Bass guitar is probably the most misunderstood instrument, as there are many prejudices about it. For example, “Bass is an easy instrument to play” or “Bass players are just unsuccessful guitar players”; of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It should be mentioned that there are bass players who learn a few notes and then just play them over and over again. It’s not easy to learn how to play bass guitar, but it’s worthwhile.
However, although there are such bassists in a band, they don’t actually play the bass. A lot of people say that there is a big difference between bass players and musicians who play the bass, and this does make sense.
Bass is a very complex and interesting instrument to play, as it offers many playing options. Just listen to Royal Blood, Morphine, or Primus, and you will understand what I’m saying. These people have used potentials of this instrument and created some of the most unique sounds. Of course, you shouldn’t expect to become virtuoso just after a few lessons; these people have spent years and years practicing bass playing (as we all know, effort and dedication always pays off).
When it comes to playing an instrument, the most important thing is to enjoy while doing it. Why is this so? If you enjoy playing the bass, you will practice every day, sometimes for hours, just because you feel great. On the other hand, if you feel bored very soon after you start playing and can’t wait until the practice time is over, you should probably consider some other instrument, as this way you won’t get very far.
In the text that follows, we will see some of the most important bass components and the proper ways to play the bass. Besides this, we will mention a little theory and get familiar with the most common bass playing techniques.
Parts of the bass
Parts of the bass guitar are basically the same as the parts of an electric guitar, with a few small differences.
Headstock – It’s the top of the bass neck, where tuning keys are located.
Tuning keys – These are also known as tuning machines or tuners. Their function is to tighten and loosen the string in order to set a specific note. By tightening the string, its tension is increased and thus the higher tone is produced (and vice versa)
Machine heads – It’s the part of tuning keys, on which the strings are wrapped.
Neck – This is a thin and elongated part on which the frets are located. It connects the headstock with the bass body.
Fretboard – The surface of the neck is called fretboard; this is where you press the strings in order to produce a particular note.
Frets – These are little spaces between two metal bars. Make sure that you press the fret just between two metal bars; this way you will gain clear tone and also keep your bars from damage.
Dots position inlays – Dots are used in order to facilitate player’s orientation. Dots are located on 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th…
Pickups – These are magnets that basically pick up the string vibration and transform it into the signal that goes through your amplifier.
Volume/Tone control – These are potentiometers that are used in order to increase or decrease your volume or to modify your tone.
Input jack – This is a place where you input you cabal.
Bridge – All of the strings go through the bridge; it’s a metal part at the bottom of the bass body.
Strap buttons – There are two of these buttons, and they are located on different sides of the bass. You can attach your strap to them; that will allow you to stand while you play.
There are two types of bass guitars: electric and acoustic. The acoustic bass is rarer than electric (and more expensive), and it can be played without an amplifier, as it is loud enough, just like an acoustic guitar. However, if you play electric bass, then you need to connect it to an amplifier in order to play it properly. There are many different kinds of amplifiers, from cheap ones to very expensive, so you can find the one that works for you.
There is also an acoustic-electric bass; it is basically acoustic bass that you can connect to an amplifier so that you can make it louder (for example, if you play with a band).
Tune your bass
You can’t start playing unless you are in tune. The easiest way to tune your bass is to get a tuner; it’s advice that will show you what note your string is producing. The standard tuning for the four-string bass is (from the thickest to the thinnest wire) E, A, D, G. If you have five or even six-string bass, the other two notes are B and E. Don’t worry if you are not familiar with notes, we will talk about it in a minute.
Using tuner is very easy; you just connect it with the bass with a cable or attach it to your headstock (there are different kinds of tuners) and when you hit the string it will show you what note is produced. In order to tune the string, you should tighten and loosen it with tuning machines.
If you are right-handed, you should use your left hand to press the strings on the neck and your right hand to pick the strings, and vice versa.
The important thing is to learn the proper way to hold the neck from the very beginning; if you learn the wrong way, it will be very difficult to modify it. Your thumb should be somewhere in the middle of the neck. One of the most common mistakes that players make is gripping the neck and putting the thumb over the neck. The right and wrong ways are represented in the picture bellow.
