Bass For Beginners – An Essential Guide

The beginning phases of bass guitar can be difficult. In this lesson, we’ll break down the essentials of bass for beginners for you!

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In this free lesson you will learn…

  • How to play bass for beginners
  • What the root, third & fifth are & why they’re important
  • Fingerpicking for bass
  • Flatpicking for bass
  • How to play arpeggios!

An Info-Packed Guide To Bass For Beginners

The bass is the coolest instrument.

  • It tells everybody what time it is, what chord is being played, and what’s going to happen next.
  • The bass guitar is a social instrument, in a constant conversation with every other instrument in the ensemble.

It is versatile – with the bass, you can hold down simple elements of a song, you can elevate the personality of chords, and you can provide counterpoint melodies that weave in with the vocal or instrumental melody.

Also, it is where all the gigs are.

Seriously, learn two notes on the bass and they’ll be calling you up to join their band before the week is out.

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The best approach to playing bass for beginners is to consider the bass as something completely different from the guitar.

  • A little guitar knowledge, particularly how pitch works on the guitar, is helpful in understanding bass for beginners. It isn’t necessary, however.
  • In this lesson, we’re going to go from the ground up so you can understand the bass’s unique and magical function. You also won’t “play bass like a guitar player.”

Let the bass for beginners adventure commence!

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Bass For Beginners: The Layout

For purposes of our discussion today, we’re going to be talking about the electric fretted bass, because it’s the easiest to understand from a guitarist’s perspective.

  • If you are thinking about going out and getting yourself a bass, the electric fretted bass is the one for you.
  • A stand-up bass requires an entirely different set of bass for beginners education.
  • A fretless bass does not show you where to put your fingers, and it also requires a different set of instructions.

If you’ve played any guitar at all, you’ll be able to understand the electric bass more easily, and at some point later if you’d like to switch to a fretless bass or a stand-up bass, it will be there for you then!

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An electric bass looks a lot like an electric guitar.

  • It’s a bit bigger, and there are four strings instead of six, which are also bigger.
  • The strings on the bass, low to high, are E,  A, D, and G, just like the low strings on the guitar. The bass strings are one octave lower than the guitar.
  • The frets on a bass are also farther apart, because of the size of the strings and the frequencies the instrument is responsible for.

These different features of the bass inform the bass’s job in a band.

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Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again.

Where should we send it?

Bass For Beginners: Special Tuning Considerations

Have you ever tuned a guitar with one of those awesome clip-on tuners?

  • You can do the same thing with a bass!
  • Remember, the strings are E, A, D, G, just like a guitar, so a guitar tuner will definitely work on a bass.
  • Having said that, sometimes tuners just don’t “like” hearing those really low notes.

There are a couple of things you can do about that!

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Use the 12th fret. Remember, the 12th fret of the bass, just like the 12th fret of the guitar, is the next iteration of the same note as the open string, one octave up.

It is much easier to hear those notes, so long as your bass is set-up well and doesn’t have any extreme intonation issues.

Use harmonics. This is similar to using the 12th fret, but when you tune with harmonics, you hear a “cleaner” note than you do when you play an open or fretted string.

Here is an excellent tutorial by DeLuca Bass on tuning your bass using harmonics.

Employ a pedal tuner. These tuners plug right into your bass, are battery-operated, and will get you tuned up in no time.

These pedals are also a great incentive for starting a pedalboard!

Here’s the tuner that we favour most for live gigs:

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Bass For Beginners: How To Do The Bassist’s Job

One main area of difference between guitar and bass is that the guitar’s six mid-range strings make it a good harmonic and melodic instrument.

  • The bass’s low-frequency strings make it less-suited for playing chords, although Les Claypool might beg to differ.
  • The idea of playing bass for beginners is that it’s primarily a melodic instrument, so for now you’ll use it to support chords and to play melodies.
  • This leads us to how pitch is organized on a bass.

Essentially, it is the same as on the guitar: one fret equals one half-step.

All of the notes organized by half-steps make the chromatic scale.

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Go clockwise on this wheel from any open string, and each time you go up one fret, you go over one spot on the wheel. That’s how you find note names on the bass.

  • A good rule to remember is that when you go up one letter of the musical alphabet, you go up two frets (a whole step).
  • The exception to this lies between E and F and between B and C, where you go up one fret (a half step).

To get your fingers used to the spacing between the frets on a bass, we recommend starting out with a chromatic scale bass exercise, playing one fret at a time.

We’re big fans of Scott’s bass lessons and his distinctive technique and skill.

This bass for beginners lesson uses the chromatic scale and works extremely well.

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Pro-Tip: Learning the note names on the bass for beginners is a little bit more important than it is on the guitar, where you’re learning chord shapes and finger sequences.

While you’re familiarizing yourself with the neck of the bass, repeat the note names so that you can get oriented to it quickly.

Bass For Beginners: Pick Or Fingers?

One of our favourite bass players of all time, Geddy Lee, uses his fingers on the bass quite a bit. Chris Squire used a pick on the bass for the most part.

John Entwistle used both more or less equally.

  • You can get different sounds out of the bass with a pick than you can with your fingers.
  • Some of us may prefer fingers mainly because they haven’t yet found a pick that sounds pleasing to our ears. That’s okay too!

