double bass bass guitar

Should I learn the Double Bass or Bass Guitar?

The short answer to this question depends on firstly what sort of music you wish to play. The range of music that is played on double bass is much more diverse than you might imagine. The choice of instrument depends upon the creativity of the musician, the physicality of the instrument as well as the unique characteristics. You can play anything including speed metal on double bass, but it will change the way the music sounds and the way musicians work.

What Music Genres Suit the Double Bass?

Most genres of music can be played on double bass as well as a bass guitar, but different genres of music lend themselves to being played on one or the other. For instance, you can play jazz on a bass guitar and you can play rock on double bass. 

The Tonality of the Double Bass

Roughly speaking a bass guitar provides a much more aggressive, harder, solid sound, whereas a double bass is known for a softer sound.  The double bass is an acoustic instrument that is more ‘organic’ in nature, more driven by its acoustic resonance than that of the more modern bass guitar.  You could sum it up by saying that the double bass does not have the same ‘punch’ as that of the bass guitar.

Musicians Play Differently with a Double Bass

When a bass line is played on double bass to that of a bass guitar the accompanying musicians tend to play differently. The instrument somehow affects the group human and musical dynamics.  Generally speaking, the musicians tend to ‘chill out’ more, and the music tends to swing more. A double bass will certainly make drummers play differently, their playing is often more relaxed with a double bass. 

Is it easier to Play the Double Bass or Bass Guitar?

A fretted bass guitar will be easier to learn first as the frets take the guess work out of the finger position. If you are playing a gig and you cannot hear the bass guitar, whilst it is far from ideal, you could carry on playing. With the fretless double bass, you will have to rely a lot more on your ears. If you cannot hear the double bass on stage it would be very difficult to continue playing with accuracy. 

Learning the Bass Guitar

As you might expect due to the popularity of the bass guitar there is a lot more online learning material for bass guitar as opposed to the double bass. The situation is changing thanks to platforms such as YouTube. 

For those that might wish to go down the traditional face to face bass lesson route, you might wish to check out what options you have locally as there might be a shortage of teachers in your vicinity.   It might be worth considering whether you are happy to seek out online lessons or need to have the occasional face to face session with a teacher.

The ideal situation before you make any decision is to try and find a bass teacher or local friendly musician who plays both instruments. Request a session where you can try out each instrument and have an initial chat over your aspirations.  Any potential teacher will also ideally be interested in the same styles of music as the student. It is important to spend some time with physically holding each instrument to determine which feels the best.

Switching from the Bass Guitar to the Double Bass

Playing the bass guitar first will pave the way to playing the double bass.  The muscle memory and finger positions learned on the bass guitar are transferable to the double bass.  What will be different will be the physicality of the instrument, the way you hold the instrument.  Muscle memory will help you get the finger position correct, afterward, you will need to develop your ears to enable you to get the intonation. Playing faster and more confidently on a bass guitar is easier than a double bass, at least in the early stages until you get your muscle memory sorted out. 

There is an element of trial and error with the music if you are listening to a funk track and want to see how it sounds on double bass, go to a music shop and see how it feels to play and what it sounds like. 

Is the Finger Board Longer on a Double Bass?

Comparison of double bass neck length

The fingerboard is shorter on a bass guitar than that of double bass, however the string length from the nut to the bridge is not hugely different, see photo above.

The Retro Look of the Double Bass

Try to imagine what a rock band wearing dinner jackets might sound like or indeed what the wearing of dinner jackets and bow ties might do to the musical performance on stage. 

So much of what we hear can be affected by what we see on stage and how we dress.  The visuals create an auditory story.  It is worth noting that fellow musicians might have preconceptions about playing alongside a double bass.

The choice of using a double bass in a band can be seen as a retro move, and with this, there might be some misinformation around the sound levels. Using the right pickups can allow the double bass sound to replace that of a bass guitar, allowing the double bass to have the same musical presence as a bass guitar on stage.  It is sometimes about educating the other band musicians as to how a double bass can be amplified.  Experimentation through trial and error is perhaps the best way to solve this problem, understanding what result is best achieved on what instrument.

Amplification of Double Bass

Double basses are notoriously more difficult to amplify than a bass guitar.  With a bass guitar, there are fewer variables required to get a good sound.  Pickups for bass guitar are more standardized. Ultimately the sound engineer will be more familiar with getting the best sound out of a bass guitar on stage than that of a double bass.   

If you are using acoustic pickups on a double bass there will be more consideration needed in terms of what amps are provided at a gig.  Certain pickups work best with certain amps. 

For my setup, I use bass guitar pickups (EMG Precision) on my double bass because they are a good choice for the type of music I play.  As these pickups are more standard they are likely to work with a greater range of amps, and the sound engineer is likely to be more comfortable with working with a double bass sound. 

The unique acoustics that comes with each double bass means that there are more variables when trying to replicate a sound.  You can have two Fender precision bass guitars with the same pickups, they should sound more or less the same.  Unfortunately, this is not the same for the double bass.  Two Golden Strads built in the same week, in the same factory with the same pickups, will most likely sound totally different.  

If budget is a concern financially it will be cheaper for a student to start with a bass guitar.  Whilst some double basses do come with pickups already on board, most do not, so you will need to go through the process of adding some sort of amplification in addition.

Getting Gigs as a Bassist

There are more bass guitarists than double bass players which is advantageous for double bassists. Generally, however, there is more demand for bass guitarists so the situation balances itself out somewhat. 

It is also most often the case that a double bass player will also own and play a bass guitar.  Not all bass guitarists can play or own a double bass.  Therefore having both double bass and bass guitar is going to double your opportunities for work.

It is no bother of course after loading the car with a double bass to sling in the back a bass guitar just as an optional ‘friend’ to use at a session or gig.  The two options increase the flexibility and ‘professional’ reputation of the player.   

One obvious point here is that a bass guitar is easier to transport logistically. Anything less than a large estate car is not going to work for a gigging double bass player. Bags, amps, leads and double bass in a bag will fit into an estate car with a driver and one passenger but not much else. 

In conclusion it is easier to move from a double bass to bass guitar, as the double bass is a much more physical instrument, is fretless and is more fickle in terms of its amplification setup.  If you have prior knowledge of a bass guitar you will have developed muscle memory and will find the transition to double bass somewhat easier.    However it is what is in your heart in terms of the music which is your main consideration as to what you type of musician you will end up being.

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