Bass Lesson. Part 1 - Preliminaries

This is the first in a series of lessons whose focus is on constructing bass lines. The main series of lessons presumes a small but nonzero amount of musical knowledge on the part of the listener; mostly some things about notes and time. It also presumes you know how to read TAB. This pre-lesson is designed to teach that knowledge to anyone who doesn't already have it.

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Ultimate Guitar
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This is the first in a series of lessons whose focus is on constructing bass lines. The main series of lessons presumes a small but nonzero amount of musical knowledge on the part of the listener; mostly some things about notes and time. It also presumes you know how to read TAB. This pre-lesson is designed to teach that knowledge to anyone who doesn't already have it. If you know how to find a C# on your bass, know what a quarter note rest is, and can read TAB, then you can skip the rest of this and move on to Lesson 1. If not, or if the review will do you good, then read on! A piece of music is composed of a series of notes. These notes are organized into sets of 12 notes called octaves, and each of these 12 notes has a name. If you sit down at a piano, you'll see that it has 88 keys, 52 white and 36 black, and that each of these keys produces a different note. The white keys all have one-letter names; the first one on the left (lowest note) is called A, the next one up is B, and so on. The seventh white key is called G, and the next white key, the eighth, is also called A; it begins the second octave. The ninth white key is B, the tenth C, and so on, until the 52nd and last white note, which is a C. The black keys are named by their relation to the nearest two white keys, so each one has two names. First, they may be called "sharp", with the name of the white key below them: eg, the lowest black key is called A sharp, as it's immediately above A. There is no black key immediately above B; the second black note is C#, and so on up the keyboard. Second, black keys may also be called "flat", with the name of the white key above them: thus, the lowest black note can also be thought of as B flat, since it's immediately below the B. Similarly, the black key between D and E can be called either D sharp or E flat. For now, you can treat the two names as interchangable. An octave runs from A to G#, 12 notes (7 white keys and 5 black keys) and then the names repeat for the next octave. Actually, the starting point doesn't matter: any 12 notes in a row (which will always contain 7 white keys and 5 black keys) are called an octave. The strings of a bass are tuned to produce the 4 notes E, A, D, and G (from thickest string to thinnest). Thus, if you play an E on the piano, and the open E string on your bass, you'll get the same note (if you choose the right octave on the piano, that is). Moving up one fret on the string produces the next highest note. That is, the open A string produces an A note (hence the name). Fingered at the first fret, it produces an A sharp, or B flat. Second fret produces a B. Third fret produces C (since there is no black key above B), fourth fret C sharp, and fifth fret produces D, the same note as the open D-string. And so on up the fingerboard. With this knowledge, you should be able to find two or three versions of each note on your bass. For example, you can get an F at the 1st fret of the E string, at the 3rd fret of the D string, at the 8th fret of the A string, and at the 10th fret of the G string. (The 3rd-D note and the 8th-A note are in the same octave: the 1st-E note is one octave below and the 10th-G note is one octave above. ) Make sure you can find any given note somewhere on your bass without too much effort, and that you know the names of the notes produced by playing a given string at a given fret, at least up to the 12th fret. The next thing to mention is the way songs are arranged in time. Songs are divided into measures: a common song length is about 100 measures. Each measure is a certain number of beats long: in almost all modern music there are four beats to each measure, although other length measures are also used. Each note in the song has a given duration, and a note that lasts for four beats is called a whole note. A note that lasts for two beats is called a half note, and two half notes are the same length as one whole note. Similarly, there are quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. (In England these notes have different names. I'll be sticking to American usage throughout this lesson series). Each quarter note receives one beat, and the quarter note is the basic building block of time and of rhythm. Eight eighth notes make up a four-beat measure, as you can see, as do four quarter notes and 16 sixteenth notes. Measures can contain notes of different lengths, so that a quarter note, a half note, and two eighth notes also make up one measure. Other time durations can be written by "dotting" a note: in standard notation, one literally writes a dot next to the note. Dotting a note makes it last half again as long as it normally would. Thus, a quarter note lasts as long as two 8th notes: a dotted quarter note is 50% longer, so it lasts as long as three eighth notes. Thus, two quarter notes have the same length as a dotted quarter note and an eighth note. Similarly, a dotted half note lasts for the same amount of time as three quarter notes: a dotted half note and a quarter note together make up