So You Want To Play Bass

An article for those who want advice on playing their bass in a band. Designed for beginners.

Ultimate Guitar

Hey there, and welcome to So you want to play bass... If you're here, I can only assume its because a) you're a bassist like me and the title of the article caught your attention, or b) because you're interested in the bass for some reason. Either one of these is alright, so take a seat and lets get started.

I've been a bassist for about seven years now, and have been the acting band leader in a six person band (two guitars, cello, piano, bass, and drums) that preforms one to two times a week for more than a year now. Still, I don't want anyone to think the things I'm saying here are gospel. All I'm passing along are tips and tricks and advice that was either given to me or that I've acquired in my time playing. If you like them, excellent. If you don't, then thats what comments are for. I'm still learning, as we all are, and I'm always interested in a better way of doing things. And more experienced musicians, I've been playing music in one form or another since I started on trumpet in '91, so even if I am a relative newcomer on bass, hopefully thats enough experience for the old salts in the audience.

That being said, let me get this out of the way. The bass is one of the most unappreciated instruments in rock and roll music, possible the most unappreciated since SNL made the cowbell a household word. As a bassist, I don't understand this phenomenon, and I'm sure all of you other bassist out there are just as flummoxed as I am. After all, we chose this beast of an instrument of our own free will, and none of us would have kept playing if we didn't like it. And yet we suffer all sorts of abuse, whether from games like Guitar Hero II (there's a tongue in cheek loading screen explaining how a minifridge is more important in your practice space than a bassist) or from the members of this site who have decided bassists are irrelevant. Even many of the guitarists who do appreciate having a bassist will say it's nothing more than an oversized guitar, or pick it up and play a punk eighth note pattern, just to demonstrate how easy it is playing the bass. Aspiring bassists out there? Ignore them. Your instrument has as much potential as theirs. After all, they're both just bits of board with strings attached, and maybe a few electronic parts when you get down to it.

Now, before I go into the instrument itself, I would like to say one thing. If you are actually interested in playing the bass, go out and buy one. For those of you who own a bass, I'm obviously not talking to you. For everyone else interested, save up some cash, or ask for one on your birthday, or something. It doesn't have to be expensive (I still play my first bass, an old Washburn XB-100,) but the feeling of ownership will make you that much more driven and enthusiastic to learn how to play the instrument, especially if it took a few paychecks. Plus, the shopping around and research to find just the right combination of price and sound, will give you a much better idea of what type of sound you want. More on buying your own bass later though, lets talk about the instrument itself.

Part One: The Bass

Alright everybody, our subject today is the bass. For those of you who don't know, the generally has four strings, a large profile, and is tuned an octave lower than a guitar's four lowest strings. While there are exceptions to this rule, this article is ostensibly targeted towards beginners, so lets stick with this definition for now. But why play it? After all, the thicker strings make it harder to shred, chords are more difficult since a bass plays using harmonics, and it seems like you'll be relegated to standing in back while your guitarist and singer have all the fun, right?

Wrong. Every bassist has their own reason for playing the instrument, but I for one play the bass because I love the sound. I don't care how much your guitar is downtuned, even the standard tuning for a bass has just that much more oomph to it. Plus, I switched from the trumpet to the Baritone horn partway through my life as a musician, and the bass is an excellent way for me to take the role of rhythm instrument and kind of bring it to the forefront. Playing the bass well for me is a blow against every song that ever wrote a two note pattern for the lower octaves that played for fifty measures, then repeated.

However, the traditional role of the bass is to be the bridge between the drums and the guitar. As I've grown as an artist, I've come to realize that sometimes it's necessary to play a two or even one note pattern to hold the beat. However, the one and two note pattern should necessary in the same way that breathing is necessary for a singer, two and four is necessary for a drummer, or that a guitarist has to at least know what I - IV- V means. A good bassist knows his basics, and that means where the root note of whatever someone else is playing on the fretboard is. This means if your guitarist is playing an E5 chord, you better know to play the lowest string open before you start trying to play Higher Ground. Remember, you have to feel the rhythm, then translate it into something the guitarist and Singer can understand, because there are times when you and the drummer are the only people who have any idea what he (the drummer) is playing. This phenomenon is also known as 12/8 time (wink wink.)

