They fill a similar role, but the difference between the double and the bass guitar is massive.
When taking a look at them side by side, it’s easy to see that they are distinct instruments. However, when disregarding how the instruments look, it can be hard to pinpoint what makes them so different.
As a bassist of 14 years, I`ve had the double bass vs bass guitar talk with many musicians in the past. Thus, I have learned the pros and cons of both instruments, and what drives someone to pick one over the other.
Therefore I decided to create a comprehensive guide on the differences between the double bass and bass guitar. This will be useful for anyone who is looking to learn what makes them distinct or is wondering which of the instruments they should play.
Is the bass guitar the same as the double bass?
The bass guitar and double bass are vastly different instruments. While they share the same tuning and fill similar roles, they differ greatly in shape, size, how they are played and in what genres they are used.
It’s common for people to refer to both the double and bass guitar as just “bass”. However, while the instruments are often called the same, they are far from being alike.
The table below showcases the key differences between the upright bass and the bass guitar. There are countless alternative models and playstyles for both, but this table serves as a guideline for what is common:
|Double Bass||Bass guitar|
|Full length||~ 71″ / 1.8m||~ 46.5″ / 1.18m|
|Scale length||41″ – 44″ / 1.05m – 1.1m||34″ / 86cm|
|Weight||~25lb / 11.3kg||8lb-10lb / 3.6kg – 4.5kg|
|Strings||Flat Wound||Round-wound, flat-wound, other|
|Played with||Fingers or bow||Fingers, pick, or thumb|
|The fretting hand mainly uses||3 fingers||4 fingers|
|Held in place||Held up and leaned on your body||Hung around the neck with a strap|
|Origin||Designed to double the cello one octave deeper in orchestras||Designed to be an electric alternative to the double bass|
|Most common genres:||Classical, Jazz||Pop, Rock|
|Begin to saw use:||15th century (Early variations of the instrument)||1950`s|
|Cost of decent entry-level instrument:||~$1500||~$300|
|Pickups||Generally no, but there are double basses with pickups||Yes (with the exception of some acoustic basses)|
|Amplification||None / External microphone / Bass amp||Bass amp / PA System|
|Most commonly doubles||The Cello||The Electric guitar|
|Frets||Fretless||20 – 24|
Cost of a double bass vs an electric bass
The double bass is significantly more expensive than a bass guitar. Double basses can cost as little as $500, but a quality instrument intended for a beginner will cost about $1500. Electric bass guitars can be as cheap as $100, but an entry-level bass guitar of decent quality will cost $300-$400.
Double basses are more expensive due to being a bigger instrument and requiring more expensive materials, such as Ebony timber. They are also more commonly handmade than bass guitars and are less in demand, which further increases the manufacturing cost.
Not only are bass guitars much cheaper than double basses, but it is also much easier to make a cheap bass guitar sound good. This is because a string change, action adjustment, effects, and EQ can greatly elevate its sound.
Related reading: Do expensive bass guitars sound better?
Double basses, on the other hand, rely much more on the natural sound of the instrument. Thus, it is generally advised to invest in a decent double bass when starting out.
This is because the fun of practicing and playing with others is greatly diminished by a poor instrument, and you will likely be playing the same double bass for years to come.
Intermediate instruments vary greatly in price. Great intermediate bass guitars are available in the ~$1000 range but can cost significantly more. An intermediate double bass will generally cost at least $4000, but just like bass guitars, they can also get a lot more expensive.
The difference in sound
The double bass has a resonant, warm, and broad tone.
Due to the strings generally being plucked hard with two fingers, notes sound powerful and weighty. The tone is greatly affected by the strength and emotion the bassist puts into it, and the natural acoustics of the instrument.
You can clearly hear the strings being plucked hard by a skilled double bassist, which helps give it its iconic sound. This is also why the instrument often sounds powerless when beginners play it, as they have not yet learned to properly pluck the strings with enough strength.
The double bass also uses flat-wound strings that help give it this resonant tone. While bass guitars can use flat wounds as well, they are often strung with roundwounds as well. This leads to the double bass having a more iconic sound, while bass guitars vary more in tone.
The bass guitar can sound like anything under the sun when it’s amplified. With EQ and effect pedals you could be mimicking a distorted guitar or a harp, just as well as produce a bass sound.
Unamplified, the bass guitar sounds metallic and clanky. This is especially true when playing with a pick, and even more so when slapping and popping. It`s a thin sound that is clearly designed to be amplified.
Bass guitars vary a lot in how they sound when amplified though. Wood quality, action, string type, and pickups are just some of the things that will impact its tone. Some manufacturers even craft basses for specific genres, such as Shecter which specialize in guitars and basses with a heavy sound that is tailored for metal musicians.
Double bassists can play in a dynamic fashion and put a lot of personality and emotion into the instrument. They rarely rely on EQ or effects and tend to let the innate sound of the instrument do the work.
