How to Play the Bass
- 1 Getting started
- 2 Scales
- 3 Arpeggios
- 4 Double stops and chords
- 5 Parts
- 6 Techniques
- 7 Types
- 8 Links
The electric bass, otherwise known as the bass guitar is, as the name suggests, an instrument that plays in the deep, low-pitched 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. Otherwise, regular basslines used in popular music would need many ledger lines below the staff, which would be hard to read.
The electric bass should not be confused with the double bass (also called "upright bass"). While both the electric bass and the double bass are low-pitched stringed instruments played by plucking the strings, and while they are both low-pitched instruments used to provide the deep foundation for musical groups, the instruments come from different instrument families. Whereas the electric bass is from the guitar family, the double bass is from the violin aand viol family. Many jazz and rockabilly bassists can play both electric bass and upright bass, as upright bass is the traditional bass instrument for jazz and rockabilly.
The electric bass typically has the same features as most guitars: a neck, head, body, volume controls, pickups and so on. The bass has a longer neck than an electric guitar. The bass usually has only four strings, in contrast to electric guitars, that usually have six strings. Bass strings are thicker and heavier than the strings on a regular guitar.
As of 2018, five-stringed basses are becoming more common. Five-string instruments usually add a low B string, giving a deeper lower register. If you happen to use a five string bass, the string closest to your head is the added B 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 got comfortable. In rare cases, bassists use six and seven-stringed instruments.
The usual tuning of the bass, starting from the widest, lowest-pitched string, is E-A-D-G, tuned in fourths, like a double bass. A fourth is a term from musical theory. A fourth means four scale notes up or down in pitch, with the term often meaning a "perfect fourth". A perfect fourth up from C is F. 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. The four notes of a bass guitar are the same note names as the first four strings on an electric guitar or acoustic guitar, except that a bass's strings are an octave lower.
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. The fact that the same note can be played on different places on the bass neck means that different bassists may play the same bassline differently.
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. Having a low D is important for songs in the key of D Major, d minor, G major and g minor. Some bassists detune their low E to E flat when they are playing in the key of E flat or A flat, or even detune all the strings by one semitone, giving the tuning E flat-A flat-D flat-G flat. Some nu metal bassists detune even lower.
How to tune
When a bassist is practicing alone, the bass can be tuned without a reference pitch such as a piano, a process called "tuning the bass to itself". To do this, the bassist deems one string's pitch to be the string to which the other strings will be tuned to.
However, teachers recommend that you do get a reference pitch. A reference pitch is a reliable pitch source that you tune to. This can be a piano, pitch pipe, tuning fork (a metal tuning aid), or, on some electronic metronomes, a tuning note (often a 440 Hz A). The bassist listens to the reference pitch and then plucks a selected note on her bass, and then detects if the bass' pitch is too low or too high, making adjustments with the tuners if necessary. An Internet-connected computer or mobile device may be used to sound a reference pitch. Another way to tune is using an electronic tuner.
While tuning with an electronic tuner makes it easier, it is good to use sounding reference pitches for several reasons. One is that if you have not used your bass in a long time, the tuning may be very off; using a reference pitch from a piano enables you to get the bass roughly in tune before using the electronic tuner for fine tuning. As well, using a reference pitch helps to develop your "ear", a colloquial term for your sense of the highness or lowness of a pitch.
This is important because learning to hear pitch differences makes you a better musician. It helps you to hear when your bass needs retuning or if another fellow performer's instrument may need a retuning. As well, one may not always have access to a tuner in performing situations, such as playing at a jam session or "sitting in" on bass at a coffeehouse show. In these situations, you need to be able to quickly tune the instrunent "by ear". Another reason to tune by ear is that if you wish to learn fretless bass, you need to be able to adjust your pitch by ear.
Holding or wearing
Unlike a double bass, the bass guitar is worn like a guitar with a strap, or, (less commonly), like a guitar, sitting down, with the instrument resting on the upper leg. 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 common for people to play bass sitting down. Most bassists who play in bands use a strap. Some bassists do sit to play, though.
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 plastic 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. For most players, using a pick allows them to play faster repeated notes.
Some bassists play slap and pop style, slapping the thick, low strings with the thumb and snapping the high strings, with both techniques creating a percussive, funky effect. This style is used in funk, fusion, and some pop music.
Those are not the only playing techniques, but merely the easiest and most vital for a beginner bassist to learn.
Unless the bass guitar is acoustic bass guitar, an instrument related to the acoustic guitar, but having an electric bass tuning, the sound of a bass guitar is produced through magnetic pickups which are plugged into an amplifier and speaker.
Amplifier and speaker
Basses have magnetic pickups mounted on the body, underneath the strings. Plucking the metal strings causes a vibration that generates a certain type of tiny electrical signal because of these magnets. That electrical signal then travels through the patch cord to the amplifier and speaker of a bass amplifier, creating a sound loud enough to be heard by the player, band members and audience members. This is the sound of the pickups which is strengthened by the amplifier's preamplifier and power amplifier.