So, if it's your job to bridge the drummer and the rest of the band, by any means necessary, then how does one go about that? Well, if we ignore the actual notes your playing, then you simply need to make sure that your rhythm complements and enhances the drummers beat, while simultaneously giving the guitarist something to play with. This is true no matter who wrote the song. If the drummer wrote the beat first, translate it for the guitarist. If the Guitarist wrote the song, figure out what you want to play under it and it will make things easier for the drummer. If the singer wrote the song, complain. Wait, I mean, in this situation I prefer to work with the drummer to figure out what to play, but some of you may want to work with the guitarist, or possibly both. Just make sure you're working both sides of the street no matter what. Stay in the drummers pocket, but remain easily accessible to the guitarist.

Alright, all of that being said, the most important thing a bassist can do is respect his or hers drummer. This lesson took me a long time to learn, but the drummer is the heartbeat of the band, while the bass is the cardiovascular system. He lays down the beat, and you carry it to the body. Even if you hate everyone else in the band (and if so, why are you playing with them?) respect and communicate with your drummer. If he or she is playing a beat you don't like, talk to them! Working with your drummer will let you play cooler rhythms and keep you both happy. And if both of you are happy, there will be more people dancing. Or moshing. That being said, one of the reasons this took me so long to learn is because I spent too much time listening to my guitarists when I was young. Now, don't get me wrong, a good guitarist is an absolute joy to play with. Just the other night a man from the nearby AA meeting borrowed my crappy electric guitar (Epiphone Les Paul Special II) and made me ashamed to own it, since he played it so well. I was happy to just play a walking bass line behind him. However, this guy didn't tell me anything more than what chords he was playing, then he left me to play my own beat (my drummer was packing up, since our show was technically over.) However, the majority of guitarists I have met, no matter their skill level, seem to delight in telling the bassists how to play. If your guitarist is trying to tell you what to play, trust your instincts. No matter how easy he or she thinks the bass is to play, you know your instrument better than they do. Play what feels right to you and the drummer. And to guitarists? There's nothing more annoying than a guitarist who says just play along with me. Guitarists, trust your bassist, bassists, listen to your instincts and your drummer. If they're saying ignore the guitarist, ignore them. You'll be happier, more productive, and probably sound better.

Part Two: Influences

Before we get to actually playing the instrument, I want you to get out a piece of paper (or open up your word processor) and write My Influences at the top of the page. Now, start thinking about bands you like. Is their bassist good? Don't worry about anyone else's pinion here, if you like how they play the bass, then find out who the bands bassist is and write them down on the list. Just because Dee Dee Ramone isn't Geddy Lee, doesn't make him a bad bassist. It's all a matter or preference. Oh, and if anyone in your band sees the list and tries to tell you don't play like that guy or that guys not a good bassist ignore them. It's your list, not theirs. I didn't make a list of my favorite bases when I was first starting, and it took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to play. Instead, I learned a lot of video game themes, the James bond theme, and Korn's Blind as my early tunes. I would not advise this, although my video game medley is a fun party trick (Super Mario World theme, Tetris theme, Star Wold theme, Fisherman's Horizon from Final Fantasy VIII, and the Castlevania theme.) Instead, use your ears and figure out whose music made you want to play the bass. Some of my favorite bassists, in no particular order, are: Steve Harris, Cliff Burton, Geezer Butler, Les Claypool, Jean Baudin, Bootsy Collins, John Entwistle, Lyn-z, Dee Dee Ramone, Geddy Lee, Lemmy Kilmister, Magnus Rosen, and Noel Redding, just to name a few. Remember, this list will never be set in stone, so feel free to change it up as you discover new bassists or grow out of others.

