Guitar vs. Bass Guitar — How do they compare and differ?

May 7th, 2011

Unless you’re playing an acoustic show alone, the beautiful thing about live music is that it almost always consists of multiple people playing multiple instruments.

Consequently, it’s easy for those new to music to get confused about who is playing electric guitar and who is playing electric bass. Both instruments, especially from a distance, look very similar. They’re both string instruments, are composed of a body, neck and head and are played just about the same.

Let’s start with the basics:

Electric Guitar: A stringed instrument usually having six strings (non-standard 7-string and 12-string guitars also exist) with a sound that  is amplified by electrical means.

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Bass Guitar: A stringed instrument usually having four strings (non-standard 5-string and 6-string basses also exist) with a sound that is amplified by electrical means.

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As a result, the very first physical difference you should notice between an electric guitar and the bass is the number of the strings. Additionally, strings of a bass are generally quite thicker.

Now, let’s examine the notes of each instrument…

Guitar (thinnest string to thickest)

1st string – E

2nd string – B

3rd string – G

4th string – D

5th string – A

6th string – E

Bass (thinnest string to thickest)

1st string – G

2nd string – D

3rd string – A

4th string – E

Did you notice that the last four strings of a guitar are the exact same as the four standard bass strings? That makes the bass practically the guitar minus two guitar strings, right?


The first string on a 6-string bass is actually equivalent to the sixth string of a guitar. Furthermore, if the guitar had a seventh string it would not be thinner, but actually thicker. Essentially, the missing seventh string would have the same exact pitch as the second string on a 6-string bass.

The contrast in the two stringed instruments is exactly what makes them so special when combined together. You may or may not not know that the guitar is generally used for two purposes — either to serve as lead guitar or rhythm guitar. Sometimes, a band has multiple guitarists with one serving as the lead and one or/more serving as the rhythm guitar(s).

The bass guitar traditionally works more with the rhythm guitar compared to the lead guitar, because the primary purpose of the bass is to aide the drums (and percussion) in the rhythm of the song. There are, of course, differences as certain bands (i.e. Primus) are actually regarded for their bass and often it almost takes the role of the lead in the song.

Thus, the bass guitar exists to:

  1. Provide the rhythmic foundation.
  2. Provide the harmonic foundation.

The bass guitar and drums work well together because they are usually designed to play a supportive role to create the pulse of the music (as well as set the song’s foundation). When is the last time you found yourself tapping your foot to a beat unintentionally? That is your instinct to vibe to the pulse, or beat of the music. Bass and/or drums create the pulse.

The Major Difference

Simply, the major difference between the guitar and bass guitar is the pitch range of the instruments. The bass guitar plays notes an octave lower than a regular guitar.

Music is an art and thus there are no rules. You will find that the bass guitar traditionally plays a supportive role in the band while the guitar (with it’s higher range) is more in the spotlight. However, some bands make the guitar more of a supportive instrument. Others, do not even have a guitar at all. Regardless, the two instruments are usually very critical and at the foundation of rock ‘n roll music.

If you are a guitarist, you can learn an awful lot from watching bass guitar lessons and conversing with bass players. The same is true with bassists.

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