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Bass guitar and drums are two of the most commonly used instruments in popular music. This team is the primary driver of the “rhythm section” in a band and is the foundation of any great song.
While you can’t go wrong playing either bass or drums, choosing one of these instruments can be quite difficult.
Here are some questions for you to answer, which will help decide if drums or bass are right for you.
Is Drums or Bass Easier?
The difficulty of an instrument can be a critical factor in choosing your “ax.” It can be frustrating to learn an instrument if it takes a long time to get a decent sound out of it, as is the case with instruments like the violin, cello, saxophone, or trumpet.
The good news with both bass guitar and drums is that they are relatively easy to get a decent sound out of. With drums, all you have to do is strike the head with a drumstick. With bass, all you have to do is be able to pluck a string with your finger.
It’s also relatively easy to learn simple songs on each instrument. On drums, if you learn a basic backbeat, you can play along with many pop, rock, and hip hop songs. With bass, it’s easy to look up tabs for many songs and be playing along with records right away.
I’ve found drums easier in my experience, but that’s because I’ve been playing them longer. I’ve been playing drums for about 11 years, whereas I’ve only just started to play a little bass.
What is Easier About Drumming?
There are a few things that make the drums more comfortable to learn than the bass. The main thing that makes drums easier is that they are not a pitch specific instrument. Drums do not deal with the 12 notes of the western chromatic scale, meaning you’re not playing specific chords, scales, or melodies on the drumset.
When you’re learning to read sheet music, you have to learn the rhythms and don’t have to be as fast with specific pitches. This is great in the short term, as you can pick up and play rhythms more quickly.
It is also a little easier to learn and play along with songs, as you don’t have to figure out what key the drum part is in, or the chord progression on the drums. It becomes about listening to a drummer’s rhythms and what surface they play it on (be it the cymbals, snare, bass drum, or toms).
What is More Difficult About Drumming?
The drums, like any instrument, pose specific challenges to playing. These difficulties are related to the physical nature of the instrument.
Drums are one of the most physically demanding instruments. It takes a great deal of physical energy and stamina to play a whole set of music, especially if you’re playing grooves like blast beats, punk, or uptempo swing. It takes a lot of practice to be able to play comfortably at faster speeds.
The physicality of drums also means you have to develop a lot of limb independence. Drumming involves intricate coordination of both hands and feet. This is especially true of specific styles, such as Afro-Cuban music, and types jazz drumming, as typified by drummers like Roy Haynes and Marcus Gilmore.
Drumming is complicated also because you need to learn how to play a lot of genres convincingly. While this is true of the bass and the idiomatic rhythms of different genres can vary wildly.
There’s also a significant logistical issue with drums. Drums are a very loud instrument, so you need to limit what times of day you can play, or find a rehearsal space to rent.
What is Easier about Playing Bass?
The Electric bass is a string instrument that is typically played melodically (a single note at a time) rather than harmonically (multiple notes simultaneously). This means there’s less barrier to entry compared to other stringed instruments, as you’re not dealing with chord voicings when first learning the instrument.
When playing the bass, you’re only using your hands and fingers instead of all four limbs with the drums. Your dominant hand plucks the string, while your non-dominant hand presses down on different parts of the fretboard to get specific pitches.
The nice thing about bass too is you can play a wider range of genres with just a strong understanding of fundamentals, as most popular genres of music deal with similar tonal and harmonic content.
You also can play the bass acoustically or with headphones, meaning you can practice much later if you live in an apartment or crowded neighborhood.
What is Difficult about Playing Bass?
There are some unique challenges to playing bass that is different than playing drums. The bass is a pitch specific instrument, meaning that the bass has the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. To play the bass well, you need to have a solid understanding of your major and minor scales, as well as different types of chords.
This also means you have to be good at reading pitches on the bass clef. Reading music on the bass has a higher barrier to entry than reading drum music.
The nature of string instruments can be complicated to wrap your head around. Each fret is a specific pitch of the chromatic scale, meaning frets next to each other are a half step apart. Combine this with the fact each string is tuned to a different pitch, and it’s like you’re playing four different pianos stacked on top of each other!
To make things more confusing, the same pitches show up on the fretboard in multiple places. Each scale has different positions on the neck, and memorizing those shapes can take a long time. I find it much more challenging to visualize scales and chords on the bass than an instrument like the piano.
Another problematic part of playing the bass is using your weaker fingers, like the pinky. You need to use a decent amount of force to get a good sound out of the string, and it takes a while to build finger strength.
I’ve also found muting strings to be complicated. It would help if you muted strings sometimes in basslines to avoid sustain between notes, which causes muddiness in the low end. If you’re playing an adjacent string, this is relatively easy as when you pluck the lower string, you can move your finger to mute the string above. But you have to adapt your technique if you’re skipping strings or dealing with open strings.
Does Learning Bass Guitar Help Your Drumming?
Some of you may already be playing the drums and wonder if it’s useful to your development as a drummer to learn the bass. The answer is yes!
Learning a bit of bass can be invaluable to a drummer, as it helps you become a well-rounded musician. Learning an instrument like the bass gives you a solid understanding of melody and harmony, which allows you to make more musical decisions as a drummer. Many great drummers play a little bit of bass, like Chris Coleman.
It’s also great to learn a little bit of bass so you can have a greater understanding of how it functions in an ensemble. This will make it easier to play with bassists, as you can understand their thought process better.
Now I’m not saying you have to be a master of both instruments, like Nate Wood, but having a basic understanding of the bass allows you to better interact with your fellow bandmates.
Quiz – Is Bass or Drums Right for You:
I’ve developed a little quiz that might help you decide what instrument to pick up, it’s 5 simple questions, and each answer will direct you to either bass or drums, whichever instrument you score more on could be the right one for you.
Are you someone that is happier being supportive and in the background, or do you enjoy the spotlight?
Do you enjoy being physically active?
Are you interested in writing your own songs?
Are you engrossed in gigging as much as possible, or ok with working less?
As much as possible: Bass
Ok with less: Drums
When you listen to music, do you pay more attention to the melody or the groove?
Ultimately, You Should Try Playing Both Drums and Bass
Ultimately, the only way to honestly know which instrument is right for you is to try them out! You may be in love with the idea of playing the drums or bass, but find out later that it’s not for you. You won’t know if an instrument is the right one until you play it for a while.
Whether you play bass or drums, you can’t go wrong, as both are excellent instruments that are a lot of fun. Studies have shown that playing an instrument has many neurological benefits too. So if you’re interested in learning bass or drums, take that first step and dive in! A whole world of fun awaits.
John Dalton is a Boston based drummer, composer, bandleader, and educator. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He performs regularly as both a leader and a sideman. His modular ensemble “Spheres of Influence” has recently released their debut album, Indigo Skyline. You can find out more about him here : https://johndaltonspheresofinfluence.com