one measure. The last thing to know is that rests, or times when the bass is not playing, are named the same way: thus, a whole rest means that the bass does not play for one measure. A quarter rest means that the bass does not play for one beat, and there are eighth rests and dotted half rests and so on. One last note: in some jazz and classical music, a note other than the quarter note is given the one-beat length. Since almost all music is written with the quarter note getting one beat, I've assumed it is so throughout the lesson series. However, if you get into more difficult music, you may run into music where the half-note or the eighth-note is one "beat" long. My advice is not to worry about this until it comes up. The last thing you need to know is how to read TAB. Bass tabulature, or TAB for short, is a simple method for writing bass music. There are several different versions of tabulature, but the following features are common to almost all of them. Bass tab is written on four-line staves. In text interfaces these are usually written using dashed characters. Each space corresponds to one string on the bass: the lowest space corresponds to the E string, the next lowest to the A string, the next to the D string, and the highest to the G string. A number on a given space represents a note played at the given fret on the corresponding string; thus, to indicate playing a G at the third fret on the E string, one would write:
G------------------------------------
D------------------------------------
A------------------------------------
E----3-------------------------------
Notes are played from the left of the staff to the right; thus, an ascending G major scale might be written:
G------------------------------------
D-------------------2--4--5----------
A----------2--3--5-------------------
E----3--5----------------------------
Or, using open strings, it might be written like this:
G-------------------------0----------
D----------------0--2--4-------------
A-------0--2--3----------------------
E----3-------------------------------
Chords can be written by writing two numbers in the same vertical bar. Thus one might write a simple A major chord as:
G-----9------------------------------
D-----11-----------------------------
A-----0------------------------------
E------------------------------------
which means to play an open note on the A string, to play a C# at the 11th fret on the D string, and an E at the 9th fret on the G string. Various fingering techniques can be noted in TAB as well. This is done by writing a single character after the note being fingered. The most common of these are:
h - hammer-on from previous note
p - pull off from previous note
\ - slide up to note
b - bend note
S - slap the note with the right-hand thumb (left hand if left-handed)
P - pop the note with the right hand (ditto)
t - tap the note with the right hand (ditto)
H - harmonic
Thus a funky bass line might be written like this:
G---------5P-7h-5p-------------------
D------------------------3b----------
A---0S\5-----------3S-5S----5S-5H----
E------------------------------------
A muted note (one that is not fingered cleanly and makes a percussive sound rather than a clear tone) is written by placing an x on a line instead of a number:
G------------5--7--------------------
D------------------------------------
A---5--x--x--------5--x--5-----------
E------------------------------------
Similarly, a rest is indicated by writing an r on a line (any line will do):
G------------5--7--------------------
D------------------------------------
A---5--r--r--------5--r--5-----------
E------------------------------------
When it is not obvious which left-hand (right-hand to lefties) finger should be used to to fret a particular note, this may be indicated by writing a number under the note, with
1=index finger,
2=middle finger,
3=ring finger,
4=pinkie finger,
and rarely, 5-thumb:

G---------5--7--5--------------------
D------------------------------------
A---0--5-----------------------------
E------------------------------------     
1  1     3
It is becoming popular to indicate time in TAB by writing over each note a letter indicating the time value of the note: s=sixteenth note, e=eighth note, q=quarter note, h=half note, w=whole note. It is possible to add dots to this system as is done with normal notes. In addition, vertical bars are usually used to indicate measure breaks. TAB noted this way might look like this:
    w   q  s  s  e  q  h   q. e  e  e  s  s  e   h
G-----|----5--7--5-------|-------------5--7--7-|----
D-----|------------------|-3--3--5--7----------|----
A---0-|-5-----------8--5-|---------------------|-5--
E-----|------------------|---------------------|----

114 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Sprinter
    Very well presented. Beginners out there, take the time to read this over again until you understand it. Take it slow. It's all in here. Yes, you can simply read the tab and play a song. But if you UNDERSTAND how the fretboard (neck of bass) comprises the notes, you'll go SO much further in your playing. When you're jamming with a group you don't know (the most enjoyable part of playing) the lead will say something like, "Just play a basic four count in C sharp." If you don't know where that scale is on the fretboard, you'll be out of luck. What the instructor is trying to show you here are the building blocks of bass music. NOTE: If there is a forum moderator out there, it would do those who really want to learn bass well to delete all the worthless posts.
