Can a Guitarist Play Bass? Guitarist Weighs In

I’ve been playing guitar for around 5 years now and have dabbled in many different styles of guitar and bass.

Along the way I also played with bassists, and many friends who are guitarists that tried to play the bass.

So, I thought I’d summarize how most guitarists find trying to play a bass guitar.

As a general rule, guitarists can play bass. The fret board of a bass guitar is larger, and the strings are much thicker. This requires the fingers and hands to be stronger. As a result, guitarists don’t have the dexterity or stamina that a bass guitarist has on a bass guitar.

But, they can play a bass guitar fairly well with the skills they learned from playing the guitar.

Many people wonder whether the strings on a bass are the same as a guitar. And whether you can play a guitar like a bass. So, below I will explain what it’s like playing the bass guitar as a guitarist, and how difficult or easy it is.

What it’s like for a guitarist to play a bass guitar

When a guitarist first tries playing bass they find it much harder then guitar, and they find it difficult to stretch their fingers wide enough to play runs of notes they would normally play on the guitar.

They also find it more tiring overall. And can develop pain in the fingers after only playing for a short amount of time. 

But, they can generally learn a simple bass line very easily, and can play around and improvise on a bass guitar without much effort. It’s simply the physical playing that most guitarists find difficult at first.

It’s similar to if you were to go to the gym and lift up a weight that’s much heavier than you’re used to. You can move it around a bit ok, but you don’t have nearly the control you have over a much lighter weight.

Bass guitar is less complicated than guitar

As you may know, a bass guitar has 4 strings whereas guitars have 6. The 4 strings of the bass are tuned the same as the top 4 strings of the guitar.

This reduces how complex it is to play bass. And therefore, make it easier to play guitar. And makes it very easy to learn new songs on the bass guitar. Whereas, on the guitar the extra two strings open up more possibilities and means that songs are more complicated. 

Most bass lines are very simple

Before hearing about bass guitars, I could never really hear what sounds were being made by the bass guitar. And the guitar seemed to be the only instrument being played. 

However, with my experience I can now hear what are called bass lines. And these are what a bass guitarist plays. 

The bass lines for many popular songs are very simple. They are often played very slowly and repeat over an over.

Even someone who has never played the bass or the guitar can learn popular songs with ease. For example, the bass line for the famous Queen song ‘We Will Rock You’ has one short 6 note sequence that repeats over and over for virtually the entire song.

Here’s a video showing what the bass line is:

You may have noticed that the notes are x’s which means that the notes are played as muted notes. This where you don’t actually press on the frets with your left hand (if you’re right handed) but you only rest your fingers gently on the strings to stop them from vibrating as you pluck. It creates a thud sound similar to a drum.

The bass guitar is often used to punctuate beats, because on it’s own it doesn’t have a particularly melodic tone. And is more similar to the drums where it can create a beat to a song.

For the most part this is the case, the guitar and drums lead the song, and the bass supports. However, certain bands will break the mold and even certain songs from particular bands will include a bass solo. Or, the bass line will be the catchy memorable part of the song.

There can also be long parts of a song where the guitar is silent and the bass and drums sort of freestyle with each other. In some cases this is more fun to do, then to listen do.

Use of the hands and fingers is virtually identical

The fingers on the fretting hand – the left hand on right handed people – is exactly the same as on the guitar. A pick can also be used to play the strings. Most guitarists generally have some skill with a pick.

And if they don’t then it is because they play classical or spanish/flamenco style guitar which uses the thumb to play the bass notes.

But, they also play a style of notes called tremolo, which uses the two fingers exactly like a bass guitarist does. And if they have been learning classical or flamenco/spanish style guitar for a year or two they’ve likely developed some level of finger picking the bass notes with two fingers. Which is one of the core skills for playing the bass guitar.

However, bass guitar is also commonly played with the thumb, and there is a common style where you will play with the thumb and slap the bass. So, regardless of what style of guitar the guitarist knows they will either play the bass with a pick, their thumb, or their first two fingers.

Bass guitar techniques guitarists don’t know

Generally, bass guitarists use far more two finger plucking than a guitarist will use.

This is where they rest their thumb on the top string or on the part of the bass guitar above the strings, and then they use their first and second finger to pluck the strings.

Because the strings of the bass guitar are thicker they won’t have the same power, and therefore can’t pluck at a very fast speeds which is required in some songs. 

Almost all rock guitar songs have bass lines where you need to have developed strength in your fingers to pluck at the speed the songs is played at. However, rock songs in general are some of the most difficult songs to play on any instrument. For example, bands like Dream Theater and Metallics.

Various techniques like hammer ons and pull offs need to be practiced to be able to perform them well, even if you can do them really well on a guitar. 

As a result, guitarists don’t have the dexterity and speed of a person who plays bass guitar regularly.

Is it harder to play bass or guitar?

When first thinking about learning guitar or bass many people often wonder whether one is more difficult than the other. Based on my experience and those of lots of guitarists I’ve talked with, here’s what I found.

Generally, bass is more difficult to play because the strings are thicker and the frets are wider apart. Because of that you need to have stronger fingers and hands. However, it can be developed easily through a small amount of consistent practice.

Music theory such as knowing scales is a transferable skill. And is the same whether you play bass, or guitar. Interestingly, it’s also the same for a piano or other instrument. The main difference is in where the notes are located.

But the strings on the bass guitar are the same as the top four strings on a guitar. And therefore, it’s easier to go from guitar to bass or from bass to guitar. Then it is to go from guitar or bass to piano or a wind instrument.

Can you play a guitar like a bass?

If you know how to play bass, can you play guitar? Also, do you play the guitar the same way you play a bass?

Overall, you play a guitar exactly like a bass. The top four strings of the guitar are exactly the same as the four strings of a bass guitar. All of the plucking and picking techniques you use on bass can also be used exactly the same on the guitar.

Also, any songs you know on bass can be played instantly on a bass. Well, there you have it everything you needed to know about whether a guitarist can play bass.

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