Bass guitar is often considered to be an easier instrument to play than its smaller cousin, the six-string. Indeed, it’s long been a running joke that the worst guitarist in the band is forced to be the bassist.
True or not, it would certainly be fair to say that some pick up the instrument due to this reputation of being the easier option.
However, the fundamental role of the bass is an essential one. They’re the harmonic foundation of the band – without their low end providing context and holding everything together, those flailing riffs and histrionic solos don’t have anywhere near the same impact.
With that importance in mind, is it fair to say that bass is easier? Let’s investigate!
Some things are almost always easier about bass guitar – here are some of them!
While guitarists are hyper-focused on finger-twisting, unwieldy chords, and crazy sweep-picked arpeggio shapes, the bassist tends to be a much more restrained instrumentalist.
The sound that a bass guitar produces doesn’t often lend itself to the same sort of playing as a guitar – the low end frequencies are often too thick to let there be any real definition to chords, so they’re a much smaller part of a bassist’s repertoire.
Indeed, it’s not that often at all that a bassist will play 2 notes at once – in many ways, playing more than one note at a time is anathema to the role that the bass guitar plays in the band! Not to say that it doesn’t happen, or that it’s a bad musical choice – but it’s certainly a less common one.
In most (but certainly not all) musical circumstances, the bassist will be simply playing slower than other, more melodic instruments. The low end of the audio spectrum tends to get muddy and unfocused with a lot of rapid notes – and while a bit of speed isn’t always a bad thing, it’s usually not the role of the bass player to be the fastest player on stage.
That doesn’t mean that bass is an inherently slow instrument – there are certainly some extremely fast players out there. However, the role of the bass is often to glue the harmonic elements of the music together, and it’s not always possible to be the glue when you’re playing so fast that nothing sticks.
This is where a lot of bassists start with the idea that bass is an easier instrument than guitar – root notes. Simply put, the root note is the lowest note of a chord – and, being the lowest, tends to be the one that has the strongest sound.
It’s an extremely common thing for a bassist to play these notes often – whether solely relying on them, or using them as a stepping stone to develop more complex musical ideas.
Either way, playing root notes is a key musical focus for a lot of bassists – and although it is an overly simplistic declaration to state that this is all bassists do, it’s certainly something simple and reliable that they can often fall back on.
Of course, some things about bass make it harder!
The most obvious thing that anyone can see when they compare an electric guitar to a bass guitar is the sheer size difference. A bass guitar is a lot bigger than a six string guitar.
The body is bigger and heavier, the neck is thicker and wider – the entire thing is a scaled-up version of the electric guitar. Some basses even have six strings! With this size difference comes a huge weight difference too.
Be prepared for some neck and back strain if you’re a little unfit and unprepared for the weight of the instrument! That’s no joke either – some basses can be seriously weighty, and you’d do well to exercise and develop your neck and back muscles, or you could easily find yourself in pain after a stand-up jam session!
More Energy And Movement
With a bigger, heavier body, and much thicker strings than an electric guitar, bass guitar naturally requires more energy and movement to play than a six-string. You can’t just play in the same way as you would on guitar – in fact, you can’t always even use the same hand positions, despite the two instruments sharing a similar tuning layout.
This is because of the sheer size of a bass – finger positions that are common on guitar are often far more challenging, if not almost impossible on the bass guitar. Indeed, trying to play in exactly the same way as on a guitar is often a painful experience – and, due to the thickness of a bass guitar’s low end register, is often an unwise choice anyway!
With bass, often less is more – because a single note from a bass guitar can dominate a piece of music in ways that just aren’t possible on the other instruments!
If bassists can just get away using root notes, then surely the theory of bass should be easier, right? Well, not exactly – theory is hard all over! Just because it’s possible for a bassist to get away with playing only the simple stuff, doesn’t mean that they always should!
As the bass is such a dominant instrument, occupying such prominent sections of the audio spectrum, a subtle change in bass notes or rhythm can fundamentally change the tone of an entire piece.
When the bassist decides to play a B note, everything else the band plays is now centered around that B note – whether the rest of the band likes it or not! The bass is often in control of the tonal feel of the entire piece – much to the chagrin of egomaniac lead guitarists everywhere.
While it may be tempting to look at bass as a simpler instrument than guitar, it’s not always the case. It can be an easier instrument – but it can also be a much harder one too!
As always in music, context is everything. What is certain is that bass is just as key to a full, cohesive sound as any other instrument – and that no matter the context, bass has its own challenges!