Despite not having the spotlight as much as lead guitar, the bass guitar remains essential in a musical arrangement. No matter the genre, the bass is crucial in gluing the band’s instruments together, giving the music an intimate feel.
Here’s an essential guide on how to play the bass guitar.
The Bass Guitar
The bass guitar is a more accessible version of the older upright bass. With the design of electric guitar technology using guitar pickups and amplifiers, the bass guitar was born. This instrument is present in many kinds of bands and musical groups across virtually every genre.
A good bass player improves both the sound and feel of a musical group by contributing to what’s called a bassline.
The bassline typically supports the other instruments’ higher-pitched parts while also collaborating with the drum part. By rounding out the arrangement of the higher instruments and playing alongside the drummer, the bassline locks all instruments of the band together.
For those wondering how to play the bass guitar, the journey begins by selecting the proper bass guitar for you.
Choosing a Bass Guitar
There are many different kinds of bass guitars on the market today, and there are many companies making basses for both beginners and professional bass players. Since there are many kinds of bass guitars and a wide price range, keep in mind that you want the best value for a bass that suits the genre you want to play.
For beginners, don’t buy the most expensive bass that you can find. Instead, find a bass that meets the budget that you set.
You want to spend enough money on a bass that feels comfortable for you, which doesn’t cost a fortune to get started. The best method is to do some research before you make your purchase. You can go to your local music store and ask for a good bass that fits your price range. You can also look up reviews online for bass guitars that other musicians say are good for beginners.
Instead of looking at the brand and fancy features, look for value. If you have a music store nearby, be sure to sit down with the bass guitars. They have to get one that feels comfortable to hold and play.
The design of a bass guitar will make it better for specific genres of music.
While there is no wrong decision for selecting a bass for a specific genre, if you know what style of music you want to play, you can look for a bass that complements that style. A significant factor that determines a bass guitar sound is the pickups.
Different style pickups will yield louder and more aggressive tones from your bass so that you can choose a bass outfitted with an ideal pickup for your genre. For louder or heavier music like rock or metal, you can look for humbucker pickups. For other genres like jazz, country, or rock, you can look for single-coil pickups.
Read next: Try out some easy country guitar songs
Parts of the Bass Guitar
After you purchase your bass, the next step is learning the different parts of the bass guitar.
Knowing the names of these pieces will help you take bass lessons because your teacher will likely refer to different parts of your bass guitar when they instruct you. Also, parts on your bass might need replacing, so it will help you know the terms so you can search for them or ask for help.
The bass guitar body is the large round piece that houses the pickups and anchors the strings.
Basses come in different shapes and sizes. The shape of your bass’s body is usually the identifying factor. Inside the body is the instrument’s electronic wiring that allows it to amplify and contribute to the sound.
The bridge of your bass anchors the strings to the body. It is where your right hand will rest when you play your bass guitar.
Pickups are typically rectangularly shaped and sit between the end of the neck and the bass guitar bridge. The pickups are magnets that convert the frequencies that you create when you play the bass strings into an electric signal, so your bass guitar is audible through an amplifier.
Pickups are significant to the sound your bass guitar will make.
The neck is the longer part of the bass guitar attached to the body. The neck is where your left hand will support the bass guitar. You will also find frets that make the fretboard here.
On the neck are pieces of metal encased within the wood. These are frets. They act as reference points for your left hand to place its fingers while you play.
The headstock is on the opposite side of the neck as the body. It is the part of the bass guitar that houses the machine heads or the tuners. Also, the neck gives the strings an opposing anchor with the bridge.
Tuners are the large metal pieces on the neck. When you rotate a tuner, you either relieve or increase the tension on the bass guitar string. It will make the sound of the bass string higher or lower.
While not directly a part of the bass guitar, your amplifier is a necessary part of your journey to play the bass guitar. Your amplifier makes your bass guitar sound louder; otherwise, the bass is difficult to hear during practice and performances.
You will find a control for volume on most amplifiers, and other amplifiers might have controls like Bass, Middle, or Treble controls.
Before you turn on your amplifier, you will need a guitar cable with a ¼ inch jack to connect it to your bass guitar. Connect the cable to the plug with Input above it. If you have Bass, Middle, and Treble controls, you can set all of them to what’s called “noon” or having all of them set to halfway to full.
These controls help you shape your tone, but setting these controls to noon will do for the sake of simplicity. You can always fine-tune your tone later when you have more experience. Finally, turn your volume all the way down before you power on the amplifier.
Amplifiers, even small ones, can surprise first-time users with how loud they can go. Keep your volume off, and then turn on your amplifier. From there, pluck away at one of the strings and slowly raise the volume until you reach a reasonable volume that isn’t too quiet or too loud.
Tune Your Bass
One of the essential skills to learn in your bass guitar journey is how to tune the open strings of the bass. As you will likely play as part of an ensemble, you play the fundamental notes of each chord. So if the bass player is out of tune, the entire band will also sound and feel out of tune.