Now that you know who you like, take a look at their equipment. These are the tools that made your favorite bassist who they were, sonically speaking. This does not mean that you have to define yourself in the same way. Even if I could afford a Jean Baudin style 13 string bass, I'm not sure I would want one. After all, everyone has their own preferences, their own likes and dislikes. My amps of choice are Ampeg and Peavey, and my basses of choice are Washburn and Traben. I dislike Fender basses, with the exception of the Jaguar, which makes me an oddity, but so what? Everyone prefers their own types of sound. However, I would never have learned about my strings (DR Black Beauties) if I hadn't found out that Bootsy Collins and Marcus Miller both use DR strings. And Les Claypool, Cliff Burton, Dee Dee Ramone, and Victor Wooten all use Ampeg amps, a brand I had never even looked at before looking around at artist gear.

So know you know who you like and what type of sounds they use. Now look at where they fit into their bands and Why you like them in that context. Not every bassist wants to play the solo from Sinister Minister or the entire song of YYZ, but that doesn't make them a bad bassist. Learn how other bassists play and borrow bits and pieces. If you have a teacher, tell them what you like and ask them if they can help you learn how to play in that style. If you're self taught like me, watch videos and read books and most of all, listen and experiment. Again, sometimes your guitarist won't like these experiments. Find out why, and if it is in any way related to you encroaching on their solos, ignore them, unless the rest of the band agrees it just doesn't work. But more often, the whole band will appreciate you making yourself sound cooler, because if you sound cooler, everyone sounds cooler. Remember, without experimenting, there would be no slap and pop, no fretless, possibly even no slide bass. Who knows, you could be the next Larry Graham.

Finally, look at how they played. Some people like to use picks, some use their fingers, some slap. Me, in my main band I use a pick between the thumb and index finger along with my middle finger for popping and ring finger for when I want to get the finger picking sound. And I use a metal pick mainly, a felt pick often, and a thick plastic pick occasionally, depending on the sound I want. But when I'm playing with the church band, I use straight fingers, since that puts me into the correct place sonically for fitting in with the cello, piano, two acoustic guitars and the drummer. Remember, as the bassist, you have a job to do, and people are counting on you to do it, so be true to how you like to play, but always remain flexible and pay attention, so you can adapt. You have a hard job as a bassist, but if you do it right, people will notice. Everyone loves a great bassist.

Part Three: Time To Play

Alright, by now you're all tired of hearing me talk, so lets get down to playing the instrument. The most important thing to remember about playing, especially if you're learning from tabs, is take it slow. Work your way up to playing like Geddy, Cliff, Les, and Victor, slowly. Play things slowly and speed up gradually. If you rush, you'll get frustrated, and that might lead to giving up. But if you want to play with other people, then you need to learn about music theory.

A good bassist knows his or her theory. Do you know the notes of an A minor chord? Or what A minor is the relative minor of? Or what relative minor means? Well, if you didn't know the answers to any of these questions, this is the section for you.

First off, scales. This article is getting kind of long at this point, so we'll just do the basics right now. The first scale you need to know is the major scale. The major scale is the happy scale, since it tends to make your music sound upbeat and cheerful. The basic major scale is the C Major scale, which is composed of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C again, one octave (its called an octave because it is eight notes above itself) higher. On a guitar, notes in a major scale are always separated by the same amount of frets. So, to play an E major scale, you would start on the lowest string and play 0(E) - 2(F#) - 4(G#) - 5(A) - 7(B) - 9(C) - 11(D#) - 12(E.) Playing these same frets on the A string will result in an A major scale, on the D string, a D major, and on the G string, a G major. If you know your fret board, or are a fast learner, you should be able to figure out how to play a major scale anywhere on the bass guitar fairly quickly with this information, and if you're a cheery, happy, rock and roll bassist, then this will serve you well.

However, I prefer to use the minor scale. This scale sounds dark, or sad, or angry, or tough, depending on the context. The minor scale has the exact same notes as its relative major scale, its all about the order you play them. So, the relative minor of the C major scale is the A minor, which consists of A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and A. So, on the A string, the A minor is played 0(A) - 2(B) - 3(C) - 5(D) - 7(E) - 8(F) - 10(G) - 12(A.) Move the numbers on to any string, and you have the E minor, the D minor and the G minor, respectively. Practice the major and minor scales and you'll be well on your way to becoming a good bassist. After all, everything builds off the basics.