To use a bass amplifier for the first time, find the volume knob and turn it all the way down, to avoid a sudden burst of high volume sound. Turn the tone or equalization knobs to their middle or center position. Plug the bass into the amplifier input with a patch cord, with the bass instrument's volume all the way up. Then, while plucking a string, slowly raise the amp's volume knob. If there are two volume knobs, raise the preamplifier knob until you can hear the bass, then raise the master volume until you have the desired volume. On most amps, better sounds and tones are obtained from subtle boosts and cuts of tone or equalization knobs.
If you raise the preamplifier knob too much, you may hear a buzzy overdrive sound. In some heavy metal, punk, grunge and psychedelic rock styles, overdriven fuzz bass is a sound that bassists like to use. In most pop, country music, and jazz, though, a clear undistorted bass tone is sought.
As well, a bassist can use effects units such as pedals, to create different sounds. The most commonly used pedals for bass are preamplifiers, compressors (which even out any volume peaks), fuzz bass (overdrive) pedals and chorus. Chorus recreates the sound of many instruments playing the same note, as is done in string orchestras. While far more pedals are designed for electric guitar than for electric bass, there are effects specially designed for electric bass on the market.
Using non-bass amps
There are amps made specifically for bass guitars but if one is not available a keyboard amplifier will work well. Keyboards have a deep bass range, so keyboard amps are able to reproduce the deep notes of a bass guitar. Using a guitar amp also works if no bass amp is available, but the lower frequency notes will not come through well. Guitar amps are only designed to produce 80 Hz notes, so the low A (55 Hz) and the low E (41 Hz) of a bass are too low for a guitar amp.
A bassist can also plug into a PA system, as PA speakers are full-range speaker systems that go all the way down to deep bass notes. Smaller PA cabinets such as 8" or 10" speakers in small cabinets are unlikely to be able to reproduce the deepest, lowest notes on the E string. To plug into a PA system, a Direct Box and/or a bass preamplifier are needed for the best sound quality (though in an emergency, such as bass amp malfunction, one can plug straight into a sound board to use a PA system, albeit with compromises in sound quality).
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. The notation below is called tabulature or "tab". It is a depiction of the bass fingerboard. There is a horizontal line for each string. The numbers on each line indicate the frets you should play. The number "0" indicates that you should play the open string. The number "1" indicates that the string should be pressed down at the first fret, and so on.
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. If you have a metronome, drum machine, or an electronic keyboard with a beat box, playing scales along with a beat is a good way to improve your rhythmic precision.
Open A Major Scale: Ascending and Descending
G:-------------1-2-|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. "Transposing" means changing the scale to a new key. for example; here is Bb:
G:-------------2-3-|3-2----------------| D:-------1-3-5-----|----5-3-1----------| A:-1-3-5-----------|----------5-3-1----| E:-----------------|------------------|
The above examples are Major scales. Several other important scales are minor scales (there are several variants), dominant seventh scales, blues scales and pentatonic scales. For the advanced bassist, there are also diminished, whole-tone and chromatic scales.
An arpeggio is the notes of a chord played one after the other, rather than all at the same time. Even on instruments that have the capability to play chords with all the notes at the same time, such as electric guitar and Hammond organ, performers often play the chord tones one after the other because it adds rhythmic and melodic interest. On bass, due to the instrument's low pitch, many chords sound too "muddy", so bass performers usually play the chord tones one after the other.
Arpeggios are widely used in basslines, so they are an important skill to learn. On a typical Major or minor scale, playing the first, third and fifth notes gives you an arpeggiated triad. This basic triad often has the octave of the root note added as well.
Open A Major arpeggio (triad with octave): Ascending and Descending
G:--------2--|2-----------| D:------2----|---2--------| A:0--4-------|------4--0--| E:-----------|------------|
In rock, funk and blues, a seventh is often added into an arpeggio:
Open A 7 arpeggio (triad with seventh and octave, with the seventh and octave played as two eighth notes ascending, and as quarter notes descending, at which point the last two notes are played as eighth notes): Ascending and Descending
G:--------0-2|2--0---------| D:------2----|-----2-------| A:0--4-------|--------4-0--| E:-----------|-------------|
The Major sixth is also often added to triads, as the sixth abive the root sounds consonant (pleasant) with Major and dominant seventh chords.
Open A Major sixth arpeggio (triad with sixth and octave, with the last two notes played as eighth notes): Ascending and Descending
G:------------|2--------------| D:------2--4--|---4--2--------| A:0--4--------|---------4--0--| E:------------|---------------|
Arpeggio-based riffs can include sixth and seventh above the root, as with this standard blues/rockabilly walking bassline:
Open A 7 arpeggiated line (triad with sixth and seventh), Ascending and Descending
G:------------|0-----------| D:------2--4--|---4--2-----| A:0--4--------|---------4--| E:------------|------------|
Arpeggio-based basslines can also have scalar passing tones and chromatic notes added, as with this rockabilly classic (the arpeggio notes are A, C# and E, the passing tones are the D annd the chromatic D#):
Open A 7 arpeggiated line (triad with passing tones), Ascending and Descending
G:------------|------------| D:------0--1--|2--1--0-----| A:0--4--------|---------2--| E:------------|------------|
Double stops and chords
Unlike the electric guitar, on which three-note and four-note chords are routinely played, the electric bass tends to be used to play single notes. There are some exceptions, though: many bass players perform octave double stops, in which a lower-pitched note and its equivalent one octave higher are played at the same time. In heavy metal, some bassists play power chords, which is a note and the note a perfect fifth above it, sometimes with a higher octave of the bass note as well. Bassists occasionally play double stop thirds, fourths, sixths, and tenths (a third plus an octave).