The Open Strings
Sit down with your bass guitar on your lap so that the body rests on your right leg and the neck extends out to your left. Your bass guitar has four strings.
From top to bottom, or thickest string to thinnest string, the strings are E, A, D, and G. These notes are the standard tuning for the bass guitar. Remember that G is the string closest to your leg when you’re seated, and the E is the thickest string, furthest away from your leg.
When you tune your bass guitar, you want all four bass guitar strings to be in tune. There are electronic tuners available to help you keep your bass in tune before and during your practice.
It is possible to learn to tune your bass just by listening to the strings and correcting them, but this skill comes from several years of experience.
To make things simple, you can purchase a clip-on tuner or an electronic chromatic tuner. When you strike one of the open strings, you will turn the tuners on your bass so that the tuner reads that the string is in tune. Usually, the device will tell you whether the string is too high or too low, or too sharp or too flat.
When you turn your tuner clockwise, your string will tighten, making the string higher pitched and sharper. Turning the other way, the string will loosen, making it lower and flatter.
As you adjust the tuning of your string according to the tuner, turn the bass tuners slowly so that the string incrementally reaches the note. Only tune one string at a time. Get one string in tune, and then the next, and so on.
Playing the Bass
Now that your bass guitar is in tune, you are ready to play the bass guitar.
There are two basic styles for playing the bass guitar. One method uses the fingers on your right hand to play, while the other uses a pick. Neither approach is better than the other, but each style gives your bass a different sound.
Fingerstyle is a more traditional style to bass playing and has a warmer sound. Using a pick provides the bass with a bit more punch and precision.
To play using your fingers, take your right hand and rest your thumb on one of the bass pickups. Usually, you can keep your thumb on the pickup closest to the bridge. You need your thumb to anchor your hand to this part of your bass. Keep your index finger and middle finger open, and the rest of your fingers relaxed and slightly closed.
You will use your index and middle finger to play the strings in this method. With your thumb resting on the pickup, reach down with your index finger to the E string. Your finger should lightly strike the string in an upward motion, and it will curve like a hook as you strike the string upward from below.
Then, make the same motion with your middle finger and strike the E string the same way you used your index finger. To practice this fingerstyle method, practice striking the E string alternating your index finger and middle finger.
While it may feel uncomfortable at first, both of these fingers will soon grow accustomed to this alternating motion to strike each of the four strings in different rhythms.
There are bass guitar picks that you can use to play. These are often wider and thicker than typical guitar picks. It is also possible to play the bass with a standard guitar pick that is heavier.
Thinner guitar picks are flimsy and won’t strike the strings properly as they fold over.
To play using a pick, you will use your thumb and index finger on your right hand to grip the pick. The point of the pick should stick out to the left at a 90-degree angle with your thumb. Keep your other fingers in your hand relaxed and slightly closed.
Take the point of the pick and place it on your E string. Use your wrist to drive the pick into the E string, and you should hear the E string ring out. The pick won’t need a lot of force from your wrist, test different amounts of pressure and keep in mind the adequate amount of force you need to play the string.
When you use the pick to strike the string downward, this is called a down strum. You can also use your pick to strike the string from below, similar to the fingerstyle method. When you strike the string from below to the top, this is called an up strum.
You can try this on each of the four bass strings, so your hand becomes comfortable picking each of the four strings. To practice the picking method, select one of the strings, and practice using your wrist to pick the strings with alternating down strums and up strums.
You can think up, down, up, down, so your wrist can get used to the motion of playing the strings fluidly and in rhythm. Start slow and gradually build speed.
Your left hand is responsible for using the fretboard to change the notes your bass guitar strings can play. You will use your left hand’s index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers to hold down the areas between the metal frets to create different notes.
Music teachers often refer to your index finger as your first finger, your middle finger as your second finger, and so on until your pinky, called your fourth finger.
Hold the neck, use your thumb, and place it at the back of the neck, on the opposite side of the fretboard. As you learn to play the bass, your thumb will get used to sliding up and down the neck while staying anchored to it, so your other fingers have access to the frets.
With your thumb in position behind the neck, your other fingers will come around the neck from the bottom. You can now begin practicing using the fingers on your left hand to hold specific notes on the fretboard.
If you notice, the frets closer to the headstock are wider apart. As you travel down the neck and get to the body, you will notice that the frets get closer together.
Begin by looking for the 3rd fret on the E-string. The frets in this area of the neck are a little easier to play for starters. Take the tip of your index finger or first finger, place it on the E-strung 3rd fret and press the string down with your fingertip.
Now, either using your pick or your fingers, strike the E-string. You should hear a different note while your first finger is pressing the string down. Alternate playing the note at the third fret of your E-string and then releasing it to play the open E-string.
