Photo by Xiskya Valladares
Q: Is it possible to learn to play bass by using my six-string acoustic/electric guitar? I don’t really have the extra bread to buy a bass and amp right now, but I feel called to learn and with time, become proficient on the electric bass and maybe double bass eventually. My goal is to take a solid musical approach, learning to site read as I go, and develop a solid mastery of rhythm and fret-board.
A: I think that’s actually a pretty great idea, and I applaud your drive to learn the instrument. There will, of course, be a number of things that will be completely different once you get your hands on an actual bass.
Here are some things to be aware of:
1. Tone. Tone and range is the defining factor with regard to the role of an instrument. A baritone guitar would likely be best but, even with a baritone guitar, the tone won’t allow the instrument to function as a bass guitar without the aid of some effects. That said, you could probably get pretty darn close with a little assistance from your EQ and an octave pedal (although, for a clean bass sound, nothing beats a bass!)
2. Scale length, string spacing and string size. Simply put, guitars take far less finger strength and the strings are too close together to effectively work on your right hand fingering technique. There really isn’t much you can do about this. A classical guitar would offer a wider spacing, but it still feels nothing like a bass in the right hand. Of course, the string size is completely different. I would encourage you to work on some finger-style guitar playing in order to facilitate some good right hand finger independence (I encourage bassists to do this as well). Lastly, unless you have a very long guitar or short bass, the scale lengths are vastly different. Just know that you’ll be reaching much further out to grab that low F on a bass than you will on your guitar. Your muscle memory will be off when you make the transition.
Those are just a couple of things to be aware of, but I wouldn’t let them deter you in the least. I’ve always thought guitarists make for interesting bass players because they tend to think more melodically – generally speaking – simply because they tend to learn the actual melodies to songs while we spend years worrying only about the foundational harmony notes.
Of course, the first four strings are the same if you’re playing a 4-string bass, although 6-string basses are typically tuned differently than 6-string guitars. You’ll likely be relieved at the symmetry of the instrument. You can certainly get a large amount of work done on a guitar and make the transition down the road. You’ll have a huge leg up on the process and will just have to rework some muscle memory and possibly build up a little more finger strength.
All of those issues will be compounded if you transition to double bass, but not much more so than a bass guitar player who transitions to double bass. I am exploring the double bass myself and am running into the same issues. Longer scale length means that the notes aren’t where my fingers expect them to be. Bigger strings mean that I have to pluck way harder than my hand wants to. And of course, the lack of lines compounded with the longer scale length means that I can’t play in tune to save my life.
All that is necessary for either of us is to put in the time on the new instrument, being glad that we put in the time we did on our previous instruments, because we are that much further along.
Can you play guitar for now to try and develop skills on the bass? Absolutely. In fact, I encourage you to play the drums as well!
I know that many of our readers started on the guitar and made the transition to bass. Plenty play both. If you’re in that category, chime in and tell us how you think your skills on one inform the other.