Bass guitarists have to play dynamically and emotionally as well. However, a great tone is a combination of the quality of the bass guitar, EQ, choosing which pickups to enable, and pedal usage.
The difference in size
The double bass is about 1.5 times as tall as the bass guitar, and up to 3 times as heavy.
This difference in size and weight impacts how the two instruments can be played, and how they can be carried around.
Bass guitarists can freely walk around when the instrument is strapped onto their neck. For stationary playing, it is common to rest it on your lap. When transporting the instrument it is generally put in a gig bag or case. The bass guitar is then carried on the back, or in your hand like a suitcase.
Double bassists are limited in how much they can move when they play their instrument. This is because the instrument can not be lifted up from its peg when played. However, they can lean the bass, spin it around and even stand on it while playing.
The double bass can be carried around by gripping the side of it and resting it against your hip, even if you are a small person. For transport, gig bags can be used to carry it on your back or on your side.
Due to its size, a car is often preferred for transporting it. Most cars are able to fit the double bass, but it will not fit into some smaller models.
Related reading: Leaving your bass in a car
Can a bass guitarist play double bass?
A bass guitarist will be able to play the double bass to some extent. This is because the tuning and role of the instruments are the same. Due to the double bass being bigger and fretless, bass guitarists generally struggle with picking the strings, intonation, and finger positioning when playing it.
If you are familiar with the bass guitar, you have a great starting point for picking up the double bass. The strings are tuned E-A-D-G on the bass guitar and the double bass. Thus, you can start playing coherent bass lines to some extent immediately.
However, there are some differences that will take some time to get used to.
Most notably, the double bass is significantly more physically demanding than the electric bass. Your stamina will not be used to what the instrument requires, and it is common for people to quickly become exhausted when learning it.
Even if your fingertips are hardened from playing the electric bass, you can expect to feel blisters forming in a matter of minutes. This is because it takes a lot more strength to pluck the strings and hold them down on the double bass.
This makes having a proper technique on the double bass even more important than on the bass guitar. Improper technique can cause lasting damage to your hands and make it difficult to play the instrument long-term.
Thus, taking lessons or having access to professional learning resources is essential when you are learning the double bass.
Note: Due to the physical demand on both your right and left hand, it is more difficult to play fast basslines on the Double bass
As the double bass is fretless, you also need to be more precise with your finger placement. This requires you to train your muscle memory as well as your intonation. Even if you happen to have perfect pitch, this will take time.
Lastly, the double bass can also be played with a bow. While the bass guitar can be played with a bow, it was not built to be played with one. Thus, this can feel awkward and cumbersome while bowing a double bass feels fluid and natural.
Can a double bassist play bass guitar?
A Double bassist will generally be able to play bass guitar relatively well. The electric bass is less physically demanding and easier to play due to it being smaller, having frets, and being amplified. While it will take some time to get used to a new instrument, many essential double bass skills can be applied to the bass guitar as well.
Moving from bass guitar to double bass will be demanding, but it’s much less taxing the other way around.
Still, there are some things about the electric bass that will take some getting used to for double bassists.
The ring finger is rarely used to hold down strings on the upright bass. However, most electric bassists rely on using all 4 fingers on their fretting hand. For someone unfamiliar with using their ring finger, muscle memory and muscle strength have to be developed over time.
Bass guitars are also generally amplified when played. This will require a different type of control over your plucking hand to get a desirable tone. The aspect of using different pickups, amp settings, and pedals to get the sound you want is also going to require a whole new skill set.
The most notable difference will be if you intend to write bass lines. Bass guitars are used in a completely different fashion than double basses to create grooves. While double bass will teach you useful fundamentals that will help you play the instrument, writing and composing on the bass guitar is a different skill.
The double bass vs bass guitar discussion has lasted for a long time, and I don’t ever see it ending. This is because both instruments have their pros and cons and are deeply ingrained into the sound of several genres.
Double basses are a staple instrument in most orchestras and are part of a rich tradition. They are also essential for getting that smooth and musky jazz sound in a band.
Since the 1950s the bass guitar has become a staple instrument in the majority of mainstream genres. This is in large part due to its tone, versatility, and convenience. It was designed to be a smaller, amplified alternative to the double bass, and has become a preferable alternative for most bassists.
Both instruments have seen crossover between genres. The bass guitar is a popular jazz instrument, and the double bass has been used by indie-rock, pop, and rock acts. Thus, while some base their instrument choice on what genre they are looking to play, it’s perfectly possible to deviate from what is common.
When choosing whether to play the bass guitar or double bass you should consider the cost, playability, and tone of the instruments. You should also consider your own musical goals and take a look at how each of them helps you achieve them. These are the main factors that will help you make an informed and suitable instrument choice.
Another closely related instrument to the bass guitar and the double bass is the Cello. To learn more about why continue by reading my comparison of the cello and bass guitar.