Most people think of the Bass as a simplified guitar (with only four strings tuned an octave lower). In anatomical terms, that’s exactly what it is.
Most people believe the Bass is much easier to play than the guitar. This is also true to a large extent. It doesn’t take much effort to learn if all you aspire to is holding down a beat comprised of Root notes. But great Bass playing takes no less skill or dedication than is required to play any other musical instrument well.
Most people assume the Bassist is the least important band member: the one who stands in the shadows at the back of the stage. For many bands this is also true, and exceptions (such as Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) are uncommon.
Most guitarists assume they can also (automatically) play Bass. Yet again this is true to a degree. However, experienced Bassists approach music in a very different way to guitarists. A guitarist playing the Bass generally sounds like – a guitarist playing the Bass!
Other trends have contributed to the unpopularity of the Bass guitar. Lower frequencies, along with percussion sounds, were among the first to be successfully synthesized. In some musical styles, the Bass has totally lost its role due to the use of sequenced sounds. Bass frequencies require more sensitive reproduction, and many people listen to music using sound systems that do not allow them to hear the full richness and depth of Bass guitar lines. They simply do not hear it. The Bass is therefore often overlooked as a critical component of modern music.
These facts, along with the general perceptions outlined, have no doubt significantly contributed to declining number of people taking-up the Bass Guitar as a first instrument. However, all these negatives can also provide a very strong argument to support an opposing viewpoint: that adopting a Bass can be a better option than taking up the guitar.
The first big advantage of the Bass is the fact that you can learn to play it really quickly. The very best way to learn an instrument is to play with other people. As soon as you have learned to hold-down a beat, and find your way to various Root notes, you are ready to join a band. The Bass is an instrument of accompaniment, so you must play with others in order to experience and appreciate how to play lines that drive a rhythm, and embellish a melody.
The general shortage of Bassists will mean that you face far less competition for playing opportunities. Given the low level of expectations of Bass players, if you can learn to play with imagination and flare, then you stand a good chance of getting noticed.
When it comes to learning, assuming that you want to gain an understanding of music so that you can compose your own lines, rather than blindly copy something somebody else has played, you’ll find music theory is easier to follow on the Bass. The reduced number of strings, and lack of a differently tuned B string makes patterns (scales, chords, arpeggios) more consistent, and much easier to remember.
I personally endorse learning to play by ear, but the Bass is nevertheless a more visually orientated instrument than the guitar. This is difficult to explain without getting technical, suffice to say that there are not so many chord patterns, and Bass players will be able to see playable note opportunities (such as passing notes) that will never occur to guitarists. This happens due to the different thought processes demanded by a Bass, and for this reason, I often use the Bass to teach certain aspects of music to my guitar students.
Guitarists tend to play either rhythm or lead. Rhythm playing is the hardest part for guitar students to learn: it takes skill and imagination to hold a chord and make it interesting. On the other hand, although Bass playing styles vary, there is always an opportunity to integrate rhythm and melody. In short, a properly trained Bass player will have a range of techniques at their disposal with which to hold a chord, and sustain the listeners’ interest. Guitarists can learn a lot from Bass players.
We do not all share the same tastes in music, but I would suggest two well-known Bass players are beacons of inspiration to sell the notion that this instrument can be every bit as engaging as the guitar. Take a close listen to Norman Watt-Roy on Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”. The Bass is the lead instrument, and Norman supports the melody with a simple but effective pulsating bass line. The other is Pino Palladino on Paul Young’s “Every Time You Go Away”, where he drops behind the vocal to extend the melody of the song.
My key message is – don’t let the popular view of the Bass discourage you from learning this instrument. The common myths are unfounded, and with proper instruction you will learn much more about music, much faster on a Bass than any other more popular instrument. You might consider learning the play both guitar and Bass, but the important thing to recognise is that they are two different instruments, in the same way that a cello is not simply a big violin.