Practice third, open E, third, open E to hear the difference in sound and get used to using your finger. After, you can do the same exercise using your middle finger or second finger on the fourth fret of the E-string, and your third finger on the 5th fret, and so on.
You can take this exercise to the other strings. Your hands will have to adjust to each string’s position on the neck and get used to traveling around between them. After you’ve learned how to fret and play the bass using fingerstyle or a pick, you’re ready to begin playing bass parts using tablature.
How to Read Tablature
Tablature, or tab, is a short-hand way of writing music. It’s a writing method that simplifies the skill of reading music so you can learn music quickly.
If you look at a tablature chart, you will see a chart with four horizontal lines, and in those lines, you will see numbers. Each of the horizontal lines represents the strings on the bass. The bottom horizontal line represents E, and the top line represents G. The numbers in the lines indicate what fret to play on the strings.
For example, if you see a tablature chart with a “3” on the lowest line or the E-string. This indicates that you play the third fret of your E string. If you see a “0” on any of the lines at any time, this shows that you play an open string.
While tablature is great for learning songs quickly, it’s a method that cannot represent rhythms. Tablature works best when you can hear the music and also see the tablature to play it. By hearing the song, you can hear how the song’s rhythm and other details are meant to be played. Use listening in conjunction with tablature to play new songs accurately. Learn more about reading guitar tabs here.
Playing the Roots
As you learn your first songs, the parts you play will likely consist of playing the root notes or roots of the chords for the other instruments.
When a guitar player or piano player plays a basic chord, that chord usually consists of three different notes played together.
For example, if a guitar player were to play a G major chord, the notes in that chord are G, B, and D. As the bass player, your job is to support this chord by playing the root note. The root note in the G chord is the note G. In most cases, you can tell the chord’s root because of the chord’s name.
The root of an A minor chord is A, the root of an F# major chord is F#. Many basslines consist of the bass player just playing the root notes of the melodic instruments’ chords.
Bass guitar playing isn’t just about playing root notes. There are ways that bass players can add variation and color to their parts by playing arpeggios on guitar.
Arpeggios are the notes that make a specific chord. For example, in a G major chord, the arpeggios are the notes G, B, and D.
Two basic arpeggios to learn are major chord arpeggios and minor chord arpeggios. The patterns for both major and minor chord arpeggios are not a set sequence you must play. The patterns show you where the notes of the chords are on the neck, so you know which frets you can play to stay within the chord notes.
To learn the pattern for a major chord arpeggio, let’s look at the G major chord.
The notes that make this chord are G, B, and D.
On the neck, G is the third fret on your E-string. Then there is B, which is the second fret on the A-string. And finally, D is the fifth fret on your A-string. Anytime the melodic instruments play these chords, you can play any of these three frets to harmonize and support the chord.
Notice that the pattern begins on the root note G, then travels to B by going up one string and one fret down, and finally goes to the last note D by moving three frets up to the fifth fret.
You can use this pattern for any major chord that you might need to play. For example, the A major chord is a combination of the notes A, C#, and E. The arpeggio pattern begins on the fifth fret of the E-string, which is the note A, then C# is the fourth fret of the A string, one string down and one fret to the left, and then E is three frets above C#, the seventh fret of the A string.
Minor chords have a similar arpeggio pattern. An example is the A minor chord.
A minor has the notes A, C, and E. The pattern begins on the fifth fret of the E-string, which is A, and then it goes to the third fret of the A-string, which is C, and last it goes to the seventh fret of the A-string, which is E.
You can follow the arpeggio outline for this chord for any minor chord with major chord arpeggios. As long as you know the root note, you’ll see where the pattern begins and what notes you can play.
How to Practice
You can now begin studying, playing, and practicing the bass guitar in earnest. While the bass might seem like an instrument with a simple role, it is vital to an ensemble’s sound. Along with songs, scales, and exercises, bass players have two other critical musical areas to master: time and listening.
Use a Metronome
The drums and the bass guitar comprise an ensemble’s rhythm section. As the bass player, you must have a great sense of steady time. You will learn how to play your part to give the song a stable feel, without the tendency to slow down or speed up.
To learn excellent timekeeping, practice with a metronome. A metronome is a machine that you can set to different tempos, and that will give you a steady speed reference to play along to. Use a metronome for scales, exercises, and songs.
Finally, one of the essential skills to learn as a bass player is learning to listen to the other instruments while playing. Since your part locks the drums and the melodic instruments together, you must learn how to have a keen awareness of everyone else’s part.
Through listening, you will understand how fast the drummer is going, so you know how fast you need to play. You will also know when the guitar player or piano player changes chords, and you might also listen to the vocalist to know what section the song is coming next.
This awareness is what the best bass players have. Your support of the other instruments allows those players, and therefore the song, to shine.
For bass guitarists, it is not the bass player who can play the most extravagant bass solos who gets hired for sessions and bands—it’s the bass player who can play a supportive bassline with a sense of givingness to the other musicians.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.