electric bass as we know it was invented and made to be played horizontally. By electrifying the bass, it helped amplify the volume of this smaller version and give it the imposing sound of its older, stand-up counterpart.
While a modern electric bass and guitar may look similar, there are a number of ways these two instruments differ from each other, such as their size, number and thickness of strings, and the role each plays within a band.
Bass vs Guitar: Size
Although a bass and a guitar may be hard to tell apart to new musicians, if you place a bass vs guitar next to each other, you’ll see a difference in size. In many cases, “scale length” is talked about when referring to the size of a guitar or bass. And while the total height of a guitar or bass can vary, “scale length” refers specifically to the distance between the nut and the bridge of an instrument -- from the bottom of the pick guard to just below where the headstock connects to the neck.
A bass is larger than a guitar. And while there are several different scales of basses -- long-scale and short-scale -- both types of basses have a longer neck than that of a standard guitar. A bass can have between 20 and 24 frets, depending on the style of bass, the length of its neck, and how far apart its frets are spaced.
• The scale length of a guitar can range between 24” to 30” in most cases. However, most 6-string guitars feature a scale length of between 24” and 25.5”.
• The scale length of a baritone guitar is typically around 27”, not quite as long as a bass or as short as a guitar. In addition to being longer, baritone guitars are typically tuned a fourth lower than a guitar (BEADF#B), compared to the standard (EADGBE) tuning of most guitars. Contrary to popular belief, the terms “baritone guitar” and “six-string bass” are not interchangeable.
• A standard scale bass (sometimes referred to as a “long-scale” bass) is 34”.
• A short-scale bass is 30”. Short-scale bases have a shorter distance between their frets, making them ideal for players with smaller hands, or guitarists who may be transitioning to play bass. This shorter, more compact feel may make it easier for them to travel up and down the neck.
If you’re trying to decide whether a long-scale or a short-scale bass is right for you, there is a difference in tone between the two, as well. A short-scale bass has a thicker, more meaty sound because it often uses a slightly heavier gauge of string. (More on that later!)
And while shorter-scale bases are considered more rare among players, there are quite a few iconic examples of the short-scale bass, including the Fender Mustang Bass, as well as the Squier Bronco Bass. Whether you opt to go short or long when it comes to playing bass, both sizes offer a beefier, more bottom-heavy sound than the guitar.
Bass vs Guitar: Strings
When it comes to bass vs. guitar, one of the biggest differences between the two instruments is in their respective number of strings. Most guitars have six strings while the majority of basses only have four strings. There are, however, some exceptions to the rule.
Some guitars have 12 strings. The neck of a 12-stringed guitar is typically thicker than that of a standard 6-string guitar in order to support more strings. Also, a 12-string guitar produces a richer tone due to the fact that its first (and lowest four strings) are paired together with a second string that is just one octave higher. A 12-string guitar’s two highest-toned strings (B and E) are paired with a second string that matches its tone at the same octave level. To hear the resonant, choral effect of a 12-string guitar in action, listen for it on classic songs such as “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”
Basses With More Than Four Strings & Other Modifications
Although most bass guitars stick to the standard four strings, bass guitars have a wider range of modifications when it comes to different numbers of strings and even different neck features. There are also five-string and six-string bass models. For instance, the Fender Bass VI is a six-stringed bass that gives you the option to experiment with more alternate tunings and more strings to play with. Some other variations on a standard bass include fretless necks, similar to those found on a stand-up bass.
String Thickness: Bass vs. Guitar
Even though there are typically only four strings on a bass, bass strings are longer, thicker, and more expensive than guitar strings. If you’re playing an electric guitar, steel or nickel strings are the way to go. However, if you play acoustic guitar, you have the option to look to either metal strings or softer nylon strings that offer a more delicate tone.
While guitarists certainly have a number of options for their strings of choice, bassists have even more different styles of strings to experiment with. Some of the different types of bass strings include:
• Roundwound bass strings: Arguably the most popular type of bass string, roundwound strings feature a steel core wrapped with a stainless steel or nickel round wire, giving them a bright, loud tone. Their heavier construction makes them an ideal choice for players who want to try out a slap bass style of playing.
• Flatwound bass strings: A favorite of jazz bassists, flatwound strings have a steel core wrapped with a flat wire to offer a smoother, more mellow tone.
• Tapewound bass strings: Not quite as popular, tapewound bass strings have either a flat or round metal winding wire wrapped with a layer of nylon. A tell-tale feature of this type of string is that these strings are often black in color. Tapewound bass strings produce a softer tone and are easier on the fingers, making them ideal for bassists who favor playing with their fingers instead of a pick.
• Groundwound (or Half-Round) bass strings: The least common type of bass strings compared to those mentioned here, groundwound strings are a hybrid of roundwound and flatwound strings. They start out as roundwound strings, but are pressed or ground to flatten their outer layer. This gives them a brighter tone, but minimizes fret wear.
Your own personal style of bass playing may help you decide which type of strings are right for you. In the neverending debate surrounding whether to play bass with a pick vs. your fingers, you’ll find some styles of bass string, such as roundwound strings, are heavier and may work better for a “slap and pop” style of bass -- withstanding the aggressive plucking and striking of the strings. Other bassists who want to employ a gentler touch while still playing with fingers may look to softer tapewound bass strings. And players who want to use a pick on their strings may prefer the tone of a flatwound or groundwound string for their style of playing.
Ultimately, it all comes down to trial, error, and preference -- and what type of picker you are!