Alright, next stop, how to use scales to play with other people. Remember how I said that a guitarist should at least know I - IV- V? Well, what that refers to is the First (I), Fourth, (IV) and Fifth (V) chords of a scale. Now, a major or minor chord has two constants. The root (which is what bassists are usually asked to play) which is the first note in the chord, and the fifth, which is the note four notes (and seven frets) away from the root. But the middle note in a chord is the important part, the part that makes it major or minor. This note is called a triad, because it's two notes away from the root. In terms of the fretboard, a major triad is four frets away from the root, and the minor triad is three frets away. If you have a guitarist who really knows his chords, you can play any of the notes in these chords at the same time he plays the chords themselves. So, if your guitarist plays an A minor, D minor, E minor chord progression? Then during the A minor you can play A, C, or E. During the D minor you can play D, F, or A, and during the E minor you can play E, G, or B. And in the E major chord progression of E Major, A major, and B major, you can play E, G#, B during E major, A, C#, E during A major, or B, D#, F# during B major.

So, you ask, why is this important if my guitarist only plays power chords? Well, If your guitarist is playing power chords, then you can do one of two things. You can either play the root note repeatedly (which, if you're good enough, can sound amazing. Listen to Steve Harris and his gallops) or you can play the triad, the fifth, the root, or any combination thereof, as long as you know what scale you're in. Now, you can work with your guitarist to put together chord progressions and see what they're doing during their solos. Try and figure out what chord they're actually playing when they're shredding. And if he says something with a seventh or Sus4 in it, remember that he started it with something minor or major, and you always have those notes. You can learn how the other notes work later. If your guitarist doesn't know what he's playing, he just shreds from the heart feel free to sigh and shake your head with disappointment. Then remember that the root note tends to sound good with any note in the scale, and you can always rely on that.

Part Four: Cooling Off

Alright, so we covered the very basics (if people liked that, write comments. I'll do another one about Pentatonic, Melodic and Harmonic Minors, and some weird scales I like to use) So now, lets cool off. If you've been paying attention, then you should have figured out what type of genre you and your band like to play. Now, go and listen to as many other genres as you can. If you like Metal, listen to old country like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. If you like Punk, listen to Chuck Berry and Little Richard. If you like Classic Rock ( a very large genre) listen to classical music (another large genre, and the double bass can make some great sounds.) Remember, even if you don't like the music, listen to the bass. Sometimes they'll do some really cool stuff you can try when playing with your band. Remember, experiment and communicate! Also remember that the bass usually has at least twenty frets. It's alright to play above the twelfth fret as long as you make sure it fits with the song. We make fun of guitarists who shred constantly, whether or not the song needs it, but a bassist who doesn't know when to play low is just as bad. Remember, less is more when it comes to showing off. Alright, I'll cut myself off there, since this is pretty long already. If you liked it, leave comments, if you hated it, leave comments too I guess. I hope this helps some people decide to learn bass, or at least play it better.

