One of those age-old debates that seem like it will never be truly answered and settled, is bass easier than guitar? I’m writing this from the point of view of someone who has played both and struggled with both. While this is a very subjective question, I do think that there are some things that we can point out and show where differences might matter in choosing between bass and guitar as a beginner.
There are situations where either bass or guitar wins the debate. But, overall, I’d say that bass is easier than guitar in more situations than not. As a beginner, learning bass is less complicated than guitar and can be learned more quickly in general, especially within less complex musical genres.
To be very clear, this article is NOT about which instrument is better. It’s also not about whether it’s easier to get really GOOD at bass or guitar. Those are completely different questions, and those are the ones that can’t really be answered.
Getting really GOOD at bass or guitar, or any other instrument, requires countless hours of study and practice. It also requires something not measurable, something that you just know when you hear it. James Jamerson had it. Jimi Hendrix had it. You know exactly what I mean.
You don’t have to be Jamerson or Hendrix to be a great musician, but dedication and a deep love of the music you play sometimes make a bigger difference than the instrument you choose to start with.
Bass vs guitar – The physical stats
Body and neck size
One of the main things that comes up in this debate is the physical size of a bass vs an electric or acoustic guitar. Some people feel that a bass is slightly harder for beginners because it’s just bigger, heavier, and harder to wield.
Now, this might be true in some cases, but I argue that because there are so many really good short-scale (and smaller) basses out there today that this issue isn’t really an issue. Some of the smaller scale bass guitars are nearly the same size as an electric guitar. They’re also quite light and easy to handle. If you need something really small, try a Ubass.
If you can get your hands on one of these short-scale bass guitars, I’m gonna call this part a draw.
Regardless of scale length, bass guitars do have thicker, heavier gauge strings. As a beginner, it can take a bit of time to get used to fretting strings on a bass. For smaller or younger folks with less hand strength, this can be more significant. Do a bit of research for thinner gauge strings if this applies to you.
I want to remind you that starting to learn guitar is not easy and pain-free though. It’ll be a few weeks of constant playing before you build up those calluses and your hand doesn’t feel like a complete contortionist experiment. And, ironically, those thinner guitar strings are the ones that make you feel like your fingers are bleeding after a while when you’re a beginner.
Both instruments are challenging. But, because there is a little bit of extra hand strength required to fret bass strings, and guitar is harder in terms of hand position, I’m calling another draw on this one.
Number of strings
Saved the best for last, right?
I’ll be honest here, it does make a difference. I started with guitar. It was my first instrument. I played for many years, but I never really got as good as I wanted to. I absolutely loved it. Still do. But, it never felt completely right.
Moving to four strings on bass was like a revelation to me. It made so much more sense, and I understood music theory better than I had in the past.
The interesting thing is that it wasn’t so much that I was missing two strings. It was more about how we think about playing the bass. We think differently about bass lines and how they fit in a song. It’s not that the bass is “two strings easier” or something. It’s that your musical thought process is so different.
As weird as it sounds, with only four strings, each string is also more important. And another ironic thing, I absolutely love playing chords on bass.
OK, a couple of things to keep in mind here. I learned some music theory from playing guitar and from studying it on its own. So, when I started playing bass seriously I had a little bit of a foundation there. That definitely played a part in how quickly and easily I picked up new aspects of theory. But, that was not the main reason it came easier to me, I’m very aware of that.
If I’m going to recommend bass or guitar for someone to learn music theory with, I will recommend bass every time.
Is bass easier than guitar when learning new songs
For total beginners
The time and effort you’ll put in to learn the very basics and be able to play very basic songs is maybe about the same.
As I mentioned above, the bass might take a little longer to develop some hand strength and learn to navigate a larger neck. But with the right bass choice, this isn’t a big deal.
Getting chords down as muscle memory on the guitar might take a little longer than being able to use one finger to get a note to play on a bass. This aspect of muscle memory is, in my opinion, more important for guitar than it is for bass. Changing chord shapes quickly is absolutely essential on the guitar. Not so much on a bass.
I remember even trying to get good at sliding power chords up and down the neck of my Fender Strat was a challenge at first. Making your hands do what you want takes a while.
