Stringed instruments are everywhere, and if you can already play the guitar (if you can’t, use our many guides here at BeginnerGuitarHQ to learn how) then there is a pretty high chance you’ll be able to use what you already know to pick up one of these other instruments.
In this important guide, I’ll help you get a nice head start on learning to play the bass guitar.
If you’re looking for a place to start with the bass guitar, then look no further…
What Are The Big Differences Between A Guitar And A Bass Guitar?
On the surface, a bass guitar looks pretty similar to a regular guitar. They’ve both got similar shaped bodies, with necks covered in frets and a headstock with tuning pegs. And of course, they’ve both got strings. However, there are a few key differences that give them different sounds and a completely different purpose in a band setting.
4 Strings: While a standard guitar has 6 strings, a standard bass only has 4. As you may have guessed, they are modelled on the lower strings from the guitar (E, A, D and G) and the fact that the tuning system here is the same makes it easy to get the hang of. However, what you may not have known is that these strings are all an octave lower than their guitar counterparts. This is what gives you the low pitched tone of the bass guitar.
Thicker Strings: In order for these strings to provide this low sound, they need to be a lot more sturdy than those on a guitar, so bass strings are much thicker than those on a guitar. If you tried to tune your guitar down the octave needed to give it the same range as a bass, you’d see that the strings would eventually just come off as they aren’t designed for this.
Longer Neck: The neck of your bass is also going to be much longer than the one you’re used to on your guitar. This means a much bigger stretch to reach all the way down to the first fret. It also means the frets themselves are bigger, so if you’ve got smaller hands then you may find yourself at a natural disadvantage when trying to get used to making those big bass stretches. Don’t give up though, you’ll get used to it.
Getting Yourself A Bass Guitar
Obviously, as with guitars, there are thousands off bass guitars available to suit all sorts of tones, styles, looks and budgets. I’ve taken a look at a lot of the basses on offer, and I’ve put together this list of five of the best, based on sound, place in history, look, budget and all-rounder.
Best Sound: Schecter Hellraiser Extreme-4. While not the most known manufacturer in the world, Schecter are known to many for their incredibly versatile tone. As you can probably tell from the name, it suits the metal genre well but wouldn’t go amiss as part of any other band. Its two pickups can be used as single-coil of humbuckers, while a 3-band EQ allows for a wide ranging sound shift across the bass, so you can convert it from a rumbling, thick monster into a dainty lead-line performer in seconds.
Most Historically Important: Rickenbacker rm1999. This is the bass guitar most associated with the thick tone of Chris Squire, from the iconic progressive rock band Yes. This one is so important because its thick texture and loud, almost guitar-like prominence allowed for Squire’s basslines to punch through tracks, such as in his iconic bassline for ‘Roundabout’. His specific tone, he has revealed, comes from splitting the bass and treble pickup sounds into separate amplifiers, putting the bass frequency into a bass amp, and the treble into a guitar amp. This meant his distinctive tone was able to provide an overdriven lead quality and a thick, bassy tone at the same time. Go for this bass if you’re looking to recreate this sound.
Best Looking: Höfner 500/1 Violin Bass. As soon as you see this bass, you’ll associate it to the iconic look of a mid-60’s Beatles, with Paul McCartney clutching the instrument. Its body is (as you can guess from the name) more like a violin in its look. It is semi-acoustic, with a hollow body that gives it a rich tone not dissimilar from a double bass, while still packing the necessary punch of a bass guitar. Its classic look is a must buy for anyone needing an impressive, retro stage get-up while maintaining the presence of an impeccable sounding instrument.
Most Budget-Friendly: Ibanez SR400QM. For less than £400, you could pick up a bass guitar that suits a beginner down to a tee. Its lightweight mahogany body avoids giving a beginner a shocking realisation about the weight of a bass guitar, while its tone is rich and powerful. It also happens to have the added advantage of looking really sleek and cool.
Best All-Rounder: Fender Jazz. The most iconic bass guitar of all time has given rise to the role of the bassist in genres such as jazz and funk, as its trebly, bright sound is perfect for popping and slapping. Its cousin, the Fender Precision bass is similar in its design and sound, but with more focus on low end. This bass gives you a mixture of both, while providing the ability to go on long winding walks around the neck and performer killer solos if necessary. It also avoids blurry textures if you need to play bass chords, and happens to be an iconic looking instrument that everyone will recognise and respect.
Joining The Rhythm Section
Playing rhythm guitar will obviously have given you a good grasp on sitting back and feeling the groove of whatever you’re playing. This is taken to a new level when you become a bassist. The key element is to always communicate with your drummer. You’ll need to become so tight that you sound like one instrument playing at the same time, as you’re controlling the rhythm and tempo of your whole band.
When performing in this capacity, you’ll have to practice a lot of restraint. Moving from being a guitarist who is normally front and centre of the action to being the bassist who provides a subtle undercurrent for those around him may provide itself to be a challenge. This is why you’ll need to practice restraint when you’re trying to become a bassist.
One of the biggest tips I can give you is to know exactly what the chord sequence you’re following is. Sure, you may be playing a nice riff or a pre-written bassline, but knowing the chord sequence you’re following means you’re able to add your own improvised inflections while staying rooted to the chord sequence, so your playing won’t sound out of place.
