by Scott Zimmerman

This article is about how to learn bass without the need to learn guitar first. You can also view our article about whether it is easy to learn bass after guitar and our article about whether bass players are failed guitarists.

If you are thinking about learning the bass guitar, you may be wondering if you should learn guitar first.

So, should you learn the guitar before learning the bass? You do not need to learn the guitar before learning bass guitar. In fact, you will become a good bass player more quickly if you start on the bass because the guitar will not take up time or serve as a distraction.

Let’s take a look at the reasons for this.

#1 The Bass Is A Unique Instrument 

The bass is a unique instrument in the sense that it carries out a specific function in music. Other instruments may emulate this function, but they are not the sole provider of this function. What is the specific role of the bass? Its primary role is to keep time and provide support for the harmonic content of the music. Now, harmonic instruments such as piano and guitar, can cover this role when necessary; but, they will be dividing their focus between the primary duties of the bass and their primary duty, i.e. harmonic and melodic content.

In fact, when there is no bass present in an ensemble, the melodic and harmonic content of the piano and/or guitar is greatly reduced because they must focus mainly on timekeeping. Therefore, the bass is not only essential for fulfilling its musical responsibilities, but also for allowing the other instruments to fulfill theirs as well.

#2 Examples Can Be Misleading

There are a fair number of examples of famous bass players who began as guitar players and moved into bass playing duties. More often than not, these players will explain that the bass position “was available”, and they moved into the spot. Perhaps, this historical event of a particular bass player creates a false assumption: that many good bass players started out as guitar players.

While I don’t disagree that many good bass players started out on guitar, I would argue that: the reason they became good bass players was not necessarily that they were first guitar players; but, that they learned to play bass well and learned to understand its role in the band, in spite of first being guitar players. If your desire is to learn bass and become a good bass player, do that, and disregard the possibly misleading historical examples.

#3 Advantages To Learning Bass First

As we mentioned above, the primary role of the bass player is to keep time, I will say it again: The bass player’s primary role and main responsibility is to be a timekeeper. Yes, many times, this role is shared with a drummer; but, never-the-less, each must individually keep time, albeit together. Alternatively, the guitarist role is to fill the harmonic landscape and at times to play melodic or counter melodic material. The guitar dances, if you will, on top of the time keepers, namely, the bass. 

From a rhythmic standpoint, sometimes the guitar is playing with the bass and sometimes it is playing “in-between” the bass. So, here is the big issue for guitar players who become bass players: they must leave their dancing shoes at the door; however, this is very difficult to do, because it means rethinking and unlearning many of the musical gestures that have been engrained from all the years of playing guitar.

I like to say that a bass player who plays like a guitar player is playing: Jazz Bass; and, I don’t mean that in a complimentary sense. He is all over the place! So, take heart new bass players: If you learn to be an exceptional timekeeper, you will become an exceptional bass player. By learning bass first, and learning to perform its fundamental roles exceptionally, you will bypass all of the deprogramming that is necessary (and quite frankly, very difficult to do) in order to transition from guitar playing to exceptional bass playing.

#4 Desire Over Necessity

Motivation is the fuel that makes everything happen. Behind every goal there must be a motivating force stronger than any motivating force pushing away from the goal. Presumably, if you are interested in this question, you are also interested in being the best bass player you can be; and, by doing your due diligence, as you should, you are looking into the best approach for achieving this goal, i.e.

Should I learn guitar before learning bass? Your desire to be a bass player first and foremost, will propel your skills well beyond someone who plays the bass out of necessity, e.g. a guitar player who needs to play bass in the band to make the band work, because the other guitar player is more advanced.  

#5 Mastery Over Utility 

Let’s face it, when you serve two masters, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to please both of them. By learning the bass from the ground up, so to speak, you will be working toward mastering the instrument- your focus will be on mastering the bass. This complete dedication to the instrument will not only bear fruit in your own estimation; it will be noticed by other musicians, who will want to have your musical skill set as a part of their group.

I have played with many musicians over the course of time; when I have had the opportunity to play with a true bass player, one who is completely immersed in his craft, it is a great musical experience. The subtleties and nuances of a professional bass player, as compared to a part-time guitar/ bass player, are unmistakable. Now, let’s talk about guitar players who would like to become better bass players, of which I am one.

Bonus: For Guitarists Becoming Bass Players – Unlearning The Guitar

If you are a guitar player, who out of necessity is playing bass, or would like to learn bass on its own merits, this part is for you. We, I include myself, must always keep in mind the primary function of the bass- timekeeper. If you are playing the bass, as a former guitar player, and you feel like you are not playing enough notes- you are mostly likely over the target. As guitar players, our job is to “bob and weave” over the rhythm section; this creates variety and intensity.

However, this is not the role of the bass. It will take a lot of practiced restraint to play the bass well. Here are a couple of rules of thumb: Less is more; and, spend most of your practice time using a metronome or drum machine. You are now the captain of the ship in control of the engines and the rudder; you are no longer the engine, or the rudder, or the deckhands.

From my experience as guitarist/bassist, you will always have to work against your guitar tendencies and learned gestures to perform bass well. But, this can be done through awareness of what your role should be and how it should be done. “Restraint! My good man, Restraint!”


If you are interested in learning bass guitar, you can begin without first learning guitar. In fact, it is arguably a better way to start. Learn by listening and doing; listen to the bass players you want to emulate and learn what and how they play. Your interest and desire to learn the bass will lead you to mastery if you persist!

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.