    alienfreak
    also it depends on whether ure playing a jazz scale or a classical scale or some weird demented 'i think i can play ascale but ill just do a few notes and see how it works out' scale!!! and also: music is meant to be enjoyed people! chill out and quit picking over each others mistakes! this is ADVICE time, not:'who can prove themselves to be the best at picking @ facts' time! chill, and enjoy ure playing "feel it dude" xxx
    MetalMessiah
    The Truth is fellows the word Octave is derived from the Greek root word Octo meaning eight as in Octopus(eight tentacles) or Octagon(geometric shape having eight sides) thus Octave(eight notes). Cheers
    Chunkysoup85
    This lesson would be better if it actually existed. My idea of a lesson is not two advertisements.
    pacmandemon
    Im Gonna Kill This Guy if I get this Wrong for Tomorrow. I Was Trying my Hardest to Find Tabs to Chords Converter. So I Though F' it. I'll try this. & I Found Basics. If ANYONE knows Tell me NOW! E-Mail me init
    lineman62
    To all u idiots that think this is a bad lesson: Without this basic knowledge of music, all you are making is noise. If u ever wanna be a good bass player you gotta learn this stuff. tabs can only get you so far. I play the french horn and trombone so i already know most of this, but it would be really helpful for beginers.
    Hezro77
    I think this helped alot.I personally liked how it was so wordy (if that is infact a word).Its like that so u don't have to ask him or her all kinds of dumb questions.I mean its not like they are sitting right beside u actually showing u how to play.Anyway,Great lesson dude,keep it up!
    LinkinPark90
    Great lesson! I've been playing tabs for a long time and it's never made sense...now all the strings actually make sense to me...I'm still a bit confused on how the whole measure thing works out, but I'll get it with time I suppose.
    melissamaya
    yeah yeah whatever. bong og kau met eshan ah emin. enshe amamta yun aamerikano. taeyun emin.
    lordgamblor
    G--12-9----10-9-----|---- - D-----12-----12-10-11-12| -9---1 0-9----- A-----|---12---- 12-10---- E-----|-----etc.
    lordgamblor
    G--12-9----10-9-----|---- - D-----12-----12-10-11-12| -9---1 0-9----- A-----|---12---- 12-10---- E-----|-----etc. to improve your dexterity, just play this using the one finger per fret rule, each time just go down one string and then when you have gotten to the E-string, start again but this time time one fret down, and do this until you get to the start of the fret board. and after you have gotten used to this excersise, repeat but speed up the further you go on, and in no time all your fingers will have great dexterity. N.B. It is very important that you use the one finger per fret rule, that includes the pinky, NO CHEATING!! N.B.B When speaking of up and down, im speaking of tones, not of physical space, when i say go down down the fretboard, thats the same as going further away from the body.
    mescal
    Great lesson although being bad at English i quiet understood everything very explicit indeed, well done. Does someone has some exercise for increasing dex, i have no control of my pinkie =) Thank you
    stfu hommie
    if people are too incompotent to know what those words mean or are just too damn lazy to look them up so their just confused the whole time thats their problem. I found it helpful. Thanks for posting.
    kiwiblues4
    I thought it was pretty but me being a beginner wanted to get into the good stuff..keep up the good work....kiwiland NZ.
    br4vw
    very good lesson - the theory was a bit to take in but well written - cheers.
    GrayFoxz
    neat i didnt noe the p or h or anything else till i read thru this...tho it had a lot of dignified words which wasnt really nessary, it helped me nevertheless
    BaSsCkiTyKaT
    I actually learned something here...i just started bass like 2 weeks ago and this all makes sense...
