The fundamental niches of bacteria can be defined along many environmental axes, including temperature tolerance and resources consumed, while interactions with other organisms can constrain (e.g. competition) or enlarge (e.g. cross-feeding) realized niches. Organisms are often categorized as generalists or specialists, corresponding to broad or narrow niche requirements, which can then be linked to their functional role in an ecosystem. We show how these terms are applied to bacteria, make predictions about how the type and extent of generalism displayed by an organism relates to its functional potential and discuss the value of collecting different types of generalist bacteria. We believe that new approaches that take advantage of both high-throughput sequencing and environmental manipulation can allow us to understand the many types of generalism found within both cultivated and yet-to-be-cultivated bacteria.