The style of music you want to play is a huge factor
This is a generalization, so keep your outrage in check.
It’s just true that some styles of music are less complex than others. It doesn’t mean they’re bad or less amazing to listen to or fun to play. Learning to play blues, punk, or basic rock, for instance, is going to be an easier road than if you’re learning jazz or prog rock. This goes for both bass and guitar.
Are there complex bass parts in some blues or punk? Absolutely. But, overall, if you’re dedicated to learning jazz, buckle in and enjoy a longer ride.
So, if you’re into blues, punk, or some other style of music that’s on the less complicated side, I would give the edge to bass on being easier to learn.
With bass, you’ll have to get some hand dexterity and develop some endurance to play full songs. You might also just get away with learning the tabs for a song. This means that you might be able to memorize where to put your fingers without even knowing the names of the notes. This is not ideal, but it’s not uncommon for beginners to start this way.
Learning guitar for the same type of music is, I think, slightly more complicated just because you’re going to have to learn how to play some chords, even if that means just a few power chords. You’ll still need to develop dexterity and endurance like you will on bass, but the added complexity of learning chords is something to consider. Granted, it’s a small consideration…but it’s there.
Getting to intermediate level
Bass might have a slight edge here.
Note: It’s imperative that you start to develop a feel and learn to groove in this stage. It’s what will set most intermediate players apart. Learning theory is great, but if you can’t groove, no one will care.
You can develop a bit of speed and dexterity with your fingers, understand a little about music theory (enough to jam with others in a band setting for instance), and you might be good to go for a long while. You can get really creative and have a lot of fun at this level.
I also think it’s easier for most people to get to this level with bass than it is with guitar. I know that was the case for me.
Guitar could take a bit more study and practice to get to a good, solid intermediate level. Arpeggios and more complex chords can be challenging for some musicians. I also think this stuff comes into play earlier on than it does with bass. Also, fingers need to fall into place easily and quickly to play more complicated songs.
What makes an instrument easier or harder to learn
Obviously, there are some instruments that are simply more complex or more difficult to play. When you compare instruments that are relatively on the same level in terms of physical difficulty and all that, what other factors are there?
My daughter played the cello. It’s a beautiful instrument, and super fun to learn as well. But this is a good example of an instrument that has another layer of difficulty. Learning how to use a bow correctly, and then learning how to use it really well are completely different things. And, it’s not quite as “immediate” I guess as just using your fingers directly on the instrument.
Clearly, you can do that with cello, it’s just not always the norm.
Also, a fretless fingerboard is a much harder thing to learn than a fretted one.
And again, what kind of music do you play? Remember, some styles and genres of music feature instruments differently. Playing double bass in an orchestra is a bit different than playing upright bass in a jazz or a rockabilly band.
Is bass guitar easy to learn?
I won’t say that bass guitar is easy to learn because that really depends on each individual person. I will say that among the several different instruments that I’ve spent time learning, the bass was one of the easiest to learn, hands down.
I’m still learning for sure. As I go deeper down the rabbit hole the studying gets harder, and I absolutely love it. But for beginners, it’s such a great instrument.
The bass guitar is on the easier end of the spectrum, and it’s much easier to learn with the right choice of bass and equipment. You don’t necessarily have to go all-in on bass pedals and massive amps to start. However, the best bass that you can afford that will fit you and feel comfortable will make you want to play and practice all the time.
Should I play bass or guitar?
Yep, I think you should.
Obviously, you need to decide if I’m right or wrong. But, the bass will teach you some important things that no other instrument can all at once. It sits in a really cool place between pure rhythm (timekeeping), and harmony and melody.
With bass guitar, you’ll have to think about it all. You’ll be the bridge between the rhythm section and the melody of the songs. It’s a great way to learn about how music is put together.
If you do go down the four-string road (please don’t start with a five-string bass), get a good beginner bass that fits you and is affordable. I highly recommend the Fender Squire Bronco. It’s a short-scale that’s a lot of fun and great to learn on…for anyone.
No matter what instrument you choose, be consistent with your practice, find good instruction, and fight through those moments of frustration when they hit. It’ll be worth it!