by Matt Day

A few people were discussing bass guitar players online recently and asked if all bass guitar players are former guitarists or failed guitarists.  This is an interesting assumption that in order to get to bass guitar, a player would have to fail at or be familiar with regular guitar first, so I decided to ask some bass players to find out.

So, are bass guitar players failed guitarists?  Many bass guitar players started playing guitar before they picked up the bass, which is expected given the guitar’s prominent role in popular music.  However, a large percentage of bass guitar players chose to start with the bass due to the musicality of the instrument and their interest in playing live music.

Let’s dive in deeper to find out why and how bass players get to be…bass players.

Why Some Bass Players Switched From Guitar

In asking around recently about how bass players got started on the bass, there were some interesting back stories about how they got started.  For those that originally played the guitar, there were a number of reasons they made the switch and made the bass guitar their primary instrument, such as:

Reason #1:  Knowing You Don’t Have the Lead Guitar Chops.  Several bass players said they knew they didn’t, and never would, have the dexterity or ability to pull off lead guitar solos to the level that they felt they should be able to, or the level that they wanted.  

For these players, playing the guitar at that level was difficult or even insurmountable, and changing to the bass guitar served as a transition to an instrument that required less dexterity and accuracy while still requiring musical knowledge and enabling them to stay involved with the music.

Reason #2:  More Opportunities to Be In A Band.  Gene Simmons of KISS started on the guitar but switched to bass in order to have more opportunities to be in a band, and he isn’t the only one.  Many bass players that formerly played guitar saw the massive number of guitarists compared to bass guitarist and knew they’d have less competition, and therefore more opportunity, to be in a band if they were a bassist first.  

Reason #3:  A Gig Needs a Bass Player.  Some guitarists, including true working musicians, have said they’ve picked up a bass not to be in a band, but to get a paying gig.  Joel Hoekstra of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Whitesnake, had said in an interview that while he was specifically trained on guitar, as a working musician many years ago he had picked up the bass to get a paying gig because that was what was needed.  While Joel’s switch to bass was temporary (and if you’ve seen him play guitar, that’s a good thing), many others that switch to bass for the gig end up staying there, mostly because of…more gigs.

Reason #4:  Boredom With The Guitar.  It is literally impossible to learn everything that can or will be done with the guitar, since like many instruments, it is infinite.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t become stale at times. Some bass guitar players made the move because they just simply wanted a change, and a change to the other stringed instrument in a band made the most sense since drumming, vocals and keyboard require a very different skill set.

Why Some Bass Players Started With Bass

Not all bass guitar players had to find their way to the bass through the guitar.  Many, in fact possibly more than most people would assume, started directly with the bass guitar, and in fact often went to the standard guitar after the bass.  Here are some of their reasons why:

Reason #1:  Bass Guitar Was More Interesting to Them.  One bass guitarist tried several musical instruments while in school, but said that when they tried the bass, it felt like home.  Some players simply choose the bass, without any experience on the guitar.  They are drawn to the bass like guitar players are drawn to the guitar.

Reason #2:  They Want A Supporting Role.  Some bass players, just like some rhythm guitar players, prefer and seek a supporting role in the band, and choose the bass for that reason.  They say they knew from the beginning that they didn’t want a role up front, such as lead guitar or vocalist. One even said he choose the bass originally because he knew he couldn’t, and didn’t want to sing.

Reason #3:  They Started With Upright Bass or Another Orchestra Instrument.  Guitar is not the only instrument that a player could change from to get to the bass.  One bass player said that he learned the upright bass, which he then switched from to the electric bass.  Some players that play with an orchestra, perhaps in grade school, can go from that experience directly to the bass guitar without trying out the standard guitar, especially if they were in the rhythm section.

Do Bass Players Make Good Guitar Players?

Several bass players that started on bass but expanded to guitar are surprisingly really capable and solid guitar players.  This is probably because they have a strong understanding of music theory that can relate to the guitar. Often, they also have a good ear and therefore seem to find great tone on the guitar.  Most importantly, they play in time and don’t overplay the instrument.

How Can a Guitarist Get Better at Bass?

Improving at any instrument involved much of the same strategy – take lessons, practice, learn theory, scales and chord structure, and so forth.  But for guitar players that want to learn bass, there are specific things that you should consider if you would like to learn bass and play it properly.  Here are a few suggestions.

Related Questions

Are there advantages to learning guitar before learning bass guitar?  There are advantages to learning any instrument in that any musical knowledge you pick up can provide a head start when learning new instruments.  When learning similar instruments, like the guitar and bass guitar, there is also an advantage of mechanics and technique which can make learning a second instrument easier as well.

Do guitar players play bass guitar with proper technique?  Proper technique for any instrument is very often subjective, but many guitar players that play the bass later often carry over guitar-based techniques which may not apply to the bass.  In addition to these techniques, players will often replicate their bad habits too from one instrument to the next.


About the author 

Matt Day

Matt Day has been playing the guitar for over twenty-five years, and also plays the bass guitar and mandolin.