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Thick Thinking – Switching From Guitar To Bass

by | Bassists, Guitarists

It can be easy to assume that switching from regular guitar to bass is a simple matter of lowering your string count. However, not much could be further from the truth. Bass and guitar may seem like similar instruments in their aesthetics, but their respective applications in music composition are pretty far apart. Learning the difference is what separates good bassists from great ones. In today’s article, we’re going to run you through a few basic guidelines you can utilize when switching from guitar to bass. 

Size Matters

The most noticeable difference between the bass and guitar are the string thickness and neck size. Basses generally have a much thicker string size than guitars and also tend to have wider frets. The larger scale means that your hand will need to adapt to moving between greater spaces than on guitar.

While switching up to a larger scale fretboard may seem daunting, your hands will adjust with consistent practice. You’ll also notice slight differences in the way that you hold down notes with your left-hand fingers. Lean into the new adjustments and know that your hand will need to work a bit harder in the beginning to accommodate for the bigger neck size. 

Less Is More

In most compositions, the fundamental purpose of bass is to provide a solid compositional foundation for you to build rhythms, melodies, and chord progressions. This will be a departure from what you’re used to playing as a guitarist. Bassists are generally more reserved with their playing and tonality and only sometimes feature at the front of a composition.

Guitarists usually fill up lots of smaller spaces in the timing and frequency spectrums of a song. Bass serves as a backbone, and the other musicians in your group will perform much better if you give them a solid groove or bassline to work from. Understanding the importance of your place in the sonic image is a big step towards navigating the switch from guitar to bass.  

Pick Your Fingerstyle

More often than not, music teachers will advise you to master the traditional fingerstyle of playing bass. The classic style consists of using your right hand’s index and middle fingers to pluck the strings. You can rest your thumb on the pickup or against the bass body for stability. This technique was developed for electric bass from the traditional double bass, which uses a much harsher plucking style. 

There are a few ways to use your right to play the strings on a bass. Aside from the standard fingering, some use one or three fingers for plucking, some slap, and some even use a plectrum as with normal guitar. Learning traditional fingering will better understand some of the bass-specific articulations and expressions that you find in most contemporary music. 

The Drummer Is Your Better Half

Bassists and drummers are considered a single unit in most projects and are referred to as the rhythm section. You’ll almost always find that if a band has a competent rhythm section, the other musicians can play much more fluidly and impactfully. 

It’s imperative to get into the habit of focusing your bass playing around the drumming elements, with a particular focus on the kick drum. If you struggle to find a place to fall in when improvising or writing with another drummer, center your parts around their kick, and you’ll often land up with a cohesive idea. 

Similarly, if you’re applying a bassline to a set of chords or a melody, prioritize certain notes where the kick drum falls relative to the progression. You can also further enhance the dynamic by removing or swinging certain notes around the kick drum. These ideas might be foreign to a guitarist who may have a bit more flexibility regarding timing and melodic ideas. 

You Can Still Be Expressive

So many guitarists tend to believe that the bass is a lot more limiting than the guitar in terms of the range of expressions you can generate in front of the instrument. While the guitar may come with two extra strings and slightly wider frequency response, it does not dispel the bass guitar’s ability to deliver inspiring and intriguing sounds. 

Much like any instrument, the bass guitar is meant to be explored, challenged even. An abundance of notable bassists has pioneered ingenious ways to incorporate the bass for composition or performance. Many purists will be quick to point beginner bassists to the works of Jaco Pistorius, who is world-famous for putting bass on the map as a standalone instrument. Similarly, modern artists like Esperanza Spalding and Thundercat use the bass while fronting their acts and have breathed a new life and respect into the instrument. 

Final Thoughts

Switching over from guitar to bass may seem like a relatively fluid and intuitive transition. However, if you’re not fully attentive to the shifts that your brain and body have to navigate the change, it may hinder your progress and productivity as a player. Try to move over into the new instrument with as fresh of a mindset as possible. Any mental ties that you may have from playing guitar may hold you back from locking yourself into your new role as a bassist. Thanks for taking the time out to read our tips on switching from guitar to bass. 

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