Complete Beginner’s Guide to Playing Bass Guitar

Learn How to Play Bass Guitar for Beginners Guide

If you’ve chosen to learn how to play bass guitar for beginners, congrats! Learning to play any instrument can be a lifelong adventure bringing with it a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, as well as a ton of fun along the way!

The bass guitar provides the low end, punch, drive, rhythm and groove in most musical genres. Along with the drummer, the bass player is the other member of the “rhythm section” in most bands. He or she plays an important role in every genre by giving live music a solid foundation.

Learning how to play bass guitar for beginners requires dedication and practice, but it’s not a difficult instrument to learn how to play.  You can get a basic understanding and become functional relatively quickly with a little work. Mastering the instrument requires a lifetime of dedicated practice and study, so let’s get started!

How to Play Bass Guitar for Beginners

How to Choose a Bass Guitar

choosing bass guitar

If you’re just getting started and aren’t sure if bass guitar is right for you, you’re going to want to buy a “starter” or student bass.

Bass guitars can vary widely in price with student models priced under $200 dollars and professional models that can cost thousands. As with anything, to a certain extent you get what you pay for.

Of course a $5000 vintage Fender is an amazing instrument, but the good news is that most student models today are perfect beginner instruments that will get you through the early phases of learning.

When you begin your search, start by setting a budget and gaining an understanding of the basic parts of a bass guitar. Having an understanding of the parts of the bass and how it’s built will help you ask the right questions and make an informed decision. Here’s a quick overview of the basics:



  • Neck: The neck of the bass guitar includes the headstock, fretboard and an internal truss rod, which is how the neck is connected to the instrument body.
  • Headstock: The headstock is the wider part at the end of the neck where the tuning pegs are located. The tuning pegs adjust the string tension and are how you change the pitch to tune the instrument.
  • Fretboard: The fretboard is a thin piece of rosewood, ebony, or maple. Fretboards can vary widely in quality. The best fretboards are smooth and easy to move your fingers over. They are usually slightly arched from side to side and this arch is known as the radius.
  • Frets: Embedded in the fretboard are thin metal strips called frets. The frets divide the neck into half step increments and determine where each note is played on the neck. While some basses are fretless, they require greater skill from the player and are best left to intermediate or advanced players. If you’re learning how to play bass guitar for beginners, you will definitely want a fretted bass.
  • Truss Rod: The truss rod connects the neck to the body and is used to keep the neck from twisting. Because bass strings are much thicker than guitar strings, they exert a lot of pressure on the neck. Adjusting the truss rod allows the neck to be straightened if it becomes bowed or twisted. It is also used to adjust the string height.

Types of Bass Guitars for Beginners

Bass guitars come in a number of variations including solid body and hollow body basses. Pickups can be either single coil or humbucker, and electronics can be either passive or active. Basses come with four, five, and even six strings.

All of these variations (other than the number of strings) effect the tone of the bass and are not crucial to its playability. Smaller “scale length” basses are available that are perfect for younger players as they are a little smaller than a full sized instrument.

The best option for choosing the right bass is to set your budget and then visit your local music store. Play the available options in your price range. The most important factor is making sure the instrument feels comfortable when it’s in your hands. As a beginner you’ll want to spend as much time as possible playing and practicing.

As you progress in your studies, you may decide you want a better instrument. At that point it’s good to have more of an understanding of pickups and electronics as these will help shape your personal sound on the instrument.

For now, just focus on finding an instrument in your price range that feels good under your fingers and comfortable in your lap. Most beginner basses have adequate electronics and four strings. Play a bunch of different instruments and choose the one that feels right for you!

How to Tune a Bass Guitar for Beginners

learn to tune a bass guitar

Tuning your bass can be tricky if you’re a beginner. The good news? The more you do it, the easier it will get. Tuning your instrument is crucial especially if you’re going to be playing with other musicians. It will not only make you sound better, it will help you with the learning process.

