Learning to Play Bass

Taking you through some of the skills you will learn and hear as a beginner bass player.

Ultimate Guitar
One of the easier string instruments to start learning is the electric bass guitar. Start playing with other musicians in short time. This aims to explain what bass players do on the instrument.

The bass guitar is tuned the same as the lowest four strings on a guitar. We play mostly single notes at a time. The bass parts are called a bass line.

In lessons these are the types of lines you will learn to play bass. You hear them in several different styles of music.

Root Note Lines

The root note is the note the chord is named after. Chords like G major and G minor have the same root note. A bass player strikes the G note regardless of it being major or minor. The note the chord is based off in both instances is a G. The bass player playing root note bass lines would ONLY hit the note labeled in the chord title.

This type of bass line is commonly heard in AC/DC songs or '80s based hard rock.

Root – Octave Lines

This will have you playing the same note name but different pitch. For example playing a G note and then playing the next highest G note. This kind of bass line was commonly played in the disco era of the 1970s.

Disco era classics like "Born to Be Alive" by Patrick Hernandez uses this style of bass playing.

Root – Fifth Lines

This adds the option of another note. The fifth refers to adding the 5th note of the major or minor scale after the root note. It just so happens that the 5th note of major and minor scales are identical.

G Major – G A B C D E F# G
G minor – G A Bb C D Eb F G

In both scales the root note is G and the 5th note is D. This bass line is therefore quite simple to apply. You can confidently play this over major and minor chords.

This sound is commonly heard in classic country and western songs. Listen to Johnny Cash. You will hear this bass line used throughout.

Root – Fifth – Octave Lines

This adds a note that is the next highest root note. It gives us a variation with a high and low pitch of the same note. Playing a root-fifth-octave in G major or minor would have you playing the notes GD then the next highest G.

An example of a song that uses this type of bass line is "Hotel California" by the Eagles.

Passing Notes

We now will be adding notes from the scale to move between one chord to another. The notes we add come the scale the song is written in. A song that is written in G major can use all the notes mentioned earlier as appropriate passing notes. We most commonly chose the neighboring notes in the scale and play them on the last beat of the bar. This creates tension that is resolved by landing on the root note of the next chord. It is played late in the bar to avoid creating an emphasis on the passing note.

This type of playing is heard in the Supremes song "Baby Love."

Walking Bass – Play Bass

To create further melody in your bass lines we include more notes from the scale. It is now we need to be aware of what type of chord we are creating a bass line for. We concentrate on using the notes that are within the chord being played at the time as well as passing notes from the scale. Players can be very creative when playing walking bass.

This type of bass lines are prominently heard in blues and jazz. Listen to this Van Morrison song "Moondance" to gain an understanding of the sound of a walking bass line.

About the Author:
Rhys Lett runs a music school in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. We have more of these practical insights to music available to you on my website blog. We would be happy to help you further.

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Having played bass for almost 8 years and being almost entirely self-taught, an article like this would have been great for me as a beginner so I actually knew what I was doing rather than just being 'hurr durr what's a fret?'
    Also if you're not playing in a punk band RHYTHM and GROOVE is of great importance. The article is fine for beginners though.
    Nice read. It shows the readers that even though bass players never play a chord in the way that guitarists do, the musical theory of harmony is often more important to them than it is to us.
    Rhys Lett ESSM
    thanks for the positive comments, these are the exact things I was expressing to new bass players or someone interested in starting to learn the instrument.
    Bass chords CAN be sick. And knowing the chord shapes helps to play arpeggios. That being said, I am not qualified to give advice on playing bass! I suck!
    I'm a former drummer who has just switched to bass (being 67 will do that to ya - lol) and I have been looking for a "primer" just like this one for a very long time! I have bought others, but they either assume you know more than you already do, or they confuse you with their "prowess" (on the vids) to the point where you wonder why you were born. Rhys --- THIS is what I have been needing for five years, THANK YOU!
    alinagomes1 · Jan 10, 2016 03:42 AM
    polucio · Jan 10, 2016 06:10 AM