Similarly, if you’re playing jazz, you may be given a lead sheet. This is the perfect time to test out your skills at restraining yourself and hanging back to provide a backing for the rest of the band. You’ll be given a score that simply explains which chords will be being played over, so in your playing, you’ll want to improvise (in the style of the piece) based on these chords. Again, keep your root notes at the forefront of your playing so that the chords sound as they should, and avoid complex, high-pitched fills. Also, a bass has a deep sound, so a flurry of fast notes rarely works (unlike in the guitar). This means you should avoid showing off your ability to play with virtuosity, and instead aim to show off how good you are at filling the rhythmic gaps and keeping a persistent tempo and feel to your performance.
Spicing Things Up
When first starting off with the bass guitar, many have the perception that it’s the bassist’s job to sit back and underpin everyone else, while they all take the limelight and show off. While what I’ve said above doesn’t exactly argue against that, but when you’ve got the basics down, then adding a few fills here and there will never go amiss.
Of course, within this, there are always boundaries. As a bass guitarist, I’d recommend against a sudden, impromptu solo or a flurry of high pitched fills that last more than about a bar of music. This is because your band will lose their texture. It’s your job to sit back in the mix and provide that rumbling low frequency, so if you drift off into the upper limits of the fretboard, then this texture is suddenly going to disappear. Not to mention, if you’re playing alongside a lead guitarist and suddenly move your way up into their playing range, your performances are going to get muddled and merge together in a weird way.
There are also a fair few techniques that you can use on bass that wouldn’t work as well if playing guitar, or would be able to help spice up your playing with a bit of extra flair.
Slap: Slapping the bass is one of the techniques most associated with bass guitar. It’ll appear in basically every single funk tune of all time, but jazz and even rock has seen the technique appear multiple times. To pull it off, you’ll want to use your thumb to literally slap on the string. Hit on the lower side of your knuckle around the start of the fretboard, and alternate your slaps with a few pops, which is where you use a sort of pinching motion to pull a high string away from the body with force. This gives a cool, percussive sound that is quite hard to master. Have a look at our guide on the slap guitar if you’d like to transfer what you know on guitar, to the bass.
Plectrum Picking: This isn’t a particularly complex technique on bass, but seeing as you’ll normally be playing the bass with your fingers, it can add a new tone to your playing and give you a level of speed and control that you might feel more comfortable with considering you’re moving to the bass from the guitar.
Bass Chords: This won’t come up a lot, but on the occasional times that it does, make sure to avoid trying to play chords on the low end of the bass. All this will do is create an unpleasant muddy sound. In fact, I’d avoid playing the lowest string at all when playing bass chords. Putting multiple notes together when they’re on the higher end of the frequency spectrum can sound really good; try playing some major 7th chords.
Bass Tapping: We’ve looked at tapping on a guitar in detail here at BeginnerGuitarHQ (take a look at this guide on guitar improvisation techniques), and the technique isn’t much different on a bass. Honestly, it’s very rarely going to come up; there isn’t much demand for a tapping bassist. However, if you ever want to add the technique to a particularly impressive solo or ambitious riff, then make sure you’ve got at least some overdrive, use your pick to tap on the highest fret in use, and your left hand to alternative your hammer ons and pull offs.
Trying Out Some Genres
Of course, when playing the bass, you’re unlikely to find one genre and stick to it forever. I’ve put together a few tips on how to melt into the style of certain genres.
Funk: Playing in a funk style will allow you to bring your newfound skill in slap bass playing. You’ll get to be a prominent member of the band as your impressive skill will be showcased through loud basslines, but at the same time you’ll be the rhythmic centrepiece of the track.
Metal: When playing metal, you’ll probably want to use a plectrum to play with speed. If you’re playing in a particularly extreme, shreddy subgenre then you may want to tremolo pick the root notes of the chords being used in the track you’re on, while fast playing and riffs will also probably lead to the need for a pick.
Jazz: This is another important style for the bassist of a band. As I said above, you’ll want to follow a lead sheet by improvising heavily rhythmic bassline. You may want to even try a common technique calling a walking bass, where you maintain a motor rhythm that wanders around the neck, outlining chords.
One of the greatest bass players of all time is Mark King of Level 42. Watch him show off his funky slap basslines in this video.
Watching Mr Big in general is always quite the masterclass as each member is clearly a virtuoso on their instrument, but take a look at this video of Billy Sheehan as he shreds an impeccable solo.
Dan is a music tutor and writer. He has played piano since he was 4, and guitar and drum kit since he was 11.
He plays a Guild acoustic and a Pacifica electric. He has been sent to many festivals and gigs (ranging from pop to extreme metal) as both a photographer and reviewer, with his proudest achievement so far being an interview he has with Steve Hackett (ex-Genesis guitarist).
He ranks among his favourite ever guitarists, alongside Guthrie Govan, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour and Robert Fripp. His favourite genre of music is progressive rock, which he likes to use as a reference point in my teaching, thanks to its huge complexity in structure, rhythm and harmony. However, he is also into a lot of other genres including jazz, 90’s hip-hop, death metal and 20th century classical music.