If you’ve ever been drawn to a song with a catchy beat, you know the power of a great bassline. And while some would-be musicians may be more drawn to the flashiness of lead guitar, it’s important to remember just how crucial bass is when it comes to a song’s success. But if you’re just getting ready to start out, you may not know where to begin. Here’s our advice on how to play bass.
Learning to Play Bass: A Guide
1. Choosing An Instrument
One of the keys to success as a bassist is choosing a playable instrument. A poorly-made bass will often go out of tune easily, which will make practice incredibly frustrating. If the action (height of the strings above the fingerboard) is too high, pressing the strings down can cause hand strain and make faster basslines very difficult to play.
Luckily, many guitar brands offer affordable beginner bass guitars that still play well. If you have the money to spend on a more advanced instrument, there’s no harm in buying one. But most beginner basses are perfectly fine for learning.
Aside from budget, here are a few things to keep in mind as you choose an instrument:
Scale length: Basses come in long-scale and short-scale versions. Some players might prefer long-scale basses because you can play more notes. However, if you are short or have smaller hands, a short-scale bass will be a lot more manageable. Plus, short scale basses are known for a “fat” sound, so they appeal to players of all sizes.
Pickups: Many basses have P-style (like those found on the Fender Precision Bass) or J-style (like those found on the Fender Jazz Bass) pickups or a combination of both. Others come equipped with humbucker pickups.
J-style pickups tend to have a more focused, precise sound, while P-style pickups have a warmer, rounder sound. Humbuckers tend to deliver a powerful, punchy tone.
Some basses come with a combination of pickup types, which can be excellent — you can experiment and see which tone suits you. But for learning, you don’t necessarily need the best-sounding pickups or the ideal tone.
Acoustic or electric: Alternatively, you may want to choose an acoustic bass. With an acoustic bass, you won’t also need to purchase an amp. If you do need an amp, be sure to choose a bass amp and not one designed for guitars — guitar amps aren’t designed to handle the low end that a bass delivers.
Playing comfort: We could get into a discussion of bass tonewoods and which tend to sound the best. However, when you’re learning, having a bass that’s comfortable to play is usually more important than finding the ideal tone.
Contoured bodies tend to be more comfortable because they’re carved to sit against your body. And thinner necks tend to make playing easier, especially if your hands are smaller. If you’re getting ready to buy your first bass, this helpful video will give you a few more things to think about.
2. Getting Started
Before we get into more about bass technique, it’s important to learn how to hold your bass and understand a little about the instrument.
If you’re already a guitarist, you might find it easier to learn bass guitar. On bass with four strings, the tuning is the same as that on strings 3, 4, 5, and 6 of a guitar. (The bass is just tuned one octave lower.) Of course, the first string on a guitar is high E. So on bass with four strings, the strings are E, A, D, and G from lowest to highest. If you have a five-string bass, there is a low B above the E string.
To play bass guitar successfully and without injuries, you’ll need to make sure you hold it properly. Holding a bass is like holding a guitar — if you’re sitting down, rest the lower bout (the wide part of the bottom) of the bass on your thigh.
So if you’re right-handed, the lower bout will be against your right thigh. Elevate your other thigh in order to raise the neck up slightly. If you keep the neck level, you’ll need to angle your wrist to play, which can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. For a visual guide on how to hold your bass, check out this video.
3. The Basics: Understanding Root Notes
If you’re a right-handed bass player, your left hand will be your fretting hand, while your right hand is your playing hand (meaning you pluck the strings with the fingers on your right hand.
With your right hand, you’ll usually play fingerstyle (although some bassists do choose to play with a pick). Bend your wrist at approximately 45 degrees and rest your thumb on the pickup or on the thumb rest (if your bass has one). From there, you’ll be able to use your fingers to pluck the strings.
But what strings do you pluck? Often, a bass line (and especially a bass line when you’re just learning to play) is made up of the root notes of the chords in a song.
The root note is just the note that a chord is based on. So if a rhythm guitarist plays a chord progression of G, Am, C, Em, the root notes would be G, A, C, E.
This might sound overly simple, but it’s an effective way to play your first bass lines. And as this video shows, as you learn how to play bass lines, you can alternate between playing whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, etc. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll start to get a feel for playing rhythmically.
4. Muting Strings
If you’ve already started plucking your first few notes, you might have noticed a frustrating trend — it’s easy to accidentally cause notes on open strings to sound as you play along the fretboard. This can get in the way of playing a clear rhythm (plus, it just doesn’t sound good).
This is where it’s important to start learning one of the most important beginner skills: string muting. Bass strings are heavy enough that plucking one can cause another to vibrate, even if you haven’t touched the other string at all.
Thus, it’s important to mute nearby strings. As a beginner, a bassist should know two main string muting techniques. This video lesson illustrates them in detail. For lower-pitched strings, rest your thumb on the string you aren’t playing to avoid hearing it ring out (so if you’re playing the A string, rest your thumb on the E string to stop it from ringing).
For higher-pitched strings, work on pulling your finger across each string you play. This way, it will rest on the heavier string above, preventing that string from ringing as well.
As you continue to learn new skills, you’ll be able to work on new string muting techniques. But these are two great ones to work on as you’re first learning to play.
5. Playing Arpeggios
Bass playing involves more than just playing root notes. And while you can technically play chords on bass, most bass players don’t find themselves strumming. Instead, a lot of bass players use arpeggios (or “broken chords”). If you’re already a guitarist, you might have some practice playing arpeggios.