The point is that you can and should use both, and here are a couple of little exercises to get you started.

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Bass For Beginners Flatpicking Exercise

This easy exercise will get you used to flatpicking on the bass.

  • The key is to use a pick that is firm enough to withstand the mighty force of those gigantic bass strings.
  • You’ll start slowly and make sure to keep your rhythm even.
  • This is a good time to get your metronome into the mix.

Keep a constant down-up motion, picking the first note downward, the second note upward, and so forth.

Keep your hand motion small so that you can find the strings without looking!

In time, you’ll be able to play this exercise at any speed you like.

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Bass For Beginners: Fingerpicking Exercise

To begin working your fingers, you’ll do the same exercise as above, with modifications.

  • Pick the first note with your first finger and the second note with your second finger.
  • Play the third note with your first finger and the fourth note with your second finger.
  • Keep alternating this way, 1-2-1-2, all the way up the strings.

Eventually you’ll be able to do the amazing John Entwistle trick of picking with your third finger, but for now, two is company!

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Bass For Beginners: Chasing The Root Of The Chord

Now, we’re going to get to exactly why it’s a little bit more urgent that you as a bass player familiarize yourself with the notes on the fretboard.

  • The root of any given chord is the note that the chord is named after.
  • So, if your band is rocking on a C major chord – or a C minor chord, or a C7 chord, or anything named C – your job as the bass player is mainly to find a C on your bass and play it right away.

This is why chromatic scale exercises in all positions of the neck are super helpful in learning bass for beginners. Keep repeating those note names!

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Learning Chord Roots In Sequence

A little music theory goes a VERY long way when learning bass for beginners, and here’s the main principle you’ll be dealing with.

Chord progressions – the sequence of chords in songs – generally go I, IV, V.

This is easy to memorize using the musical alphabet.

If A is I, then D is IV and E is V. 

If C is I, then F is IV and G is V. 

If G is I, then C is IV and D is V.

There are two exceptions, because of where those E/F and B/C half steps sit.

If F is I, then Bb is IV and C is V. 

If B is I, then E is IV and F# is V.

Try finding different I-IV-V configurations across the neck of the bass.

For a little help, check out this awesome “I-IV-V Box” lesson by Riff Ninja.

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Pro-Tip: All I-IV-V songs are now your bass for beginners exercises!

Try a song like “Twist and Shout,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Midnight Special,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” or “Cecelia” on the bass.

Bass for Beginners: The Root-Fifth Jam

All chords have at least three notes: the root, the third, and the fifth.

From the standpoint of bass for beginners, the next most important note in a chord after the root is the fifth.

Ask any Johnny Cash song.

The “boom” in the boom-chicka strum alternates between the root of the chord and a note called the fifth.

Finding the fifth is just a matter of calling the root “1” and then counting up the musical alphabet until you get to five.

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Finding the fifth from the root works the same way anywhere on the bass!

  • The fifth can be either above or below the root.
  • For example, say your root is C, and you play it on the A string third fret.
  • Count up and you find that the fifth is G. You can find the G either on the third fret (same fret!) of the E string, or you can find it on the fifth fret of the D string.

Those are the two “fifth shapes” you can use in bass for beginners.

From there, all you have to do for each chord you play is jump back and forth between the root and fifth!

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Bass For Beginners: Simple Arpeggios!

There is no reason to limit yourself to playing only the root and fifth of any given chord!

  • The root, third, and fifth of any chord always exist in the same place on the bass neck, so if you learn this simple sequence, you can play around with chords on the bass all day long.
  • In the C example, we know the root is on the A string third fret. Play that note with your middle finger.

The third of the C chord is E. You’ll find the E on the D string second fret. Play that note with your first finger. See how it’s sits behind the C on the next string up?

That’s always where your third will be.

The fifth, as discussed, is on the D string fifth fret.

Reach up with your ring finger or pinky and grab it.

Play all three notes in sequence and you’ve got yourself an arpeggio!

You can also play certain chords across the strings of the bass, linking arpeggios together and extending the length of the musical line.

You can combine the arpeggio of one chord with the arpeggio of the next chord, as in this bass  lesson from Center Stage.

A Brief Note About Walking Bass Lines

In addition to arpeggios, you can use linear sequences of notes to get from the root of one chord to the root of the next chord.

These are called walking bass lines.

For a walking bass line, the important thing is to play the root of the chord and then follow the musical alphabet, adjusting by a fret or two where it sounds good until you get to the chord change, landing on the root of the next chord where it begins.

To get started with walking bass lines, check out this introduction from Scott’s Bass Lessons.

Happy grooving!

Bass For Beginners: Where To Go From Here

Now that you’ve entered the fascinating world of bass, you have a world of information at your fingertips to learn from!

  • The best way to get the feel of playing bass however, is to just play it!
  • Bring your bass and a small amp to the next jam session and get used to playing with other people.

The bass is a social instrument, and you’ll learn a lot by trying to figure things out in real time.

Recommended Resources

If you enjoyed this lesson on bass for beginners, we’ve got a few more that we think you’d enjoy!

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