If you have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the guitar, then there’s a good chance then you’ll have a much easier time picking up a bass than you might think. While bass guitars have bigger frets, longer necks, deeper notes and less strings, the two instruments have much more in common than they have different. Their fretboards are navigated the same way, notes are produced in the same manner, and, perhaps most importantly, their strings are tuned to the same pitches when in standard tuning.
A four string bass guitar, when in standard tuning, is tuned to E-A-D-G. These are the same notes that the bottom four strings of a guitar are typically tuned to (albeit a bass would be tuned to lower versions of those same notes), meaning that a good chunk of the things you already know on guitar can be directly applied to bass. In this piece, we’re going to walk through some simple ways of doing exactly that, as well as understanding how the roles of guitar and bass typically differ and how that can affect your playing on bass.
Finding Root Notes
Guitar, and especially beginner guitar, tends to be a very chord-oriented instrument. While a bass is technically capable of producing chords (any instrument with three or more strings can), the lower pitches and thicker tones of a bass tend to make chords sound pretty muddy when compared to a guitar. This doesn’t mean that bass players don’t play chords at all; in fact, players like Stanley Clarke and Flea are well known for their skilled use of bass chords. But it does mean that chords played on bass are far less common than chords on guitar, and are a significantly smaller part of the world of bass.
Instead, a bassist will approach a chord progression by examining the individual pitches that make up each chord. Because of this, your average bassist will often have a bit more music theory chops than your average guitarist, but not knowing music theory doesn’t have to be any sort of barrier to picking up bass. We’re now going to examine a super simple concept that will let you play bass lines over chord progression.
Let’s start with one of the most common chord progressions there is: C, F, Am, G. If you have a guitar on hand, try strumming through that progression using your common open chord shapes. If you need a refresher on what any of those shapes are, refer to the charts below.
Now try playing that chord progression with the basic strum pattern, devoting exactly one whole measure to each chord. To anyone unfamiliar with the term, a basic strum is a strumming pattern consisting of one quarter note, followed by two eighth notes, which is then repeated as necessary. You can see that whole thing in notation and guitar tablature here:
Once you’ve got that pattern down, we’re now going to try deconstructing those chords a little bit. The most common thing for a bassist, and especially a beginning bassist, to do when presented with a chord progression is to play something called the root note in place of each chord. The root note is the individual note that gives any given chord its name. For most chords that you likely know, including all the chords listed above, the root note is the note on the very bottom end of the chord.
This means that in order to find the root notes for the above progression, simply find the lowest pitched note in each chord. The lowest pitched note will be whatever note you are playing on the thickest string involved in each chord. Now try and find the root notes for each chord in the progression above. Once you’ve found them, try playing through the progression, using the same rhythmic pattern as before, but only playing the root notes instead of the full chord.
If you correctly figured out the root notes, then you should be playing the following:
That above pattern is exactly how a beginning bass player would approach that chord progression. If you have a bass guitar on hand, try playing that same exact pattern, except now on an actual bass. You can see it in notation and bass tablature here:
Adding Passing Tones
While simply playing the root notes of the chords can get you through just about any progression on bass, adding something called passing tones can help flesh out your playing into fully realized bass lines. Passing tones are notes that do not actually occur in the chords you are playing over, but help your line flow melodically. Well placed passing tones can turn a merely functional bass line into a great one.
Passing tones can be just about any note you can imagine outside those in the chord, which means that you have lots of freedom when picking them. While this freedom can be pretty exciting, it can also be pretty daunting at, so we’re going to learn an easy formula for adding passing tones to help get you started.
For this formula, we’re going to start with the same concept of playing root notes as described above. We are going to then add passing tones by substituting the very last root note we would play on each chord for the new passing tone. In order to find what note that passing tone is going to be, we are going to find a note called the seventh. The seventh is a relative term, as what note it is determined by the context of what we are currently playing on. Due to this, it is worth mentioning that we are going to be finding the seventh of the chord to arrive on, and not the seventh of the chord we are currently still on.
To find the seventh of a chord, first locate that chord’s root note. Then, if that chord is a major chord, count down one fret from that root note. That note that you’re currently on is that chord’s seventh. If the chord is either a minor chord or a dominant chord, do the same exact thing, but instead count down two frets. If that chord’s root note is an open string, then it’s seventh is the 4th fret on the string below it (as in the thicker string) if it’s a major chord, or the 3rd fret on the string below it if it’s either a minor or a dominant chord. If the root note is the open 6th string (as is the case for both the open E and E minor chords), then unfortunately this trick doesn’t quite work for those specific voicings of those chords.
For example, let’s go back to that open C chord that we played early. As we now know, the root note of that chord is the 3rd fret on the 5th string. So therefore, we would count down one fret from the 3rd fret on the 5th string, which would bring us to the 2nd fret on the 5th string. That note is the seventh of C. The following F chord would follow the same exact pattern as that C chord we just examined, so let’s skip ahead a little bit for this example and go to the A-minor chord.
As the root note of the A-minor chord is the open 5th string, we’ll have to go down to the 6th string to find that chord’s seventh. As it’s also a minor chord, we know that it’s root can be found on the 3rd fret of that string, so seventh of the A-minor chord can be found on the 3rd fret of the 6th string.
Now that we’ve found the sevenths for the C and A-minor chords together, try applying that formula to the two remaining chords in our original progression, which are the F and G chords. It is also important to note that in the case of the example above, the G chord should be treated as a dominant chord, and not a major chord. This is because it is filling the harmonic role of a dominant chord, even if we’re not playing it as such, but we don’t need to worry about exactly why that is just yet.
Once you’ve found all four sevenths, insert them into the above tablature for that progression. Remember that we’re swapping out the very root note of each measure for the passing tones, and that we’re inserting the seventh for the upcoming chord, not the chord we just finished. This means that the passing tone used at the very end of the measure of C is going to be seventh of the F chord, not the seventh of the C chord.
Once you’ve gotten that all figured out, trying playing that full pattern on bass. If you don’t have a bass handy, try instead playing the pattern on guitar, since the concepts will still be the same. If you figured everything out correctly, you should be playing this pattern:
And there you have it, a bassline complete with passing tones built over one of the most common chord progressions in all of music! While these simple concepts obviously just scratch the surface of both applying your guitar skills to bass and bass playing in general, they’re a great place to start jamming on bass with, and will be able to get you surprisingly far.