Bass For Beginners – An Essential Guide

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.


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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!


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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