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Both the bass and the guitar have held a prominent (and important) role in modern music of the last century. Have you ever found yourself wondering what the difference is between the two?
After all, these instruments seem to look very similar. It would stand to reason that they are essentially the same thing in some regards.
Let’s take a look at these two iconic instruments with a specific focus on the bass. You’ll see how they are similar, but two different animals altogether.
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How Are A Bass And A Guitar Similar?
One of the most easily identifiable similarities between a bass and a guitar is in its body design. You’ll find that basses and guitars tend to share similar body designs depending on their manufacturer.
However, in the grand scope of music history, this is a fairly recent development. We will explore this in further detail a bit later on.
Another aspect that these instruments share is the fact that they are both stringed instruments. As such, you’ll even find that the instruments tend to share the same tuning.
Along with this, you’ll find that the necks of the bass and the guitar are both fretted. Each instrument requires the string to be pressed into a fret to change the pitch of the string being played.
Similarly, the number of frets generally remains consistent with both basses and guitars. These instruments will generally have an average of 22 frets, give or take a few depending on the model.
You’ll also find that the bass and guitar can both be played in a similar manner. The player can use either their fingers or a plectrum to sound their notes.
Basses with electric capabilities will also have pickups just as an electric guitar would have. Many basses will have 1-2 pickups equipped on the instrument
After these obvious observations, you’ll find that the similarities between the instruments are few and far between. Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental differences between the bass and the guitar.
Where Does The Bass Guitar Come From?
When comparing instruments, regardless of their utility, you’ll find that each exists within its own family. You have woodwind instruments, horns, stringed instruments, etc.
The bass is essentially a modernized version of a double bass, with origins dating back to about the 15th century. You can find the double bass being widely used in orchestral settings, sharing the stage with other orchestral instruments.
The guitar, on the other hand, has a different lineage. This instrument is the offspring of the lute and the oud.
Over time, the bass and the guitar have both experienced their own metamorphosis. Gradually, they have transitioned into the instruments that we recognize today.
As music evolved with the times, the double bass has seen its fair share of uses outside of the orchestra. This is true for almost any instrument, as violins have been used in bluegrass and gypsy jazz (becoming a fiddle).
The double bass has seen uses in jazz music especially, as well as bluegrass. Of course, innovative designs allow for new styles of music to emerge.
And with that, so too, have spawned new instrument designs that have essentially become today’s standard norm.
Today, you’ll find that the bass and the guitar are generally considered to be a part of the guitar family. This is because they share a similar build and playing manner, and are often used together in a musical setting.
Is A Bass An Electric Guitar?
One of the most recent advancements in regards to the bass and guitar is the ability for electric amplification. It might seem hard to believe, but this ability was actually not achieved until the 1930s.
A man by the name of Paul Tutmarc had created one of the very first electric bass guitars around 1935.
This bass looked very similar to traditional double bass instruments. The reason for this is that, before this, double basses were the normal bass instruments at the time.
The electric bass essentially allowed the bass to be played at louder volumes. At the same time, the guitar was going through its own similar metamorphosis. So, too, was the music of the times.
It wasn’t until Leo Fender’s 1951 bass design that the bass began to look as it does today. In fact, this design (the Precision bass) was the first mass-produced electric bass that was well-received.
The Precision bass featured a body very reminiscent of Fender’s famed guitars. It had a double-cutaway design, similar to that seen on a Stratocaster.
In this way, the bass really began to take on a similar shape and design to that of a guitar. Gradually, this became the new normal as other manufacturers produced their own basses of similar natures.
For that reason (and because they are from the same family), you could consider a bass an electric guitar. The major distinction between it being “electric” is if it has a pickup to allow for electric amplification.
Just as there are acoustic guitars, so too, are there acoustic basses. Despite this, the bass instrument is fundamentally the same.
The similarities of the guitar and bass have been explored in detail. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the modern bass and the guitar.
How Is A Bass Different Than A Guitar?
As you would guess, the bass guitar covers regions much lower than what can be played on the guitar. Despite each string being tuned to the same pitch as a guitar, each string is effectively one octave lower.
What causes the bass’s pitches to be much lower? The answer to this is the fact that the neck on a bass guitar is much longer than a guitar’s.
Scale length differs widely across the many manufacturers producing guitars. For the most part though, a guitar’s neck scale length averages about 24.5” to 25.8”.
Conversely, the bass guitar’s standard neck scale length is generally about 34”. However, you’ll find that there are some basses with necks longer or shorter than this.
Regardless of its measurement, the neck will always be longer than found on a guitar. This, in turn, allows the strings to be much longer.
