by Matt Day

It seems like a lot of people come to the bass guitar after having a little experience with the regular guitar first, and that makes sense because the guitar has always been a more common instrument.  This brought up the question though, about whether it is easy, or easier, to learn the bass after learning the regular guitar. To find out, I asked a few music instructors who are proficient on the instrument, and teach both instruments.  Here’s what they had to say.

So, is it easy to learn the bass after guitar?  The bass guitar and standard guitar are distinct instruments which require very different technique and musical approaches.  Players experienced with the guitar usually find the adjustment to bass challenging, but are benefitted by their knowledge of notes, scales and the fretboard.

Let’s take a deeper dive into how easy (or not so easy) it is to learn bass after learning the guitar, and what you can do to speed up the process so that you can be a guitar and bass player.

Bass and Guitar are Two Very Different Instruments

By the time I got to the bass guitar, I had a few solid decades of time with the regular guitar.  When i first started learning the bass, I felt the uphill battle immediately. I could tell that some things were easier than they would be for someone with no guitar experience, but other things were just plain difficult, which was surprising and frustrating.

I told the guy who was teaching me bass that the learning process was more difficult than i had anticipated, and he said “Good, I’m glad to hear that.”  He was originally a bass player who added guitar on later (just the opposite as me), and was certainly better at both than I was. By his comment, he meant that he was glad that I would have to learn to respect the bass as its own instrument.  He told me that they really are two very different “animals.”  Here are a few of the differences that make learning bass after guitar not as easy as we’d all like:

Bass Differences #1:  Right Hand Technique Does Not Convert.  When learning the bass, at some point, and hopefully some point early on, you’ll need to learn how to play with your fingers on your “picking” hand.  For any guitar player that used a pick, or even those that finger pick a lot, the technique of using your first two fingers to strike the strings is very different and unusual.  It will take some time to learn it correctly, where you are able to maintain consistent tone in time.

It’s not just the finger picking that is different here.  It’s also the lack of strumming. The entire right hand technique and purpose is really turned upside down when converting to the bass, and it will take some time to get it down and be able to do it correctly, consistently.

Bass Difference #2:  Scale Length and String Distance Are Larger.  Every guitar player will notice immediately on the bass that the fretboard scale is a lot longer than their guitar.  Since many guitar scales (depending of the manufacturer) are around 25 inches, the conversion to the standard bass scale of 34 inches or more of a bass guitar is noticeable.  The frets, especially lower on the neck, are much farther apart.  This will throw off any guitar player for at least a little while.  Of course, the bass guitar needs this longer scale length to get the lower tones, but it does require the player to stretch further to get to the notes they want.

Scale length vertically is not the only distance issue for guitar players.  You’ll also notice that the strings, regardless whether it’s a four, five or six string bass, are farther apart.  This helps when it comes to proper bass technique, but this is very different, especially for those guitar players that were fast alternate pickers on the guitar.

Bass Difference #3:  Bass Requires Different Thinking.  The bass guitar is a rhythm instrument.  It’s job in many scenarios is to tie directly in to the drummer to fill out the rhythm, which requires thinking like supporting player.  The guitar, on the other hand, is a lead or melody instrument It is designed to be out in front, driving the melody of the song and interacting with the other guitars and vocalists.  

This change in purpose requires a change in thinking.  When playing bass, you’ll need to think like a bass player who is providing that necessary support, and use the instrument as such.  This change in thinking is probably the most difficult adjustment that a guitar player has to make when converting to the bass guitar.

The Benefits of Knowing Guitar First

For guitar players learning the bass, it’s not all gloom and doom.  While there are challenges of converting to the bass, there are some areas where you’re going to be at an advantage.  Let’s take a look at a few of those.

Guitar Benefit #1:  Fretboard, Note and Scale Knowledge.  By having played the guitar, you are coming to the bass with a (hopefully) solid background of the guitar fretboard and the notes and scales on it.  Since the guitar lines up on the lower strings exactly to the four string bass in standard tuning, the knowledge you’ve already acquired about the fretboard, notes, scales and arpeggios are all ready to be put to use.  What this means for you, as compared to someone just starting on the bass with no music knowledge at all, is that you can get started making music right away and focus on your technique.

Guitar Benefit #2:  Fretting Hand Dexterity.  When coming to the bass from the guitar, you’ll have less of a slowdown since your fretting hand is used to…well, fretting.  As a guitar player, you’ll be a step ahead since you’re fretting hand is used to doing it’s job and fretting different strings at different locations.  While it’s true that the string sizes and fret sizes are different, you’re still a step ahead here by having build the muscle memory in your fretting hand from your time on the guitar.

