Waxing Philosophic – Bass for Beginners # 1


It sometimes seems that no one else besides you wants to play the bass. Bass players are often perceived to be less important than the vocalist, drummer, and lead guitarist. We once opened for a southern rock band that had several guitarists, and I could tell that the bass player used to be a lead guitarist. He had been “demoted” to bass because the original musician had left the band. I could tell by the way he held the guitar, by the shape of his hands, and by his attitude, that bass was not his true calling.

In reality, a bass player has to have an entirely different attitude about the music. A bass player doesn’t have to be flashy or loud, but a band can not survive very long with a weak bass. Bass players have to be stable, since they build the rhythm “foundation” of each song. The bass player and drummer will determine whether your band is mediocre, good, or great. The other musicians will determine if your band is creative, fun, energetic, or talented.

Remember: while it is typical for a band to have at least 2 6-string guitars, and as many as 4 or more, and while you will see quite a few bands that have two keyboardists or even two drummers (or a drummer and several percussion players), it is extremely rare for a band to have more than one bass player.

Getting Started

Recently, there have been more books and other guides for bass players, but they seem to take a long time to get to the real goal, playing in a band. Often the bass line is not charted anywhere and you’ll have to make it up as you go along. I hope my future notes will help you become prepared to play with your band as quickly as possible. Whenever you listen to music, try to pick out the bass line. Play it in your head, in whatever key you want. You can be the first air-bass guitarist on your block!

Another problem with the bass is that it is hard to practice. As a beginner, it may be difficult to create enough notes to make a song. Be patient and remember that you only have to play one note at a time. If you have a good ear, you can practice with recorded music, but it is often too fast, or not in the same key as is written. When you can, practice with a rhythm guitarist, who can give you the “musical environment” needed to learn a new song.

A Bass is not two-thirds of a 6-string guitar:

The bass is a totally different instrument. You should recognize the important similarities, but don’t get caught up trying to correlate the two. The 6-string guitar is played using hand shapes and forms, followed by scales and keys. The bass is more about patterns and relationships between the notes (followed by scales and keys). For example: if the music calls for a C-chord, and you play a C (3rd fret, A-string), all of the important notes are close by. The lower 5th (G) is right next to the C on the E-string, the upper 5th (G) is just 2 frets up on the D-string, and the octave C is right next to that on the G-string.

C chord on a bass

This relationship holds for all chords on all strings: The upper 5th is 2-up one string over, the octave is 2-up, two strings over, and the lower 5th is same fret one string lower. Here it is again in C:

C on a bass

And here it is if you tried it in Eb (Eb is the 6th fret on the A string):

Eb on a bass

Now obviously, if you’re playing a low G-chord (3rd fret E-string), then you can’t play the lower 5th, and if you play a higher G (5th fret D-string) then you can’t play the octave. So a simple way to decide which G to play, is whether you want to go up or down from the root.

Note, if you play G (E-3), C (A-3), G (D-5), and C (G-5) all at once, you have the bottom of the 6-string guitar’s “4th form C bar-chord”. Many guitarists know all of the chords and forms, but don’t understand the notes and theory that is contained under their fingers.

While the 6-string guitarists hand often changes shape, the bass player’s fretting hand is almost always in the same position, covering one fret per finger. Some people may have trouble with the wide fret spacing at the top of the neck, but you can adjust. You can almost always play an entire song without moving your hand at all – but it’s more fun when you do!

The important part of all of this is that the bass player almost never cares what key you’re playing in. You can almost always slide up the neck, or over one string, and all of the relationships will remain the same. There are some cases where a change of key can really mess up some fancy melody or a sophisticated slapping thing that needs to use open strings, but in general, you can make it work.

Unlike the 6-string, there is no anomalous tuning of the strings, they are always tuned in fourths (a 6-string has a 3rd between the G and B strings). In fact, most 5 and 6 string basses stick with the 4th tuning, adding either a B on the low end, or a C and possibly and F on the high side.


The bass is always considered part of the rhythm section, along with the drums and rhythm guitar. Together, their main job is to keep time and to set the style of the song. Sometimes, the rhythm guitarist is playing counter-beat, and the drummer is counting a straight four, and it comes down to the bass player to set the style. Rhythms can be boring, even fast ones. Be careful that you don’t lose your concentration and get sloppy. When you get good, the simplest bass-line can drive the entire song, eg “Radar Love”. I will go over several rhythm types in the future.

Until Next Time

Your homework for now is to listen to all the music around you. Notice the different style of bass playing. Listen to rock, ballads, jazz, R&B, everything. Pick out songs that you like, and see if you are hooked by the bass line.

Next: Read David Hodge’s columns on how to play the guitar, especially the section on rhythm, Keeping Up With The Times. Much of what he teaches is valid for the bass and, for that matter, any instrument that you play.

My next article will assume the following:

  • You can read piano music (notes and time). Tab is nice, but it isn’t as common for the bass, and theory stuff is easier to describe on standard staffs.
  • You know how to tune your bass guitar.
  • You know (or can figure out) where each note is on the different strings.

Feel free to email me with comments or questions. Your input will help steer the way I proceed.