The bass guitar and electric guitar are two of the most popular instruments to play, but what are the differences between them? Which is easier to learn? What are the pros and cons of each? In this article I’ll compare basses and electric guitars so you can figure out which is the most suitable for you.
The basic structure of bass and electric guitars are similar. They both have a body with pickups which detect vibrations in the strings and sent a signal to the amplifier. They also both have headstocks and bridges which are used to mount the strings, and a neck with a fretboard so you can play different notes.
However, despite these similarities, there are many physical differences between bass and electric guitars, which all relate to their function within a band.
Bass guitars have 4-strings and are tuned to an octave lower in pitch compared to electric guitars which have 6-strings. Bass guitars sound warmer and more mellow and function to maintain the rhythm, whereas electric guitars sound brighter and are used to provide the chord progression and melody.
There are several physical differences between electric and bass guitars which allow them to carry out their different roles including the number of strings, string thickness, the pitch they are tuned to, and the scale and neck length.
|Bass Guitar||Electric Guitar|
|Tuned to an octave lower||Tuned to an octave higher|
|Sound warmer and more mellow||Sound brighter and clearer|
|Strings are 0.05”-0.105” thick||Strings are 0.01-0.046” thick|
|Standard scale length is 34”||Scale length is 24”-25.5” on average|
|Strings are under more tension||Strings are under less tension|
|Used to maintain rhythm||Provide the chord progression and melody|
Sound and Function
Before we get into the nitty gritty of all the physical differences between these two instruments, let’s start with the most important things: how they sound, and what their function is in the band.
- Bass guitars are used to maintain the rhythm and provide the link between the drummer and the electric guitar
- Electric guitars can be used to play the chord progression (also known as rhythm guitar) or play the melody (also known as lead guitar)
The sound of an electric guitar stands out more in the context of the band, compared to a bass guitar.
- Basses sound more mellow and warm due to their lower pitch
- Electric guitars which sound brighter and clearer so cut through the sound of the rest of the band more
Check out this comparison to hear the difference.
One of the main reasons why bass and electric guitars sound so different from one another is because they have different strings.
There are three key differences between the strings on a bass guitar and electric guitar:
- Bass guitars usually have 4 strings and electric guitars usually have 6 strings. There are some exception to this though, as some basses can have 5 or 6 strings, and some electric guitars can have 7 or 8 strings.
- Bass guitar strings are tuned to an octave lower in pitch than electric guitar strings. Bass guitars have a frequency range of 41.2-392 Hz, whereas electric guitars have a frequency range of 82.4-1318.51 Hz.
- Bass guitar strings are much thicker than electric guitar strings.
Since the strings on a bass guitar are roughly double the thickness of the strings on an electric guitar, they are also under more tension. This means that bass strings feel much stiffer, which makes them feel harder to pluck and fret.
The scale length of a guitar is the distance between the bridge and nut of the instrument. It is also referred to as the playable string length.
Bass guitars have a much longer scale length compared to electric guitars.
- The standard bass guitar scale length is 34″ however there are some “short-scale” basses which have a scale length of 30″.
- Standard electric guitars have a scale length of 24″-25.5″ on average. Baritone electric guitars have a longer scale length of up to 27″.
The longer scale length on a bass guitar means you have to reach farther in order to access all the frets on the instrument. It also puts the strings under more tension, so makes it harder to pluck and fret the strings. It also makes bass guitars a bit harder to transport as they are heavier and require more room.
How They are Played
There are two key differences between how the bass and electric guitar are usually played:
- Bassists usually play individual notes (one string at a time) whereas electric guitarists will either play individual notes, or chords where multiple strings are plucked at the same time
- Electric guitars are usually played with a pick to pluck the strings. Bass guitars strings are often plucked using just the fingers, although some players will use a pick instead.
This means that bass and electric guitars feel quite different to play, and means there will definitely be a transitioning period if you decide to switch from one to the other (more on this later in the article).
Watch this guitar cover of Muse’s Hysteria to see the difference.
Which is Easier to Play?
This is a big debate and there are solid arguments for either side of this coin.
Bass guitars are often considered easier to play than electric guitars because:
- Many popular songs feature more simplistic basslines compared to electric guitar parts
- Bass are usually used to play single notes on one string at a time whereas electric guitars are often used to play multiple strings at a time
However, there are also several reasons why electric guitars may be considered easier to play than bass guitars:
- Electric guitars have thinner strings which are under less tension so are easier to press down and fret compared to bass guitar strings. This is especially true when you first start learning and have not developed finger calluses yet which can be a touch painful.
- Electric guitars have shorter necks so feel more manageable to play, especially if you have a smaller frame.
When you are first learning to play either instrument, you’ll get some pain in your fingertips as the skin hasn’t hardened and developed calluses. This usually takes a few weeks, after which you won’t feel any pain when playing. It doesn’t hurt as much with an electric guitar as the strings are thinner and under less tension though, so in those initial few weeks of learning, electric guitars can actually feel easier to play.
However, it is generally agreed that a lot of bass guitar parts in popular songs are relatively simplistic in comparison to electric guitar songs, leading to the argument that bass is easier to play. When you start playing more advanced songs though, there are definitely examples where the bass is more difficult to play than the electric guitar.
In terms of which is the most technically difficult to master, there’s no real answer here. You can play incredibly complex and difficult parts on both instruments so it certainly is not true that one is harder than the other to master.
Which Should You Learn to Play?
As I said in the previous section, there are arguments for both bass being easier to play, and the guitar being easier to learn. This is why I personally would not put any weight on this when choosing which to buy.
The truth is, both require practice to get good and will feel hard to play in the beginning.
So how should you decide which to learn? Think about your answers to the following questions:
- Which instrument do you prefer the sound of, the warmer bass or brighter guitar?
- Do you want to uphold the rhythm or do you want to be more involved with the melody?
- Do you prefer to be more in the background or in the limelight?
- Who are your favourite musicians? Are they bassists or guitarists?
You should essentially pick whichever instrument inspires you the most to learn and play.
How Hard is it to Switch Between Bass and Electric Guitar?
No matter which you transition from, you’ll have to adapt to several differences:
- The number of strings
- The string tension and thickness
- The scale and neck length
- The playing style e.g. using your fingers or a pick and playing single note riffs vs chords
Providing you are a competent guitar player, you should find it relatively easy to switch from a guitar to bass, at least significantly easier compared to learning to play the bass from scratch. The challenges you’ll face will mostly be related to the longer neck and extra string tension which can feel a bit harder until you get used to the differences.
Switching from bass to guitar is a bit more challenging in my opinion as it can be harder to adapt to playing chords. However, it is certainly possible and will be a lot easier than learning to play the electric guitar without any prior experience playing the bass.
Are Bass and Electric Guitar Amps Different?
If you do plan on playing both an electric guitar and a bass guitar, note that you will need an amplifier for each of them.
It is not recommended to use an electric guitar amp to play bass or vice-versa. This is because they are designed to handle different frequency ranges, so at best it won’t sound great and at worst it could blow the speakers.
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