    Efx_Bassist
    Very good, I don't see how you couldn't understand it, unless of course your an illterate troll. A good refresher from middle school
    LowEndFreQ
    Hey Guys, thanks for your help! keep up the good work its much appreciated! remember you cant please every one
    xboofoox
    .....well that was confusing...but i guess i need to learn it anyways. damnit!!!
    bassistdude789
    This was pretty helpful. It doesn't help with TABs, but if you have actual sheet music, then, yeah, it's great. I'm looking to get sheet music and learn more that way. I think I'd be able to remember and play better that way. Thanks 9/10*
    Lusephir
    I'm reading all of this stuff again for the second time trying to find a way to help a 12 year old learn bass, great lesson now how do I explain to a kid who hates reading
    DarkWitch22
    Ok coming from a music background with my family as well as doing vocals, im getting ready to pick up a bass and learn. This lesson explains the basics in a way i completely understand. Having done choir for so many years, an octave is 8 nothing more or less. Iappreciate this guy taking the time to post this up. It helps alot
    flamen
    I really appreciate the ability of synthesizing in one page all thst is nedded to become an accomplished bass player. It will only be a matter of deepening these basics, but there won't be much to add that isn't reported here.I like this kind of teaching.
    kinglordjoker
    well im a beginner with bass so i could use alittle bit of help at some point if some of you wouldnt mind friending me so if i have any questions..... thank you
    Timorio
    The lesson is fine, specifically the parts that are bass-centric, tabs, etc, though I don't think illustrating half-steps and whole-steps using the white and black keys of the piano makes much sense in a bass lesson. Just some feedback for the author. But overall, good lesson. Also people: The interval between two adjacent frets is one HALF-STEP. Two half-steps make one WHOLE-STEP. An OCTAVE is comprised of 12 HALF-STEPS. So there are 12 distinct NOTES in one OCTAVE. (13 if you count the repeated not one octave up.) The MAJOR SCALE that most of us know how to sing (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do) is an eight-note sub-set of these twelve notes with intervals WHOLE WHOLE HALF WHOLE WHOLE WHOLE HALF. You can try this on your bass. Start on any lower fret on any string. Play the first note you chose, the start going up the fret board using the intervals of the major scale. For the whole-step intervals skip one fret. For the half-step intervals go to the next (adjacent) fret. If you play the sequence above (WWHWWWH) you will hear the sound of the major scale and the note you end on will be one octave above the note you started on. In the early days of western music (hundreds of years ago), music was constructed of just different parts of the major scale which has 8 notes (7 not including the repeated not an octave up.) Thus the term octave. Ex C Major Scale: C D E F G A B C, or G Major Scale: G A B C D E F# G. There is more to the story, but that's a good start. So an octave = twelve half-steps = 12 distinct notes (13 counting the repeated note an octave up) and also fits 1 major scale which uses 8 of these 13 notes. But rather than counting notes, what's more important is to know what an octave SOUNDS like. Pick a note on the bass, go up twelve frets to find the same note an octave up. Then try to find this same note, perhaps in a different octave, in other places on the fret board. These notes will all have the same letter name. Just different octaves. Exercise: Find all the E's on the fret board. Good Luck!
    PilsburyDohBoi
    I just want you to know I went through the hassle of creating an account just so I could give this a good rating. I've had a bass for about 2 years now, but I've only really been playing for the last few months =p. Anyway, I have been good with distinguishing notes on the fretboard, and I am very good with timing and signatures since I was in concert band during most of the time I was in school, and I have to say this is a very nice lesson. All of these people giving bad comments are just impatient and think that looking at other tabs for songs they didn't write is all it will take to master their instrument... The tools to start understanding how playing really works are here, and I look forward to looking at your other lessons.
    DrakeTheOne
    Bilzzard_of_Ozz wrote: an octave is 8 notes. not 12... An Octave is 12 frets=8 notes.
    THANK YOU. ON A GUITAR (Bass, or whatever) THERE ARE TWELVE FRETS TO AN OCTAVE, BUT ONLY 8 NOTES.
    niceNslow
    thank you, though i still cannot comprehend this because i am just a newbie, this will help me a lot. and LADIES! stop complaining.
    zett17
    Helpful lesson.Thanks for clarifies my mind about thr TAB.Much appreciated!
    moimoi
    im pretty new to music so im gonna try this stuff and see how i work out..... thamx
    JSNFRMN182
    so is that where Mark Hoppus has got a fascination with Octopus' and got the name Marktopus from. He plays bass...octaves...octopus. Thanks to the person who posted this lesson up. I've had my bass nearly a year and have learned jack about it. Gonna have to go over this Octaves business a few more times though, quite complicated...for me.
    Caltelt
    OK lesson, but i think he went on a little too much with the piano deal.