Walk in to any music shop throughout the world, and you’ll find the guitars divided roughly into three categories.
There’s the electric section, littered with Stratocasters, Telecasters and Les Pauls (and endless clones/derivatives of same), a selection of finely-tuned hard rock scalpels from Ibanez, ESP and others, a handful of archtops in various thicknesses for the blues and jazz purists, and signs warning customers against playing the ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ riff out loud. I’ve seen people physically ejected from stores after making this rookie mistake…
Then there’s the acoustic section, with steel and nylon strung instruments in a variety of sizes (Dreadnought, Super-Jumbo, Triple-O, Parlor, the choice is truly bewildering), with or without cutaways or electronics, and probably a few posters of Ed Sheeran here and there.
And then there’s the OTHER section – usually a fair bit smaller than the first two, and the one which some of you haven’t dared enter. It’s the place where the big, scary looking guitars live. It’s the Bass Guitar department.
A whole new world?
Many new guitarists are curious about bass playing, but wonder whether they could even handle the low-frequency sibling of their favourite instrument. No worries here – it may be big but it’s certainly not scary.
There are many obvious physical similarities between the electric guitar and the electric bass guitar – why else would you find both in a guitar shop – and naturally a great many differences in history, purpose, technique and so on. Let’s examine things more closely.
From a historical perspective, you can lay the parallels between the modern electric guitar and electric bass guitar firmly at the door of one particular genius; the late, great Leo Fender. He released the Esquire (subsequently renamed the ‘Broadcaster’ and finally the ‘Telecaster’) in 1950, giving the world its first commercially successful mass-produced solid-bodied electric guitar. This was followed just one year later by his Precision Bass, aka the P-Bass, which used most of the same design features as the Telecaster in an attempt to provide players of the double bass (which Fender referred to as “the doghouse”) with a more user-friendly instrument. The Precision became not only the worlds first commercially successful bass guitar, but also set the basic design standard for most other basses that have followed since. You can begin to see why we’ve referred to Mr Fender as a “genius”.
A guitarist curious about dabbling with the bass can therefore expect to find many things in common between the two – just as Leo intended.
- Tuning. The E A D G standard string pitches on the bass guitar matches the tuning of the double bass, but also the lowest 4 strings on a normal guitar. This level of familiarity is basically a happy accident that Fender used to attract both sets of players, and it’s certainly worked for countless guitarists ever since.
- Use of frets. Putting frets on a fingerboard might be obvious for a guitar you may think, but not for a bass instrument back in the 1950s. The P-bass was even named for this reason – Fender excitedly told his distributor “You know, it’s so precise we ought to call it the Precision bass!”
- Playing position. Both the guitar and the bass can be sat on your knee or hung from a strap around your neck. Imagine trying either with a double bass…
- Both can be played with a plectrum. Another testament to Fender’s revolutionary thinking – attaching a pick guard to an instrument originally aimed at double-bass players, who exclusively played either with their fingers or a bow.
- Both can be plugged into an amp. Don’t underestimate the importance of this from a bassists point of view. Guitarists have been able to use magnetic pickups since the late 1930s, whereas amplifying a double bass was always (and, in many cases, still is) a nightmare!
- Both look cool. Perhaps the most important factor.
So plenty of things for a guitar player to feel at home with already!
From a physical point of view, there actually aren’t too many;
- The bass is bigger than an electric guitar. Scale length (i.e. vibrating string length from nut to bridge) is 25.5 inches on a standard electric, and 34 inches on a bass – meaning a longer neck and wider fret spacing. But any guitarists concerned by this can take heart from the wide availability of short-scale basses, designed to cater for smaller hands. And remember that things could be worse – double bass scale length varies between around 41-43 inches, so Fender certainly improved matters there.
- Bass strings are thicker than guitar strings. Another unavoidable consequence of MUCH lower tuning. Fortunately you’re only likely to be playing one string at a time on a bass. And they last a whole lot longer before snapping.
- Most bassists pick with their fingers. Yes, you can use a plectrum if you want. But those big strings can be more easily tamed with the fingertips than by using a puny piece of plastic.
- A bass guitar usually weighs more than an electric guitar. This is because it’s larger. Deal with it.
The REAL differences
As a guitarist you probably strum chords, throw out riffs and solos, and enjoy all the usual musical fun and games involved with the 6-string. But what about the bass? What is it actually FOR? Well here I’d like to quote one of the worlds greatest living bassists - Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers;
“The stronger that the bass can support all the other instruments, the more the other guys can shine… something I like to stress in being a bass player is the spirit of givingness.”
What the funkiest of the funky monks is basically saying here is…
The bass is the rhythmic foundation of every band. The drums may be the police but the bass is the law.
The bass is also the harmonic foundation of every band. Every key, chord, scale and mode has its root note, and it’s the bass that plays it.
A bassists role is essentially to hold the entire harmonic and rhythmic ‘base’ on their shoulders. Quite a responsibility – and possibly the only real aspect of trying out the bass guitar that might scare you.
But to help you feel less scared, we’ve written a book that tells you how to cope with all the subjects mentioned above, and so much more!
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Wrapping it up
And that’s it – hopefully some useful insight that might even tempt you to step into that mysterious bass guitar department sometime soon. And don’t worry, normal six-string blog service will resume with next weeks article, so until then…