For example, a C major arpeggio (an arpeggio of the C chord) is made of the root note (C), the third (E), and the fifth (G).
But what are the 3rd and 5th? These are just scale degrees counted from the root note. The C major scale looks like this:
C D E F G A B
So if the first degree is C, the third degree is E, and the fifth degree is G. Some arpeggios might include the octave, which is just the root note played an octave higher. Don’t worry if you don’t get a perfect grasp of roots, thirds, and fifths right away.
As you continue to learn bass guitar, you may find yourself diving more into music theory, and this introduction should help you develop a good foundation. (If you want a great theory crash course this is a good one) To see the C arpeggio and a few others demonstrated on the bass, check out this helpful lesson designed for beginners.
6. Learn Songs With Tablature
As you start to play bass guitar, you’ll probably want to be able to play a song. And while learning to read sheet music can be helpful to you as a bass player, it isn’t absolutely necessary.
Tablature (often abbreviated as “tabs” or “tab”) is a simplified form of musical notation for guitar and bass. It’s great for beginners, but even experienced bassists sometimes prefer it over sheet music.
On a bass tab, you’ll see four lines (one per string). Beginners are sometimes thrown off by the fact that the top string on the tab is the highest-pitched string on the bass. So from top to bottom, the strings on the tablature are G, D, A, and E. Reading the rest is easy — a number on the string means you press down the string at that fret.
So if you’re reading along with a tab and see the number seven on the bottom line, that means you play the low E string at fret seven. This may take a little practice to master, but reading tablature will make playing bass much easier. If learning via a visual demonstration is easier, this video lesson is a great intro to playing bass with tablature.
7. Work On Important Scales
If you want to be able to play bass guitar well, it’s a good idea to learn how to play bass guitar scales. But with all of the bass guitar scales out there, you may not know where to start.
Many new bassists start with learning to play the C major scale. And plenty of instructors also recommends that beginners learn and practice the slightly more complex blues scale. Even if you don’t intend to play blues, this is a scale that can prove very useful to rock bassists and bassists who play other genres.
Check out this video lesson for a visual guide and to hear what these scales should sound like on bass guitar. As you’re learning how to play, make sure to be patient with yourself — nobody is able to instantly play bass guitar scales quickly. Practice is important, and knowing your scales will take you far as a bassist.
8. Practice Different Techniques
Many people who play bass guitar play fingerstyle, meaning the strings are plucked with their fingers. However, there are still plenty of high-profile bassists who play with a pick (or plectrum).
It isn’t absolutely necessary, but to be a well-rounded bassist, it’s good to practice playing in a variety of styles. If you take bass lessons, your teacher will likely recommend that you start playing with fingers and then try out other styles.
If you move into plectrum bass (playing with a pick), keep in mind that picking skills on bass are different than those you’d use on a guitar. The string spacing on bass guitars is wider than it is on guitars. It’s best to practice using alternate picking, which means that you pick with a downstroke, then an upstroke, then a downstroke, etc. It takes some time to master, but you’ll soon get into a rhythm.
Slap bass is another great technique to learn. It’s commonly associated with funk music, but it’s also a great musical skill to use in other genres of music.
As this video shows you, slap bass typically involves striking a string with the bony part of your thumb. The string hits the fretboard, creating the “slap” sound. It can take some time to master, but if you want to learn slap bass, it’s a great skill that can add some punch to your rhythm patterns.
9. Following A Lesson Plan
We’ve been through some of the steps to take if you want to learn to play bass guitar. But just like with learning guitar or any other instrument, you want to make sure you begin learning in a structured, deliberate way. For beginners, it’s vital to make sure you master the fundamentals you need to progress. Plenty of people who learn how to play get a handle on the basics, play songs, and then don’t progress any further on their instrument of choice.
If you’re serious about bass playing, make sure you have some structure as you learn how to play. Some people start out with free lessons on YouTube and other sites. This can be good when you’re first starting out, and there’s nothing wrong with looking up individual things you want to learn.
But free lessons typically aren’t offered in a sequence. And if you really want to learn bass (or any other instrument), there needs to be a method to your learning. There are a few ways you can do this:
- In-person lessons: Sometimes, it can be easier to learn from an experienced teacher. If you choose this route, you also have the advantage of personalized feedback. This is a great way to avoid learning bad habits — your teacher can quickly correct any major issues and offer tips that they’ve learned on their own playing journey. Learning this way can be a little more expensive, but some players also like the accountability of having to practice and come back to show their teacher what they’ve learned.
- Online Courses: Online Guitar Learning Apps are different than one-off video lessons. If you want to learn efficiently, these lessons can help you. They’ll take you through a course (or several courses), many of which will focus on the genre or playing style you want to learn. These lessons tend to be more affordable, but it can be easy to slack off if you aren’t self-motivated.
- Teaching yourself: If you’re very self-motivated, you can teach yourself using books (and sometimes using tablature to play songs you like). If you learn better when you can read something (as opposed to watching someone play), this is a great option.
Regardless of how you learn, it’s important to make sure you have an effective practice routine. This will help you get the most out of whichever learning system you choose. This video offers some tips on how to do so.
Whether you want to play bass guitar in a band or aspire to become a solo bassist, learning this remarkable instrument is an admirable venture. But what do you think? Are there any tips for learning how to play that we’ve left out? We hope you’ve found our list helpful — please let us know what you think in the comments, and don’t forget to like and share if you found it useful!