I guess I was forced to pick the electric guitar as my instrument of choice at the age of 15. My friends were making a band and they already had a great bassist, a drummer, and a singer but they needed a guitarist.
It wasn’t until 5 years later that I even picked up a bass guitar. So when I get asked “is the bass easier than guitar” I find this a tricky question to answer as I didn’t pick them up at the same time.
Despite that after years of contemplation and discussions I have concluded that yes (for the beginner) the bass is easier to learn quickly than the guitar.
In this article, I will present 5 reasons to back up my claim of why bass is easier than guitar for the beginner, followed by some more detailed advice to help you decide if the bass is the right choice for you.
1) Basslines are often more basic
When you first start learning an instrument most people want to be able to play along to their favorite song, or form a band and play a few covers. It is rare that someone will jump straight into writing their own song.
For this reason, the bass is an easier choice. Although not always the case, a large number of basslines in rock songs consist of single notes played at varying rates and rhythms. Whereas many guitar songs feature more complex arrangements or more advanced techniques such as chords.
Check out the difference between the bass cover below for Smashing Pumpkins ‘tonight tonight’ followed by the guitar cover of the same song. Notice how the bass stays on the same note for a while where as the guitar part changes from chords at various rhythms to plucked notes.
2) Finger plucking is easier to grasp than strumming
This is an assumption of course and you may not find this to be the case. But many people find finger plucking, which is the default technique for playing bass, easier than using a plectrum to strum a guitar.
Finger plucking is using your index and middle finger to gently pull strings upwards. When played in quick succession this is almost as if your fingers are walking on the string (you may have to use your imagination for that one).
You can of course use finger plucking on guitar but the default for electric guitar is to use a plectrum.
Many people find using a plectrum takes a bit longer to master, rather than using their own body parts to play. The difficulty of using a plectrum is heightened further by the introduction of having to play up and down strokes, something that isn’t an issue with finger plucking where every stroke is upwards.
3) Learning chords isn’t essential
Ok ok, so you can get away with never playing chords on a guitar and just playing single notes, but there are very few songs where this is the case. The reality is that to play guitar even at a beginner level you will need to learn some chords.
Chords are a series of notes played together at the same time. To do this on the guitar you have to arrange your fingers in strange shapes on the fretboard. Something that beginners find very difficult, often spending minutes getting their fingers perfectly lined up before they can play anything.
Barre chords, where a single finger holds down multiple stings, are common in many songs and these can be very tricky for a beginner. To play consistently well, they require muscles in the hands and fingers you may not have even realized you had!
Chords do exist on the bass but they are a rarer occurrence and even when they do occur they are often much more basic, only consisting of a couple of notes spaced out quite evenly.
4) Larger frets and bigger gaps between strings
Making mistakes as a beginner is inevitable, but still very frustrating. With a guitar in comparison to bass the frets are narrower and the strings are closer together. This means that the ‘target’ your fretting finger must land on every time you move to a new note is smaller.
For the largest frets at the end of the neck on a bass the width is almost 2 inches whereas on a guitar it is just over 1 inch.
As you begin to play more quickly, changing notes more often increases the chance of hitting a wrong note. But on bass with that bigger target area to aim for the chance of mistakes is reduced and frustration levels are lowered!
5) You don’t have to be the centre of attention
As a beginner, the thought of playing live in front of a crowd can be daunting, to say the least. As an electric guitarist though, eyes tend to be on you. Your notes are more easily recognizable by ear in the frequency spectrum and any mistakes tend to be slightly more obvious.
For a bassist, it is much more acceptable to be a bit more chilled out and not be front and center. This is great for the beginner who hasn’t played live before. Eyes are less likely to be staring at you watching for the slightest mistake.
And if you do make a mistake, although this will sound bad, it won’t be as glaringly obvious to many audience members as if it was made by a lead guitarist.
Is Bass Easier to Master Than Guitar?
At the start of the article I mentioned that although the bass is easier as a beginner, it may actually be more difficult to get to an expert level. Here are a few reasons why that may be the case.
Bass can be more physically demanding
When you get to a more advanced level of bass, it can be a very physically demanding instrument. It has a longer fretboard (around 25 inches as opposed to 18 for an electric guitar).
The thicker, heavier strings also require more strength to push down than the lighter gauge string of a guitar.
Both these factors combined mean that working your way up and down quickly can be draining and requires a good amount of stamina.
The larger fretboard and larger fret width makes stretching between notes more difficult than on guitar too. To the point where having small hands and trying to play certain bass parts is almost impossible!
Certain genres involve complex rhythms
The bass guitar must link with the drums to provide the rhythm section of most bands. As you get more advanced or tackle genres such as funk or jazz, those rhythms can get pretty complex and it is a key skill to be able to maintain the ‘groove’ of the song.
Of course, it is a skill that can be learnt and practised but having rhythm and groove is something that comes more naturally to some than others.
Slapping and popping
To make the bass ‘jump’ out of a track and provide some higher frequency sounds on top of the standard rumbling basslines, the slapping and popping technique is often employed.
This advanced technique takes bass guitar to another level of difficulty. Check out the slap and pop solo below and you’ll see what I mean.
Mastering 5 strings or more
Although a standard bass has only 4 string it is very common to see 5, 6, 7 and even 8 string bass guitars! This is much more common in the music world than to see an electric guitar with more than 6 strings.
With every extra string that is added, there is more distance and width to cover on the fretboard.
Thundercat is a world famous bass guitar player known for his 6 (or more) string bass. Just look at the width of that fretboard!
Beware of the Dunning Kruger Effect
If you do start to play bass, be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a phenomenon in psychology where someone starting a new skill tends to quickly overestimate their ability.
On the graph above graph which shows how good you believe you are at a new skill against time, you quickly reach what is termed the “peak of mount stupid”. A point where you think you have basically mastered something (but you haven’t really!).
But as you keep playing it will dawn on you that you know nowhere near as much as you perhaps thought. This causes the graph to dip sharply into what is often referred to as the ‘valley of despair’. A point when you think the skill is so difficult you will never master it.
But there is hope eventually because if you keep putting in the hard work and practice you will eventually reach what is known as the ‘slope of enlightenment’. And this time it is real you are truly becoming an expert at your craft.
So although I have said bass is easier as a beginner remember it is a long path to mastery of any skill.
So Should I Learn Bass First?
So if bass is easier to start but just as hard to master, which instrument should I learn first? Well that depends on a few factors and what you really want.
What is your patience level?
If you have the patience for it, I would recommend the path I took of learning guitar first.
This meant it was very frustrating in the early days but eventually when I picked up a bass it was a much easier transition. It really depends on how much patience you have in those early days!
Learning bass brings other skills
Learning bass first not only has the advantage of being less frustrating, it also teaches essential skills for music such as rhythm and groove but also listening more closely.
Often picking out a bassline against the wall of noise that drums and distorted guitars make can be tricky. Learning to listen carefully for the bass in any song will make you a better musician.
As I mentioned at the very start, I took up the guitar because I wanted to join a band that already had a bassist. Your current situation therefore plays a role in which instrument you should choose.
So to conclude, as a beginner it is almost universally accepted that the bass is easier than guitar. You will be able to play famous songs much quicker and mistakes should come about less often.
That said, if you have the patience then learning the electric guitar can be very rewarding and then transitioning to bass can be easier.
I wish you luck in whichever path you choose. It is just the first step on your journey to discover music.