How to Play the Bass
Basics on the Bass
The electric bass, otherwise known as the bass guitar (not to be confused with the double bass) is, as the name suggests, an instrument that plays in the bass range. In fact, the electric bass plays so low, that when people write music notation for it, the bass actually plays an octave lower than written!
It typically has the same features as most guitars: a neck, head, body, etc., although some modern versions will do without the head. The bass usually has only four strings, but five, six, seven, eight and even twelve stringed instruments are becoming more common. If you happen to use a five string bass, the string closest to your head is the added string; you can play anything you would play on an ordinary four string bass if you simply ignore that string, although it would be a good idea to learn how to use that string too, once you've gotten your ground.
The usual tuning of the bass, starting from the largest string, is E-A-D-G, tuned in fourths, like a double bass. A fourth is a term from musical theory; on the electric bass, you can find the fourth of any note you start on by going five frets above it. For example, the open E string's fourth would be the A you play at its fifth fret, or, (since the bass is tuned in fourths), the open A you play on the next string down.
This raises a question: Why does the bass guitar let you play the same note in two different places, like the A above? The answer is ease of use - having the same note 'copied' into different positions on the bass guitar lets us play much more without moving our fretting hand as much.
Like any stringed instrument, there are a variety of tunings for the bass. Perhaps the second most common after the ordinary E-A-D-G tuning is "Drop D" tuning, where the E string is tuned down a whole-step lower, to the D below. This is more common in guitars, especially modern heavy metal guitar, but it is also useful in certain riffs for bass guitar.
Wearing the bass
Unlike a double bass, the bass guitar is worn like a guitar with a strap, or, (less commonly), like a guitar sitting down. Sitting down with a bass is uncomfortable for many people, because the instrument is actually a few inches larger than an electric guitar - making it less appropriate for playing sitting down.
There are two standard techniques for playing a bass guitar:
- Fingerstyle bass, where one uses the index and middle fingers of their plucking hand to produce a fat, mellow tone; and
- Picked bass, where a heavy guitar pick or a custom-made bass guitar pick is used for a harder attack and a more aggressive sound.
Of course, those sounds are only the typical output; a good bassist will learn to produce different sounds from practice. Those are not the only playing techniques, but merely the easiest and most vital for a beginner bassist to learn.
Making the bass sound
Unless the bass guitar is acoustic, the sound of a bass guitar is produced through an amplifier.
How an amplifier functions, a brief aside
The basic idea is that there are pickups located in the body of the bass guitar, which are magnetic. Plucking the metal strings above cause a vibration that generates a certain type of electrical signal because of these magnets; that electrical signal then travels through the input wire to the amplifier and produces a sound (possibly with other effects added before the sound is made).
Using non-bass amps for bass
There are amps made specifically for bass guitars but if one is not available a keyboard amplifier will work well. Using a guitar amp also works fine, but the lower frequency notes lose their tone and the overall sound will not be as distinct. Guitars sound higher than bass guitars, so their amps reflect this difference.
The best way to begin learning bass is to study and practice scales. For example, an open A Major scale is easy to learn and is the foundation for learning many other scales.
Open A Major Scale: Ascending
G:-------------1-2-| D:-------0-2-4-----| A:-0-2-4-----------| E:-----------------|
When learning and practicing scales, it is common to work your way up and then down the scale.
Open A Major Scale: Ascending and Descending
G:-------------1-2-|-1----------------| D:-------0-2-4-----|---4-2-0----------| A:-0-2-4-----------|---------4-2-0----| E:-----------------|------------------|
Begin slowly and deliberately and increase speed as you become more comfortable with the scale.
Also, as you get more comfortable with the fingering, try transposing the scale up. for example:
G:-------------2-3-|-2----------------| D:-------1-3-5-----|---5-3-1----------| A:-1-3-5-----------|---------5-3-1----| E:-----------------|------------------|
Parts of The Bass
Body: this is the main piece of wood from which the bass is made of
Neck: the long part over which the strings are stretched
Pickups: Located on the main body under strings. Uses electromagnetic forces to detect sound. In the case of an acoustic bass guitar, this function is performed by the soundboard.
Tuners: Adjusts string tension, allowing the musician to control the pitch
Volume Knob: Controls volume
Tone Knob: Controls the treble
Bridge: Located near the bottom of the bass, this is what holds the strings in place.
Plucking: The use of fingers to pluck strings to resonate sound.
Picking: The use of a plectrum to pluck strings.
Slap: The use of a variety of different hitting and hard plucking techniques.