Bass Tuning vs Guitar
While the lowest four strings on a guitar correspond to the four strings on a bass when played in the open position, the bass is tuned much lower than the guitar. In fact, bass strings are tuned down one whole octave in pitch. So, while the lowest-toned string on both a guitar and a bass are tuned to E, the E you hear on the lowest string of a bass will be a full octave lower than the lowest E string you’ll play on a guitar.
To hear the difference between the two, check out Fender Play’s song lessons for the Green Day classic, “Basket Case” for bass and guitar. “Basket Case” features one of the most instantly recognizable bass riffs, which can also be replicated on guitar. This bassline drives the plodding, punk rhythm of the tune and reoccurs at various points of the song, giving it a unified feel. You’ll hear the bassline sounds much lower than the guitar parts on the track, due to the fact that the bass is tuned a full octave lower.
To compare and contrast the difference in tones between notes on a bass vs a guitar, check out Fender Fender’s Online Tuner. Not only will it show you how to tune your bass or guitar, but it can help you to hear those subtle differences between the two instruments.
Want to take your newfound knowledge of tones and tuning one step further? Fender Play’s Alternate Tuning Collection offers guitarists and bassists a wealth of options for tuning your instrument in different ways to unleash different sounds and give you more room for experimentation.
Which Is Easier, Guitar or Bass?
If you’re trying to decide which instrument to play, your head may be swimming with questions: “Is bass easier than guitar?” “Should I learn guitar before bass?” Honestly, there are no easy answers to these questions. Whether you find bass or guitar to be easier is a matter of preference and what comes easier or harder to you as a musician. Every player is unique and has their own strengths and challenges they face based on a number of factors.
For example, learning to play chords and their various forms is arguably one of the most important things to learn as a guitarist. Committing these chords to memory may pose a steeper learning curve than the individual notes played by bassists. However, guitar offers players the opportunity to lean into either a more of rhythm-based (chord-heavy) style or a lead guitar style (think: creating solos and riffs).
On the other hand, some new bassists -- particularly those with smaller hands or those with more tender fingers -- may have a hard time adjusting to the thickness of bass strings and deciding between a finger or pick style. Like guitar, bass does offer players a number of options to express themselves and their creativity. While building basslines and bass riffs has more in common with creating guitar solos and focusing on single notes instead of chords, bass provides the steady rhythm of a song and is often viewed as the glue that holds a tune together.
As a beginner, any instrument will be brand new to you and seem challenging. It doesn’t really matter if you start on guitar and then decide to learn bass. Many of the techniques you’ll learn on either instrument can be applied to both. If you learn -- and master -- one first, you can always pick up the nuances of the second instrument later. While you may initially wonder whether guitar or bass is “easier” to pick up, especially if you’re eager to start learning and playing, the truth is that both require consistent practice. Commit to whichever instrument you feel most drawn to, keep practicing and learning, and you’ll see progress!
Should I Play Bass or Guitar?
So, you’ve read this far and still might be wondering whether you should start playing bass or guitar. While some of the unique traits of these instruments may be appealing to you, music is about emotion and feeling -- and you may feel a stronger pull to one instrument than the other based on how the sound of either a guitar or bass makes you feel.
• Do you like listening to music with the bass turned up, or do you crank the treble?
• Do you find yourself bobbing your head to the beat of a song and getting into the groove, or do you find yourself blissfully zoned out whenever a guitar solo cuts in?
• From a personality standpoint, do you like being recognized for your work or do you prefer to hang back and enjoy the act of creating.
As for that last question, while many guitarists often are a driving creative force behind a band’s music and garner a lot of the spotlight, that’s not to say that there aren’t more introverted guitarists (Motley Crue’s Mick Mars, for instance) who are more of a quiet presence in a band compared to bassists like Les Claypool, Flea, Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee, and Gene Simmons who are all songwriters and recognizable figures in their own right.
If you enjoy playing with others and collaborating as part of a team, playing bass may be appealing to you for a variety of reasons. While a lot of musicians decide to pick up the guitar, finding a good bassist can often be difficult because there are so many guitarists. If your goal is to someday join a band, learning to play bass may help increase your odds of finding musicians to jam with in need of a bassist.
Explore Fender Play Bass Collections
If you’re still undecided about whether you want to learn to play bass or guitar, explore some of Fender Play’s collections that may help you decide. Take a look at some of the techniques and scales you’ll learn for either instrument and let that help you determine which may be a better fit for you.
Here are some of our favorite collections to start with:
• Lead Guitar Techniques. From hammer-ons and pull-offs to string bending and slides, there are a ton of techniques lead guitarists can learn that lend color and personality to playing.
• Bass Scales You Should Know. Scales aren’t just great for understanding musical theory, but learning to play bass scales can help you build greater speed and dexterity in your playing. This is your first stop on the road to building your own basslines!
• Scales You Should Know. Guitarists can build their skill by learning a variety of scales, deepening their appreciation of music theory and how moveable patterns translate up and down the neck of their instrument.
Looking to Learn Bass or Guitar? Check out Fender Play Lessons
Whether you want to learn to play bass or guitar (or eventually, both) Fender Play makes learning to play an instrument easy for beginners. Bite-sized lessons break down the essentials for new players, giving you the fundamentals of a musical education. Fender Play’s extensive library also lets you learn and play songs you love by some of your favorite artists. Choose from hundreds of songs for guitar or bass.
Sign up for a free trial of Fender Play today and get started on your musical journey.