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! If you’ve chosen to learn how to play bass guitar, you’ve made an excellent choice,
The bass 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 and plays an important role in every genre by giving live music a solid foundation.
Learning how to play bass requires dedication and practice. It’s not an overly difficult instrument to learn how to play and you can get a good basic understanding and become functional relatively quickly with a little work.
Mastering any instrument requires a lifetime of dedicated practice and study. Bass is no different, if you’re driven and can put in the time you can master how to play bass.
The best part about learning how to play bass guitar is that from your earliest learning you can jump right in and be a valued member of a band!
Let’s begin at the beginning. To start your studies you’ll need an instrument. So first, we’ll explain….
How to Choose A 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, while they have lower quality hardware and electronics, are perfect beginner instruments that are very playable and will get you through the early phases of learning and performing.
When you begin your search start by setting a budget and gaining an understanding of the basic parts of a bass guitar before you begin shopping. Having an understanding of the parts of the bass and how it’s built and designed will help you to ask questions and make an informed decision when you’re ready to purchase. Here’s a quick overview of the basics:
Neck: The neck of the bass 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 (more on tuning in a bit).
Fretboard: The fretboard is a thin piece of rosewood, ebony, or maple, all excellent hardwoods that wear slowly. 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.
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 with experience. For beginners just learning how to play bass 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 and is also used to adjust the string height.
Types of Bass Guitars
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 and a perfect fit for smaller hands.
The best option for choosing the right bass is to set your budget and then visit your local music store and play the available options in your price range. The most important factor is making sure that the instrument feels comfortable when it’s in your hands since 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 to 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
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 programs for your smartphone and standalone devices available that will help you to 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 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” which while not ideal, will allow you to practice and sound just fine even if the actual tuning is slightly sharp or flat.
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 in tune!
How To Read Bass Tabs
Bass tablature, or bass tab is a simple system of music notation to help you learn how to play bass. Tab is available through books, bass magazines and at various websites online. Learning how to play bass 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:
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 (open) and 24.
So for example you may see something that looks like this:
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 and then back down thru the same notes.
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
Whether you strive to be an all around player that can navigate through many styles of music, or you just want to be a good player in your favorite style practice is the key.
How long should you practice? Practice as often as you can fit into your busy life. 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 distraction and when you can concentrate. Some players get up early and practice for an hour before work, some practice after dinner. Fit daily practice into your schedule.
• 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, precision and perfect time slowly speed up the tempo.
• Keep track of your progress with a practice log. Keep track of your routines, goals, exercises tempos and difficult passages you need to work on.
Practicing your physical instrument is important as is developing a strong sense of time and your ears. Learn your favorite songs by listening to recording and playing along. When learning how to play bass, don’t limit yourself to bass players, listen to singers, guitarists, pianists, horn players. You can learn from all of them!
Make your practice time a time of personal ritual. Listen, work on technique, learn songs and practice regularly.
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, it’s a good idea especially as a beginner 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! Now it’s time to get to work!!
Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg