How to Play the Bass

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Getting started[edit]

Basics[edit]

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 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. 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.

Tuning[edit]

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; 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.

Alternate tunings[edit]

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.

Holding or wearing[edit]

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.

Playing technique[edit]

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.

Those are not the only playing techniques, but merely the easiest and most vital for a beginner bassist to learn.

Sound production[edit]

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[edit]

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.

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.

Using non-bass amps[edit]

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.

Scales[edit]

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-|-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:

   G:-------------2-3-|-2----------------|
   D:-------1-3-5-----|---5-3-1----------|
   A:-1-3-5-----------|---------5-3-1----|
   E:-----------------|------------------|

Parts[edit]

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 woodstain. 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. They use electromagnetic forces to detect vibrations in the string.

Tuners: Adjusts string tension, allowing the musician to increase the pitch or 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"

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.

Techniques[edit]

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.

Types[edit]

Fretted[edit]

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.

Fretless[edit]

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.

Acoustic[edit]

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 without an amplifier. It has four strings, and uses the same tuning as a bass guitar.

Links[edit]

Free Bass Lessons