Yes, guitarists can play bass because the structure of the two instruments is very similar on a fundamental level, including the fact that the way you play different notes on the guitar, is the same as the bass.
With that said, they’re ultimately different from each other and there are a few things a guitarist should probably pick up on if they want to play the bass “properly.”
Before we dive into the way in which the two instruments are different from each other, and the way they should be approached differently, we’re going to talk about some of the similarities that make the transition from the one to the other fairly easy.
Similarities Between Bass and Electric Guitar
1) The Fret and String System
It’s not hard to imagine that the 4-string bass and 6-string electric are quite similar to each other. All you have to do is take a look at both of them to see what I mean. They look and feel quite similar, and they both use the strings/fret system.
In other words, if you’re used to playing the guitar by fretting with one hand and picking with the other, this is the same way you would play the bass as well.
For that reason, transferring from one instrument to the other is obviously going to be a lot easier than making the switch from the guitar to the piano.
2) The Same Equipment Can Be Used (With Some Exceptions)
You can use the same guitar pedals, amplifiers, and effects units with the guitar as you can for the bass, with a few different exceptions.
Truthfully, a guitar amplifier isn’t necessarily made for a bass guitar, but you can make it work, which is something I already explored in my article at this link here.
Moreover, many of the effects pedals that you use with a guitar can also be used for the bass, including wah-wah, delay, reverb, distortion, chorus, a flanger, etc.
3) The Electronics Structure Is The Same
By this, I mean that the guitar and bass guitar use the same sort of electronics. For instance, you have to use a cable to connect your guitar to an amplifier, and the same thing can be said for also amping up a bass guitar.
Additionally, both instruments use pick-ups, which means that the electronic pick-ups communicate the string’s vibrations through the amplifier.
They often share similar knobs as well, including the tone and volume knob, and in some cases, the bass guitar can be switched from the bridge to neck pickup.
With that said, however, the differences between the two types of pick-ups on the bass guitar are far less pronounced on the bass guitar in comparison to the 6-string, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.
4) Applying Musical Standard Notation Is Similar
The guitar uses the treble clef for the most part, whereas the bass guitar uses the bass clef. If you can read music and play it on the guitar, then it’s not going to take you a long time to do the very same thing on the bass guitar.
All you’re going to have to do is learn the differences between the notes that are organized on the bass guitar in comparison to the 6-string.
5) Many of the Playing Techniques are Similar
In other words, if you know how to do vibrato, bend, a hammer-on and hammer-off (also known as slurs), slides, glissandos, tapping, and arpeggios on the guitar, there is a good chance you’ll also be able to play these on the bass guitar, although, due to the extended length of the bass guitar’s neck, as well as the thickness of the string, it’s probably going to take some time to get used too.
Additionally, one of the more common usages of the bass guitar is the slapping/popping technique.
This is something that can actually be practiced on the regular guitar as well, although, it’s definitely not as common as playing the bass guitar in this way.
6) The Set-Up for Both Instruments is Similar
Stringing up a guitar is the same as for the bass guitar.
You have your tuning knobs, posts, frets, bridge, nut, and neck. If you know how to string up a guitar, you also know how to do it on a bass guitar. Some of the other similarities include making truss rod adjustments and also adjusting the action at the bridge.
Furthermore, we also adjust the intonation in the same way as well, and also the method for tuning the two instruments is the same too.
Now that we’ve explored some of the similarities between the bass and electric guitar, let’s explore some of the differences, including how you should think about the one in comparison to the other.
Differences Between Bass and Electric Guitar
1) Size of the Instrument
The bass guitar tends to be quite a bit longer, especially the neck of the instrument, due to the fact the strings are much thicker and pitch tends to be around one octave lower. The neck must be extended in order for the strings to be able to be adjusted to the appropriate pitch.
Even the knobs on the bass guitar tend to be much bigger, primarily the tuning knobs for adjusting the pitch of each string.