There are two different ways to hit the strings: with a pick and with fingers. Both of these methods have advantages and disadvantages. Playing with a pick will produce a more sharp tone, and will allow you to keep the volume of your notes more constant. On the other hand, playing with fingers gives you more opportunities (for example “slap” playing). The best advice is to learn both of these techniques, as they can be applied in different situations.
Playing with fingers
When you are using this technique, you should place your right hand above the strings. You can also rest your hand on the bass body, or you can put the tip of your thumb on the magnet. You should pick the strings with the tip of our fingers, just above the magnets.
Playing with a pick
A pick should be located between your thumb and index finger, like it’s represented in the picture on the right. Hit the strings with the tip of your pick by moving your hand up and down.
Now that you know how to hold the bass and how to pick the strings, it’s time for a little theory. As we have mentioned, the standard bass tuning is E, A, D, G, B, E. These are the notes for all of the six strings, although the most bass guitars have only six. If you have only 4 strings, you should just pay attention to first four notes.
These are the notes that a string produces when you play it “open”; this means that you pick the string without pressing it on any fret. It is also called an “empty string”.
You change the notes of the string by pressing it on different frets. However, although there are many frets, there are just 12 notes: E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#. Every fret has its note; on the picture below, you can see the notes of every fret;
These are the notes for all of the six strings; if you have a four or five-string base you should look at the top 4 or 5 strings.
You may notice that after the 12th fret of every, the notes are repeating. This is because the open string note and the 12th fret note are the same; the other one is just an octave higher.
A lot of bass players, and especially beginners, are using tablatures in order to learn how to play a particular song. Tablatures are basically representing the bass frets and strings. Strings are represented by lines and frets by numbers. For example, if you see number 2 on the second line, it means that you should play the second string on the 2nd fret. You can check the fret’s notes above to see what note is that. It’s B note. And if you play the third string on the 3rd fret? That is right, it’s F.
Major and Minor scales
There are two most important scales – Major and Minor. When you learn these scales, it will be much easier for you to learn new songs, to play the solo, and to compose your own music. These scales are the musical alphabet. The notes for both scales are represented in the tablature below.
A Major scale
A Minor scale
On theses tablatures, we can see A major and A minor scale. Why is it an A scale? Because the first note of the scale (also called the root note) is A – empty second string. If you want to play these scales from some other note, all you have to do is to apply the same shape with different root note. For example, if you want to play a C minor scale, you just have to find the C note on your bass. If you look at our notes diagram above, you can see that it can be played on the 3rd fret of the second string. So, you just move this shape and play 3, 5, 7 on the second string, 3, 5, 7 on the third, and 4, 5 on the fourth string.
Songs for practice
Learning a new song is a great way not just to practice your playing skills, but also to train your ears. This is why you should try to learn these songs by listening, i.e. by ear. If you can’t figure out every bass part, you can at least try to find its key. You can do that by trying different notes and finding the one that sounds coherent with the song.
After that, try to find out wheatear it is minor of major. All of this is a great training for your ears. However, don’t worry if it is too hard for you, as you can always find tablatures for these songs; after a while, you will probably be able to learn the song just by listening to it.
Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
This is a great song for beginners. There is a catchy and simple bass line that is repeating through the whole song. Here is a little help – it’s in E minor. Now that you know the minor scale, try to figure out the bass line. If it is too hard for you, here is a tablature.
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
This is another very popular song with an interesting bass line. Besides the main bass part, there are a few notes in the refrain – D, F#, and C#. Try to figure out how to play it.
With or without you – U2
This song has only for notes – D, A, B and G. It’s great for practicing your timing and dynamic.
There are a lot of other popular songs that are very simple to play. You should do your research and find tablatures for these songs; but remember, always try to learn the song by ear.
Bass is an extraordinary instrument; it is often seen as a connection between the drums and the guitar, as the bass player has to be complied with the rhythm but also to stay in tune with a guitar. This is not an easy job, but after a while, you will master it and then you will have a great time playing. Always remember the word of Aristotle: “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet”.