91 comments sorted by best / new / date

    But the middle note in a chord is the important part, the part that makes it major or minor. This note is called a triad, because it's two notes away from the root. In terms of the fret board,
    This note is not called the triad, its name is the mediant, a triad is a group of 3 notes.
    I almost crapped my pants when he said he likes TRaben basses. those things kick ass. I have an array limited, and the thing is the best damn bass i've ever had...
    I've been playing guitar for 4 years now and last year I bought a bass to pick up as well but I didnt get into it at all and I'm actually really glad I got a guitar before a bass otherwise I wouldnt have got a guitar and I love them so much more. Oh and, A couple of people have been like, oh yeah you say bass doesnt lead the band, listen to rhcp and stuff like that Sure some bands have a lot of good bass lines that signifcantly add to the song (RHCP is definitley one of them I used to be obsessed with them) but lets face it, the high majority of bass players in bands just seem to play root notes of the guitar parts
    Cobalt Blue
    nice article. I'm mainly a guitarist but I enjoy playing the bass. and i tend to compose a lot of bass lines for my songs. When reading part 3 for the first time i realized when the guitar's playing a power chord i could have the bass play the 3rd's for fill out the sound or even give it a minor tone. thanks!
    i play bass in a band the whole bit about working with the drummer is exactly what me and my drummer do nice article
    Dutch Kike
    awesome article, im a guitarist but i kinda know the basss basics, id like a base but cant afford it at the moent (just got my Ibanez RGT, with extended Floyd Rose trembolo bar, that was like 900USD. seriously, i dont know what id do without a bass in a sond; i totally relly on it for the tempo, i cant play without a bass. its a shame Cliff Burton died, he really was a magnifiscent bass virtuoso who but the instrument back 2 scene. i like steve harris and geezer butler too, as well as Duff Rose and Billy Sheehan(he relly takes it seriously). bass is a synonim of power in my opinion. and for those who say bass is for people who cant play a 6 stringed instrument, well guess what there are 6, 7, 9, and even 13 stringed basses (not even mentioning double-deckers) and lots of people play on those, so dont go out and challenge the mighty intrument. Great article!!
    Great article, i really enjoyed reading it. I try to learn playing bass by myself for half a year now, and now i know why i should start to learn notes and know which note i am playing, not just playing some numbers. I play bass in my school-band and our guitarist is really bad, so i often have to bring some dynamic into the songs we play and my bass is often louder than the guitar, but nobody is complaining about that cause the bass works as a "leading" instrument and the guitar is just in the background. Anyway, keep writing such good articles, i wouldnt complain if they even get longer
    Another guitarist here who agrees that bassist deserve a lot of respect!
    very nice article but i found it slightly difficult to digest the whole theory/scales part.
    Every band needs at least 4 main ingredients. Vocals,Guitar,Bass,and Drums. You can always add a bit more to it like an extra guitar for a lead and rhythm, or a keyboard for that power ballad. But if you leave one out, it wouldn't be a strong solid foundation for which to build your musical works.
    has anyone actually mentioned how nice of a dude nebblacktip comes across as over the net.
    k00kie M0nster wrote: It was ok. You stalled for a long time and didnt really get to the point. It didnt point out anything important, all it says is that bass is underrated. I do agree it should get more credit, but what you dont understand is that the bass does not lead the band (atleast as much as the guitar.) The bass just ads a little richness to the sound in a band. 5/10
    you're stupid, bass and drums are the cake, guitar and vocals are the frosting. you can have one without the other, but never ever ever be so stupid as to say, we bass players just ad a >little< richness.
    ooder the cow
    wow, the section on the the theory was really well put and understandable. Very Good article
    Good bassists are so hard to find though. It's so much easier to get to a "standard" level of skill on a bass as opposed to guitar. What I mean by that is, you don't have to have much technical skill to play the majority of songs out there on bass. You usually have to have a bit more skill to play most songs on guitar. However, those rare bassists who do exceed that standard can be as or more skillful than any shredding guitar player.
    Amazing article. I am linking it to my bassist. EXCUSE ME, I am my bassist's guitarist, I will link it to him. lol it's a great article, if you actually read the entire thing it is amazing.
    I tell you what... my guitar teacher mainly plays bass and can play better on it than almost any guitarist ive known or seen...
    Cool, I'll show this to my brother, he got his first bass guitar today.
    Das_Skittles wrote: good article. One other correction: Jean Baudin uses a 9 string bass, not 13.
    nope, he's got a 13 string in the works. but good article!