Longer string length helps to provide tones that are much lower than shorter strings. This is because the strings are given access to a wider wave of vibration upon being plucked.
You can perform this test yourself by using the frets found on your own instrument. Playing a higher fret results in a note of a high pitch due. Similarly, a note played on a lower fret generates a lower pitch.
Both the guitar and bass are known to have models with differing numbers of strings. However, the common bass has 4 strings compared to the common guitar’s 6.
When compared to the guitar, you’ll find these strings are essentially the 4 lowest strings found on a guitar.
The strings found on a bass tend to be of a much thicker gauge than a guitar’s. This helps to provide the necessary tension to accommodate the longer neck length.
What Is The Role Of The Bass And Guitar In Music?
We’ve discussed at length the similarities and differences between these instruments themselves. What about their role within music?
Despite their fundamental similarities and differences, these instruments are usually utilized in different ways. Of course, this really depends on the music genre, so for the sake of this article, we’ll stick to generalizations.
For the most part, the bass holds a foundational role within the context of a band. It is commonly thought of to be a supporting instrument. For instance, you might have also heard that the bass is essentially the “backbone” of a band.
The reason for this is that the bassist tends to work in tandem with the drummer. While the drummer provides the beat, the bass player applies musical context to fit this drum pattern.
This is what is commonly known as “groove”. The groove helps to establish a pocket in which the other instrumentalists can add their parts.
In a sense, this is where the guitar comes in. The guitar can be a rhythmic instrument, but it can also be a melodic instrument at the same time.
While it's true that the guitar can establish a song, the bass provides necessary harmonic context underneath. The bass helps to keep the song moving.
It’s also commonly thought that the bass is the instrument that makes people dance. This is because it works hand-in-hand with the drums in a cohesive manner.
Of course, like guitarists, you’ll sometimes see bass players take a solo. This is not an uncommon thing and should be welcomed from time to time.
However, for the most part, the bass player is going to be hanging back and focusing on the groove. The right amount of space and the sequence of notes being played are just as important as the guitarist’s melody.
Does An Electric Bass Require A Different Amplifier?
Because of their sonic differences, you’ll find that it's highly appropriate for bassists to have their own special amps. Why is this?
The speakers found in a common guitar amp simply are not built to handle the extreme vibrations of low pitches. What can happen is that the cone of the speaker can tear under this kind of duress.
Many bass amps will have slightly larger speakers than found in a guitar amp. This is designed to help amplify those low pitches properly, with pristine precision.
Of course, with advances in technology, even bass amps do not have to be terribly big. You’ll sometimes find bass amps with small 8” speakers, which are small even for a guitar amp.
These small speakers are built with extra attention given to the vibrational capacity of the cone. So, even with the vibration experienced, these will not blow out like a guitar amp’s speaker.
Bass amps are a crucial aspect in ensuring that your low thump is provided in all of its glory. Low pitches require their own range of EQ bands to allow you to dial in your desired tones.
What about if you don’t have a bass amp? Can you use a guitar amp?
We’ve written at length about that topic, which you can find here. Be sure to check that out if you find yourself in that situation.
Which Is The Best Instrument For Me?
It is not uncommon for someone to be in a conflict of choice between a guitar and bass. Complete beginners who are drawn to playing music, but have never played an instrument, commonly have this dilemma.
After all, the instrument that you play helps to shape your identity as a person. Right?
Well, that might not be so true. In fact, the most accomplished players will be their own people in their own right. Playing the instrument is just something that they do well, and is a valuable part of their life.
There are no hard-set rules when it comes to music. No rule exists that says that you can only play the one instrument you initially decided to learn.
It’s quite often that you’ll find that there are many bass players who started out as guitarists. The opposite is also true, though it does not seem to be as common (why is this?).
If you find yourself having an internal debate, do not make too much of a big deal about it. Simply go toward the instrument that you feel the most drawn to.
Inspiration plays a massive part in the creative life of any musician. It’s sort of like the gas tank to a musician’s drive.
If your tank of inspiration is filled to the maximum level, you’ll likely take the instrument as far as desired. You’ll also have much more fun.
After some time, maybe take a chance and try out the other instrument. You might find that the different approach of each instrument is an eye-opening experience altogether.
Is A Bass A Guitar? Final Thoughts
The bass and the guitar have been side-by-side in creating some of the best music heard in recent history. Despite their similarities, these instruments have just enough difference to make the playing experience a worthwhile endeavor.
Like humans coexisting in harmony, the bass and guitar coexist within music. Each is required in its own capacity to create something much larger than itself.
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