The bass is pitched exactly one octave lower than the guitar. The strings are tuned to the same four notes as the 4 lowest guitar strings: E, A, D, and G. Here are a couple of methods to help you get in tune and ready to play.


If you’re playing with a guitarist and they are in tune, you can have them play the four bottom strings. Use your ears and turn the tuning pegs on your instrument to match their pitch.

If you have a piano handy you can ask them to play the tuning notes and match the pitch by turning your tuning pegs. Today, there are also a number of apps for your smartphone that will help you tune your instrument.

Electronic tuners are available and make tuning a snap. Simply plug your instrument into the tuner and pluck a string, then turn your tuning pegs until the arrow lines up with the correct note on the face of the tuner and your done. Go through all four strings.

One great method to learn that requires no technology and is called the “5th Fret Method.” With this method you need to get one string in tune (preferably the low E) and then use that string as a reference pitch. Even if you don’t have access to a keyboard or other tuning device, the 5th fret method will let you tune the instrument “to itself.”

Once you’ve tuned the low E string, press your finger on the 5th fret of the E string. This is the note “A”. Pluck the open A string and compare the two. Use the tuning pegs to match the pitch.

Now that the A string is in tune, repeat the process to tune the D string. Fret the 5th fret on that A string, pluck the open D string and adjust the tuning pegs to match the pitch. Using the same process, tune the G string and you’re ready to go!

How to Read Bass Tabs

learn to read bass guitar tabs

Bass tablature, or bass tab, is a simple system of music notation to help you learn how to play bass guitar for beginners to advanced players. Tab is available through books, bass magazines and at various websites online. Learning how to play bass guitar using tabs is just a small part of learning the instrument but it’s a great way to start playing songs quickly.

Bass tab is a system that shows the strings of the bass drawn horizontally, like this:

G D A E

This is standard bass tab for a four string bass.  The lowest (fattest) string is always at the bottom.

In tab, notes are indicated as a fret number on a string. Most basses have between 20 and 24 frets so you may see fret numbers between 0 and 24. For example, you may see something that looks like this:

 

2

In this example start by playing the 3rd fret on the E-string followed by the 2nd fret on the A-string, the 5th fret on the A-string and finally the 5th fret on the D-string.

Measures are marked as in standard notation with a vertical bar line. Often rhythm is not indicated in bass tablature. All you get is the order and position of the notes. Rhythm may occasionally be marked with the count written under the fret numbers. It’s often best to listen to the song you’re practicing to get the rhythm of the piece.

There’s really not too much to know about reading bass tab. Basically it’s just fret numbers on string lines. While it’s a great way for a beginner to start playing quickly, the best method is to use tab as you begin to study standard musical notation and memorize the note names on the instrument.

How to Practice Bass for Beginners

Practice Learning Bass Guitar

Practice is the key to learning how to play bass guitar for beginners.

How long should you practice? Practice as often as you can fit into your schedule. However, it’s best to establish a basic regimen in order to progress. Here are some tips to get you started:

• Practice regularly. Preferably practice daily and from 30 minutes to as long as you can.

• Find a time of day when you can practice without distractions and when you can concentrate. Some players get up early and practice for an hour before work, some practice after dinner.

• Start with technique exercises. Run scales, play arpeggios and chords to get your fingers moving and your mind focused.

• As a bass player, developing a strong sense of time is important. Always practice with a rhythm device whether it’s a metronome, a drum machine, or a play-along recording.

• Start slowly. Focus on each note and as you gain fluidity and precision, slowly speed up the tempo.

• Keep track of your progress with a practice log. Keep track of your routines, goals, exercises and difficult passages you need to work on.

Learning to play any instrument is a challenge that can pay dividends for your entire lifetime. While you can teach yourself how to play bass guitar for beginners, it’s a good idea to study with a qualified teacher. They can help you avoid bad habits and will offer direction, inspiration and encouragement to get you through challenges that may arise during your studies.

Congratulations, you made a great choice when you decided to learn how to play bass guitar! Best of luck on your musical journey!

Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg

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