    great article, i've been playing for about a year now and agree totally about listening to and also playing other music. It help you improve your technique.
    decayingdave wrote: You've got a very good argument on behalf of the bass, it is a shame that most people don't have the intelligence to appreciate the bass's place in a band. But, you did over-elaborate on all the scales and such. As far as I'm concerned, there's no point in people learning them unless they want to do music exams or write music that sounds exactly like everything else - Though you base everything on them, it's not important to know them off by heart. If you'd have left out all the technical jargon junk, I'd have nothing to complain about.
    Wow. that was incredibly ignorant. A bass player who doesnt know theory will stuggle for no reason.
    Im a hybrid player (bass/guitar/vocals) and I was a bass player originally. Much respect to the thump men. Playing bass is like playing tetris: easy to learn, hard to master.
    You've got a very good argument on behalf of the bass, it is a shame that most people don't have the intelligence to appreciate the bass's place in a band. But, you did over-elaborate on all the scales and such. As far as I'm concerned, there's no point in people learning them unless they want to do music exams or write music that sounds exactly like everything else - Though you base everything on them, it's not important to know them off by heart. If you'd have left out all the technical jargon junk, I'd have nothing to complain about.
    good article but its kinda confusing in the scaling part,well im not a beginer in playing bass,but for those who begin in like "2 minutes ago"its kinda confusing in those scalings try to elaborate more in the scaling part.other than,its good.
    Liquid Reality
    Hey, I Play bass for 4 years now, and man... Bass is just the 'key' of a band. It makes a band come alive! Great!
    ya u rock my teacher taut me this rely ez way 2 play major scales but u kant do i t with the 1st fret or open string
    wow, thanks so much. i already play bass [just starting to learn] and all those paragraphs about the scales helped me almost more than what my teacher taught me about it. thanks.
    Nice article, respect. I'm a guitarist who from time to time searches for a (decent) way around on BG
    Awsome article, im so sick of my friends who play guitar always sayin "just play along with me". Or sayin thet bass is just a way to keep ur talentless friend in the band.
    Im a self-educated bass player, and it is nice to know someone is telling me i have been doing the right things
    brewstercraven wrote: i can write a better one. "So You Want To Play Bass? buy one" its that easy
    Great only criticism is you did indeed crap on unnecessarily.
    The first scale you need to know is the major scale. The major scale is the happy scale, since it tends to make your music sound upbeat and cheerful. The basic major scale is the C Major scale...
    I understand you did elaborate beyond this, but was anyone else here confused at first by the "the so-and-so scale is the so-and-so scale" description??
    i know what ur talking about most bands just write of a bassist and just use a couple of driving guitars and the bass plays no part
    do another about theory, i try learning it by myself, but it has been hard for me and reading what you wrote made me understand it easier.
    dude basses r awesome....ive wanted to play one but i dont hav enough money and i jus got a electric i am gunna learn that instead until i get good than i might think about bass...
    Nice article...i finally get chord constructs (my teacher will be so happy) I started on bass back in the day and slowly migrated to guitar, but i still maintain a huge level of respect for the bassists out there be it the excentric Flea, the nonchallont(sp?) John Entswhistle, or just a kid in their band...its a very cool instrument that makes me want to make music more... also for some reason I find it easier to write songs on a bass then transfer them to guitar (acoustic, that is, for busking and the like) lets you get a beat down first when your left foot is your drummer...
    Nice article. I hate when guitar players list "bass" under instruments that they can play. Just cause you know where the notes are doesn't mean you know how the instrument works.
    Loved the article, and when people do say things like "the bass is unimportant", or "it takes no skill", I instantly show em up with some insane bass solo that can't be done or doesn't sound right on a guitar. Or show people my band's recordings and take out the bass and let them see for themselves how much I affect the band's sound. Also I hate playing exactly as the guitarists, I try to play a rhythmic or harmonic line to it.
    ^ I forgot to mention that i'm actually a guitarist, but i actually enjoy playing bass a lot more for some reason.
    Mr.Tea wrote: i'm a guitarist but i definitly agree bassists should get more respect
    +1, and im a guitarist also.
    k00kie M0nster
    It was ok. You stalled for a long time and didnt really get to the point. It didnt point out anything important, all it says is that bass is underrated. I do agree it should get more credit, but what you dont understand is that the bass does not lead the band (atleast as much as the guitar.) The bass just ads a little richness to the sound in a band. 5/10