For people who are just getting started with stringed instruments in general, learning the differences between a bass guitar and a regular guitar might seem daunting.
However, while these instruments look and feel quite similar in a few areas, they are different in many important ways as well.
Taking a look at these defining features can help you clearly understand how a bass and a guitar compare with one another so that you can decide which you’d rather start playing or studying in greater depth.
Is one harder to pick up than the other? What is the role of each instrument in a band? What about the price range of one versus the other?
How Do Guitars and Bass Instruments Differ?
Let’s start with the most apparent and practical differences between a regular guitar and a bass guitar. Being able to spot these differentiating traits right off the bat will help you immediately determine which instrument you’re dealing with. And, knowing how key differences actually affect the playability and sound of the instrument can help you determine which one might suit you better as a musician.
Strings and Sound
What you’ll immediately notice while comparing a guitar and a bass side by side is that a guitar usually has six strings and a bass generally only has four. Interestingly, the strings on a guitar vary in thickness much more than the strings on a bass do. This grade variation in the strings directly impacts the range of the instrument’s sound.
Since a guitar has more strings, and those strings have more grade variation than the strings of a bass, a guitar is solidly classified as a melodic instrument. A guitar has a much wider tonal range than a bass does, potentially allowing skilled musicians the opportunity to play more complicated melodic pieces with higher riffs than they’d be able to pull off with a bass.
The bass, with its four thick strings and their comparatively lower grade variation, creates a narrower sound range that rests at right around an octave lower than that of a guitar. This deeper pitch is perfect for accompanying other instruments to make a song sound more solid and complete.
If you’d like to practice getting familiar with the differences between basses and guitars, then trying to pick them out in music videos or on stage is a great way to do it. The quickest way to tell the two types of instruments apart is by looking at the headstock and checking out the number of tuning pins–there’s one for every string, and the tuning pegs are way easier to count quickly than the strings themselves are!
Take note: Occasionally, you will run into a bass that has five or six strings. However, these are uncommon and their range is still low, just like the range of a four-string bass.
While the range of a bass is admittedly more limited than that of a guitar, you can still build yourself some complex playing skills and carve out a personal style that can completely change how a song sounds. Some people fail to show the appreciation that the bass deserves–but they’d definitely feel like the music was missing something if it weren’t there! The bass truly does serve as the foundation of a band’s sound.
Speaking of strings and sound, here’s a short video (and funny in my opinion) of bass vs guitar:
Body Size, Playability, and Price
In both acoustic and electric varieties, guitars tend to run smaller than basses do. For an acoustic bass, the increased size offers greater resonance and projection for those deep tones. When you’re talking electric, a guitar and bass are more likely to be closer in size. Despite any size differences, both guitars and basses can usually be played either sitting down without a strap, or standing up with one.
So, what about the price of one instrument versus the other? Well, since basses tend to run a bit larger than guitars, you can probably already imagine that they’re bound to be a bit more expensive. A bass will run you an average of $50 more than a comparable guitar will, simply because the production of the bass requires more raw materials during production. Additionally, there’s a significantly higher demand for guitars than there is for bass instruments, so many stores will tack on a bit of additional cost to make the profitability of selling basses more worthwhile: Since they sell fewer bass instruments, they charge more for each one than they would for a guitar of similar size and quality.
In terms of playability, a lot of people get thrown off by the knowledge that the bass is restricted to a lower range, thinking that this means that it must be played much differently in order to sound good. However, basses and guitars are essentially played using the same methods. You can play scales, chords, and riffs on both instruments, and you can apply any music theory you’ve learned to either one as well. The biggest difference is that you simply have more of a pitch range to play those scales and chords on a guitar than you do on a bass: You can play most of the same riffs and notes on a bass that you can play on a guitar–the bass will just sound deeper.
In short: The deep range of the bass doesn’t restrict playability as much as some people might think. You will still have plenty of room for creativity and personal expression if you take up bass playing, and the instrument won’t hold you back in terms of playing with more complex methods as you progress your musical skills.
If you’re just starting out, the general consensus is that bass is easier to learn than guitar. Since many classic bass riffs are meant to support guitar melodies, they tend to be simpler to learn. Thanks to the availability of simplified versions of most bass songs, you’ll be able to master your favorites and start getting creative more quickly!
Role in a Band Setting
While a bass might look more like a guitar than most other instruments you’ll see in a band, bass players actually provide rhythm and depth that many musicians would compare more closely to a percussion instrument. You might play a bass the same way you play a guitar, but you apply your techniques very differently in a band setting.
If you’re interested in playing complex melodies that directly complement the vocalist in a band, then you’ll want to experiment more with the guitar. The same holds true if you want to shred at center stage and play fancy solos: A guitar will offer you a much greater range than a bass can in terms of tone.
If you play bass in a band, you’ll actually be working most closely with the drummer. You can sort of think of a bass as the instrument that bridges the gap between the sound of the drums and the sound of the guitar and other melodic instruments: Your bass accompaniment will add a rich layer of depth that reinforces the beat of the song, harmonizing and helping to form an amazing foundation for higher-pitched melodic instruments to build off of.
A bass guitar and a regular guitar, either acoustic or electric, may look very similar at first glance. And, as a musician, you can apply many of the same techniques and snippets of musical theory to both–so don’t hesitate to branch out if you’ve already started playing either one. You’ll be able to reach high levels of complexity with either instrument in terms of technique as you build up your musical skills, too.
However, there are definitely key differences between guitars and basses, such as size, price, tone, pitch range, and the role that the instrument plays in a band’s sound. Each one of these things is important to consider so that you can determine which instrument will fit your musical personality best!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.