Octave double stops and even three-note triple stops are widely used to add power and fullness at loud choruses and dramatic song endings.
E octaves (bass note, octave and superoctave):
G:9----------| D:-----------| A:7----------| E:0----------|
Tenths, which are a third plus an octave, sound pretty on bass.
E Major tenth:
G:1----------| D:-----------| A:-----------| E:0----------|
A minor tenth:
G:5----------| D:-----------| A:0----------| E:-----------|
In a heavy metal band or a grunge group, the bass player in a power trio (electric guitar, bass, drums) may play power chords during the guitar solo, to add fullness, and at song endings, to add weight.
D Major power chord (bass note, fifth and octave, add overdrive for heavy metal sound):
G:7----------| D:7----------| A:5----------| E:-----------|
Three and four note chords
Three and four note chords are rarely used on bass. You might hear chords like these in a progressive rock or jazz song or a bass solo. You would be unlikely to play these chords in a pop band.
E 7 chord (bass note, octave, third and seventh):
G:7----------| D:6----------| A:7----------| E:0----------|
E minor chord (bass note, third and fifth):
G:4----------| D:5----------| A:-----------| E:0----------|
D 7 chord (bass note, third and seventh):
G:5----------| D:4----------| A:5----------| E:-----------|
A Major chord (bass note, tenth and fifth):
G:9----------| D:11---------| A:0----------| E:-----------|
Body: this is the main piece of wood which a bass is made from. The neck is bolted onto the body. Many bass bodies are painted, lacquered or stained with wood stain. The body of most basses has curved cutaways in the body which make the bass body fit more comfortably against the bass player's body. Most basses also have cutaways at the part where the neck is bolted onto (or otherwise attached) to the body. These cutaways enable the bassist to reach the higher notes on the fingerboard.
Neck: the long piece of wood about the thickness of a pack of cards over which the strings are stretched under tension. The fretboard is a piece of wood glued to the neck. The fretboard is the wood upon which the player presses the strings to "fret" a note.
Pickups: Screwed on the main body under the strings, these are magnets wrapped in wire, usually housed in a plastic casing. They use electromagnetic forces to detect vibrations in the string made by the player's hands and/or pick.
Tuners: Turning them adjusts string tension, allowing the musician to tighten them and increase the pitch or loosen them and decrease the pitch of each string.
Volume knob: A rotary potentiometer that controls volume.
Tone knob: A rotary potentiometer which controls how much treble is "rolled off". More expensive basses may have equalization controls for bass, midrange and treble.
Pickup selector: A two (or more) position switch which enables the bassist to select a different pickup. On some instruments, a rotary knob is used, which gives the pkayer more nuanced control over the pickup selection, as the player can set the knob partway between the Jazz bass-style pickup and the Precision bass-style pickup, thus getting a blend of both pickups.
Bridge: A metal frame with holes for inserting the strings and supports for each string, which is screwed into the wood at the bottom end of the bass. This device holds the strings in place at the bottom of the bass. The tensioned strings are strung between the bridge and the tuners. Turning the tuners adjusts the tension (and thus the pitch) of the strings. Bridges have screws that can be adjusted to modify the intonation.
Plucking: The use of fingers to pluck strings to produce sound.
Picking: The use of a plectrum (commonly called a "pick") to pluck the strings.
Slap bass (or "slap and pop"): The use of a variety of percussive techniques, including slapping the low strings with the thumb and "popping" the higher strings with the fingers.
The most common type of bass is the fretted bass. It is called "fretted" because the fingerboard has metal frets. The bassist presses the string against the fingerboard at a certain fret, and the metal fret stops the string at an exact location on the fretboard. This makes it relatively easy to play a fretted bass in tune.
Less commonly, some basses have no metal frets on the fingerboard. The bassist has to position his or her hands carefully to find the exact right place on the fingerboard where a note will be in tune. A bassist needs to develop a good musical ear to play fretless, because the fretting hand needs to be subtly adjusted to ensure the notes are in tune. The bassist knows when a note is in tune by practicing "ear training", which is singing scales and arpeggios. The bassist can also check that his or her notes are in tune by comparing the pitch of the bass notes to the piano player or guitar player. Fretless basses are most commonly used in jazz and jazz fusion. However, there are some rock bassists who play fretless bass.
An acoustic bass guitar, which should not be confused with the upright bass, is a low-pitched guitar family instrument. It has a hollow body like an acoustic guitar, so it can be played in practice and in low-volume acoustic jam sessions without an amplifier. In a club or large venue, a piezoelectric transducer pickup is plugged into a bass amplifier and speaker to hear the instrument. It has four strings, and uses the same tuning as a bass guitar.