This is an understandable confusion, as both instruments occupy the same frequency band—i.e. they both have low-down sounds. They also tend to work together to create the rhythm part, so their notes often overlap and they make a similar musical contribution in the band.
Here are a few things which can help you distinguish bass guitar from bass drum:
1. Bass Guitar Pitch vs. Bass Drum Pitch
The bass drum will always have the same pitch, while the bass guitar will play different notes.
People generally have more difficulty hearing differences in pitch with these low notes than with higher instruments (e.g. a singer, guitar, piano, etc.), so this may not be obvious at first. But practice listening to bass guitar (e.g. with the sound clips from our Bass Tone series) and your ear will get better at tracking pitch in those low octaves. It will become easier to hear that one instrument always plays the same note (the bass drum) while the other moves up and down in pitch (the bass guitar).
2. Bass Guitar Rhythm vs. Bass Drum Rhythm
The bass drum will normally have a very simple rhythm, playing just one or two notes in each bar, while the bass guitar tends to play more complex and interesting rhythms.
For example, the most common rock drum beat has the bass drum playing on beats 1 and 3 of each 4-beat bar. In contrast, bassists tend to play more notes and use more interesting rhythms in their basslines. So if you can hear one instrument doing the same, very simple thing, and another playing a little tune or more exciting rhythm, that will help you tell which is bass drum and which is bass guitar.
3. Bass Frequency Ear Training
Some ear training for those low octaves can increase your ability to hear musical detail in those low octaves and more easily distinguish drum from bass.
The Frequency Fundamentals series on EasyEarTraining.com helps you start out in frequency training, and specifically uses bass drum as one of the example sounds, so you can use the sound clips and series material to help you tune your ear in to percussion sounds.
One final tip: try to be patient!
The suggestions above will help you train your ear for this skill, but this is the kind of musical awareness and pitch sensitivity which develops gradually, and becomes a natural part of your musicianship.
So trust that your ears will improve, try using the tips above when you struggle, and you will find it easier and easier to tell bass drum from bass guitar!
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