Two by Two – Bass for Beginners # 15

Many of you have inquired about playing chords on the bass, and so I thought I’d discuss how chords are built up from notes, and how they apply to the bass.

Note: David has gone over this thoroughly in the following columns: The Power of Three and Minor Progress. But I realize that as bassists, we tend to ignore what the 6-shooters do, so I’ve re-cast the concepts for us bottom dwellers.

The Important Chords

The 4 or 5 most common chords found in popular music are the Major, Minor, 7th, Minor 7th, and Major 7th. Here they are for the C chord.

Common C Chords
Common C Chords continue

As you can see, playing all the notes as you might on a 6-string guitar is difficult. Here is the position of the important notes, relative to the root on the E-string. ‘R’ is the root of the chord. ‘m’ means minor, and ‘v’ means one octave up.


However, you should observe that when you play these chords one note at a time, you get variations of a walking bassline (see The Box).

The Octave and the Fifth

It is always safe to play the octave, and almost always safe to play the fifth (there are some jazzy chords with a flatted-5th that can confuse things). I’ve discussed how you can use these as part of a “country” or “funk” bassline (see Riff Raff). But to play them as chords, you want to play both notes at the same time. For reference, you rarely want to play the lower 5th as part of a chord – the lowest note should always be the root. As you know from The Box, the 5th and octave are 2 frets up from the root note of the chord, one string and two strings over, respectively. Use a “pinch pluck” with both your thumb and index finger at the same time. Try these sequences:

Fifths and Octaves


Major and minor thirds don’t get used as much, but they can add to the overall tone of some ballads. It is important to remember that the lower you play, the more dissonant chords will sound. Try playing a major 3rd, as shown here, and even if you are in perfect tune, it’s going to sound a little odd down low. Play it again up an octave and it will sound better.

Major Thirds

Pedal Notes

An alternate way to play chords is to allow the first note to ring while you play the second note. Again, the octave shows this best. Play this riff, and don’t mute the bottom note when you play the octave. This works well when the note you want to sustain is an open string. For other notes, you may have to change the way you pluck the strings to avoid muting the root note.

Octave Pedal Riff


Another alternative is to use a transition note to set up a chord. Here I’m going from F to C, so I play a G as the transition note, and allow it to ring without muting it as I usually would. This adds a different feel to the chord, as the higher note (the 5th) was played first, so the lower note (root) dominates but the chord flavor is there.

Pre-Sustain Riff

The Wild Side

Often, I like to add a treat to these lessons, so here it is. In Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, there are actually two basses playing counter-melodies, each trading off the root and the third as one goes up and the other goes down. This is very hard to replicate on one bass, and you’ll never get the tone right, as one is an acoustic-upright and the other is an electric. However, I learned a neat way to play it, and most people (well old-timers anyway) will know exactly what you are playing after the first chord. While technically these chords could be called 10ths, they are really just the root and the third, with the third played an octave up. This requires a bit of sliding while your hand is fixed in a rigid position, but the result is cool!

The Wild Side

So, to summarize, it’s good to know how chords are made (so read David’s stuff – I do!), and it can be fun to play them. Be careful playing them down low, and be very careful playing 3rds. The bassline contributes to the rhythm, so think about playing pedal notes, or alternating between the notes of the chords (called arpeggios) without muting – let them ring!

My lessons are often in response to your questions and comments, either from the Forums or by email. Feel free to let me know what’s on your mind.