Guitar Benefit #3:  Right Hand / Left Hand Coordination.  Watch any new guitar player, and you’ll notice they will look at their left hand, then their right hand, then their left hand, then their right hand.  Syncing up the two hands and building that coordination is one of the most challenging aspects of learning the guitar. And by having built that skill as a guitar player, you can bring that with you when you learn the bass, even though the picking technique on the bass is different.

Guitar Benefit #4:  The Language of Music.  By having played the guitar, or any other instrument for that matter, you’ve learned some of the language of music.  By this, I’m not referring to the specific notes or scales on the fretboard that are mentioned above, but the additional concepts of music that apply, such as reading music or tab, having a better ear than a non-musician, or having experience playing along with others.  Any background in music in general that you’ve picked up from your guitar days will help you as you learn the bass.

Tips for Learning Bass After Guitar

Now that you’re moving forward with learning the bass, let’s talk about a few things as guitar players that we can do to make learning the bass easier.  

Tip #1:  Pay Attention to Your Tone.  You may find that getting good tone on the bass is not as easy as you would like, or not as easy as it has been on the guitar.  Handling the larger strings of a bass, along with the different technique of the fretting hand, often means that your tone on the bass will be inconsistent from note to note.  Be sure to really listen to your tone and don’t take for granted what you are feeling without really hearing what you’re playing. Remember, having a guitar background doesn’t guarantee good tone on the bass.

Tip #2:  Take Lessons From an Authentic Bass Teacher.  Learning bass on your own as a guitar player has one glaring blind spot – you’ll be learning the bass from the perspective of a guitar player.  This is what you want to avoid.  You should consider springing for lessons on the bass guitar…but there’s a catch.

There are a lot of music teachers that are decent on a number of instruments, but are a master of none.  That’s not an issue, and it’s great that they can play a lot of different things, but it’s probably in your best interest to get hooked up with a teacher that focuses on bass.  Don’t fall into the trap of signing up with a teacher who says he teaches bass “too” just because he’s a nice guy. Even a guitar teacher that also knows bass as a secondary instrument might not be enough.  It’s probably better to align with a teacher that focuses on the bass.

For my bass teacher, I knew him first as a guitar player.  I didn’t realize he was really a bass player who was only gigging as a guitarist because that’s what the band needed.  I questioned him about his bass playing, but when he told me he learned bass first, and the bass was his major in his master’s degree at college, I knew I found a teacher with the focus I needed.  Consider this as you look into lessons for yourself.

Tip #3:  Jam With Other Musicians.  Try as soon as you can to find an opportunity to jam with other musicians as a bass player.  When you do this, pay attention to the drummer more than you ever had before as a guitar player.  Remember that when you’re playing bass, you (along with the drummer) are in a support role – supporting everyone else in the band.  Because of this, you probably should be looking at, or making eye contact with the drummer a lot more than you were before when you had six strings on your instrument.

Tip #4:  Renew Your Focus On Theory.  As a guitar player, sometimes you can get by with glossing over the theory.  That’s not going to be the case as much with the bass. Since you’ll be playing bass lines and walking the notes, you’ll want to make sure you renew your knowledge of and focus on the theory behind the music, including understanding scales and arpeggios.  A few players I know that play both guitar and bass have said that bass is the instrument that really makes you know your music theory.

Which Instrument Should You Focus On?

Now that you know how to approach the bass as a guitar player, which instrument should you focus on?  Obviously, you should do whatever you derive the most enjoyment from, but it’s also worthwhile taking a few moments to change your thinking and view yourself as a multi-instrumentalist.  When you think about it, all instruments take a lifetime to master, but not too long to build generalized proficiency. This may be the first time that you actually think of yourself as someone who can stand in as a guitar player or a bass player.  How does that feel?

Don’t Stop Here.  What About Other Stringed Instruments?

Another thing to consider is if there are other instruments that you can add to your abilities.  Stringed instruments at this point will be easier to pick up for you than instruments from other instrument families.  Two common instruments to consider adding are the ukulele and the mandolin. Ukuleles are a common beach-style instrument, and plenty of legendary guitar players, like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin played the guitar and the mandolin.

Related Questions

Should I buy a 4 string bass guitar or a 5 string bass guitar if I’m a beginner?  When buying an instrument for a beginner, it is usually a good idea to do some online research and talk to a trusted music store staff person or a bass guitar instructor.  Most will advise that for a beginner, they start with a 4 string bass guitar unless they have substantial musical background.

Do strings for a 5 string bass cost more than a 4 string bass guitar?  A set of comparable strings for any bass will cost more when you’re purchasing more strings.  Keep in mind that with any set of bass guitar strings, you are including all of the strings of the lower model, plus one more string, which equates to more cost.

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.