2) The Strings are Much Thicker
Bass guitar strings, due to the fact the pitch of the instrument is usually around one octave lower, are much thicker. For that reason, it’s going to take some time to get used to playing much heavier strings, including the necessary pressure to fret the note, the difficulty of bending, vibrato, arpeggios, and so on and so forth.
3) Bass Amplifiers are Different
Even though you can certainly play the bass guitar through a guitar amplifier, it’s certainly not optimal. Bass guitar amplifiers tend to be far more powerful due to the fact the amp needs more wattage to move the air to create the sounds.
The speakers tend to be much larger as well, and the EQ optimization of the amplifier is different, due to the fact that bass guitars are lower on the EQ spectrum in comparison to the guitar.
Make sure to check out the article I linked above to read more about this.
4) Finger Picking Versus Using A Pick
This one is more optional, in the sense that you don’t have to use your fingers to play the bass, although, many people such as Flea, from Red Hot Chili Peppers, play the bass using their fingers.
Robert Trujillo from Suicidal Tendencies and Metallica also uses his fingers as well, as did Cliff Burton, the original bassist from the band. It’s really up to the individual player to decide whether or not they use a pick.
Some people would argue that playing using your fingers is a lot better, due to the fact it’s more foundationally consistently with how one should approach the bass.
In other words, when using your fingers, it forces you into a slightly different mindset for approaching the instrument, that being, pushing the player toward focusing solely on what’s necessary and the most important.
The bass is more for rhythm sections, whereas the guitar can be used for both rhythm and lead melodies.
Explained in another way, when playing the bass guitar using your fingers, you’re more inclined to play the notes that are the most foundational to the music, like the backbone of the song, the rhythm section of the song.
5) Plucking the String versus Pushing the String
When guitarists play, they think of hitting the strings as more of a “plucking” motion, whereas bass guitarists think of playing the instrument as more like “pushing.”
For instance, you push on the string backward with your finger so it ends up resting on the string just above it.
It’s called a “Rest Stroke,” in comparison to a fingerstyle 6-string guitarist, where it’s called a “Free Stroke,” because your fingers don’t rest on the string after you pluck the string, they simply hover around the other strings until you need to hit the next note.
There is a difference between how the free stroke and the rest stroke sound, with the rest stroke sounding a lot more “thumpy,” and therefore a lot more like a bass guitar.
6) Bassists Often Work in Conjunction With the Kick Drum
Whereas guitarists are typically playing more of a melodic role which is not necessarily directly related to the drum/rhythm section, the relationship between the drummer and bass is more crucial, with bassists often being taught to always pay attention to the timing of the kick drum.
The bass guitar and kick drum go hand-in-hand together, and this applies not only to rock/jazz/funk and metal but also for hip-hop. For instance, if you’re a hip-hop producer, you know that the bass (the boutique 808s) are often created in conjunction with the kick drum.
In fact, oftentimes the kick and the boutique 808s play at the exact same time as each other, and the relationship between these two instruments/sounds is one of the more crucial aspects of hip-hop production.
For that reason, hip-hop producers often spend hours EQing the bass and kick drum together so they sound as good as possible.
7) Bass Guitar Frequencies Lie Between 50Hz and 200Hz
Bass guitar frequencies usually lie between 50Hz to 200Hz, whereas on the guitar, it’s more like from 100Hz all the way until 6000kHz, with perhaps the majority of the guitar’s frequencies being between 1000kHz and 4000kHz.
Because of these differences in frequencies, the two instruments are mixed way differently.
YouTube Video Tutorial
In conclusion, while there are a lot of similarities between the bass and electric guitar, there are many differences as well, especially in terms of how you should approach one in comparison to the other.
However, due to the fact the two instruments are very similar for the most part, it shouldn’t take that long for a guitar player to really pick up on these key differences, understand them, and then use them to their benefit to become a more well-rounded and knowledgable musician.