Beginner Bass Concepts: Roots and Fifths for Building Basslines

When first learning how to play the bass, it can be hard coming up with bass lines to go along with your band's songs. Learning about the commonly used "roots and fifths" pattern just might be the thing to unlock your creativity.

Ultimate Guitar
The bass guitar is one of the most commonly misunderstood instruments in modern music today. So many people think that it's just a "low end guitar," but it is so much more than that.

And while bass is easier to begin learning to play than a regular guitar, it's not a simple instrument. Yeah, getting a nice low end rumble in a song is great, but that is far from the only contribution a bassist makes to the band as a whole. The role of a bassist breaks down easily into two broad categories: establishing the rhythmic foundation, and providing the harmonic foundation.

Establishing the Rhythmic Foundation

This is the pulse of the music, helping the drummer to flavor the beat and keep everyone's feet tapping along. Though it's easy for us to expect this from the drummer, a good bassist ensures that the rest of the band is playing at a consistent tempo throughout each song.

Providing the Harmonic Foundation

Of course other instruments, such as pianos and guitars, often play chords made up of multiple notes in harmony with one another. When we hear several notes being played at the same time, we hear them relative to the lowest note. This means that whatever the bass guitar is playing in conjunction with these other instruments will help define the overall mood the song or section is trying to convey to the listener.

When constructing bass lines, one of the most commonly used patterns is "roots and fifths." The combination of root notes and fifth notes is often pleasant to the ear and can work for nearly every application. Even though it's a very simple concept, when used effectively it can keep the rhythm moving steadily and reinforce the core of the song's chord progression.

Root Notes

A root note is the foundation of a chord, the note on which the chord is built. Most of the time it is the note for which the chord is named, so when you hear someone shout out the chord progression, you can use that as you root map. As we already covered, the role of the bassist is to define the chord with a steady rhythm. Playing the root note is a simple way to ground the foundation of the chord.

When playing root notes, you don't have to restrain yourself to just the 4th string. You can play an octave of the root note (or any note) easily by moving 2 strings over and 2 frets up. For example, the G note can be found on the 3rd fret of the E string, and also on the 5th fret of the D string. Likewise, you can play the E note as an open note on the E string, or on the 2nd fret of the D string.

Root notes get a lot of hate sometimes, because when used exclusively the bass line can get pretty boring. But it really just depends on what the song calls for. They are a great practice tool when jamming with friends to help you get to know your fret board.


Two of the notes which form a chord are the root note and the fifth note. The bass can play these notes to extenuate the chord. I won't go into all the details, but it is called a fifth note because it is the 5th note in the scale from which it comes. (You can find plenty of lessons on understanding scales that will help you more than a quick explanation in this lesson. Those of you who have played power chords on a guitar know this concept very well, even if you don't realize it.

The fifth note above the root is always on the next highest string, and two frets up. The fifth above the root note 2 on the A string (the note B) is 4 on the D string (the note F#). The fifth below any note is just an octave of the fifth above, and can be found on the next lower string and on the same fret. So the fifth below fret 2 on the A string is fret 2 on the E string.

You can see the root and fifth pattern being used in lots of songs. Here are some examples:

The well known bass riff in "Billy Jean" by Michael Jackson
and the introduction to "My Girl" by the Temptations
I hope that this lesson was helpful to you as a bassist, and that you will be able to use these concepts when crafting your own bass lines.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    So few comments... Yet so many uneducated shit bassists. Great article!!!
    You explained fifth notes perfectly! I've always wondered what they were, and I've always used them when I write parts without knowing why they sounded good. I just never put 2 & 2 together though, ahaha.
    That's exactly what I've noticed with a lot of players, and that was my situation as well. We know what sounds good but don't know why! I'm glad this gave you a better understanding of your bass playing.
    Nice and easy lesson for beginner bass players. Understandable even without a few sound clips to back up the words.
    It started out good, if simplistic, but then failed down the home stretch. The "fail" was that you gave no good instruction on HOW to use the root and fifth in combination to create a good bass line. In lieu of giving ANY general rules / guidance on this issue, you post a mere two "examples." Big fail because your first example does not just use the root and 5th, it uses four different notes. How does that teach a noob how to use root & fifth to create a good bass line? It doesn't. So you are left with just one "root fifth" example that is supposed to -- by itself -- teach some one how/when to use a root-fifth bass line combo? Pretty weak. Seriously, you spent so much space explaining what the hell the root 5th combo was, did you just run out of energy at the end or what?
    Creativity isn't something that can be taught. If you can explain what fifth's are, then a kid will figure out that he should start using them, rather than walking on the root the whole time. I wish they would do a lesson for third as well. Anymore, I don't even read bass tabs, and I just look at the chords for a song if I can and I'll "write" my own bass lines for the song using the chords as guidance.