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Bass Guitar for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Hi there! So, you've decided to play bass, huh? What brought you here? The promise of massive fame and fortune? Universal respect from people, most of whom think it's a guitar? We kid. At Scott's Bass Lessons, we think you're here because bass is the coolest instrument in a band, regardless of what the uninformed might think.


You want proof? Just watch Marcus Miller in this video!


Bass players have unique POWER!

More than any other instrument, bass defines the harmony and groove of a tune. It's the glue between the drums and the rest of a band. Good bass players hear the whole band, quietly confident that subtle shifts in their playing have a dramatic impact on the music.

SBL's entire mission is to create the ultimate learning destination for bass players, regardless of experience. We think SBL provides the bass community with the world's most comprehensive resource for bass players on their path toward improvement. For you, that journey begins here, with our Ultimate Guide to Bass for Beginners!

And remember, you can always grab a FREE 14-day trial here at SBL if you're ready to take the leap.

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Great things are done by a series of small things put together!" —Vincent Van Gogh




If you're trying to climb Mt. Everest, you don't stand at the base staring at the summit, discouraged by the seeming impossibility of your goal. You break the journey into small, achievable steps. You “chunk” it up. That's how we'll approach this guide.

We want you to see each section as an important step toward creating a solid foundation for your bass playing journey. The best bass players take one thing at a time, empowered by their faith that it's the only way to get better at anything, especially music!


Let's start at the very beginning—What is a bass?

The bass instrument we're here to discuss is the bass guitar, the lowest member of the guitar family. Get a guitar, remove the top two strings, and transpose the remaining four down one octave and you've got a bass. Invented in the mid-'30s, the bass guitar didn't catch on until the mid-'50s, thanks to the ingenuity and mass-production knowhow of Leo Fender. Since then, it's essentially replaced the upright or “double” bass in popular music.

For one of the earliest recorded examples of electric bass, check out this track from the Art Farmer Septet with bass OG Monk Montgomery playing one of Fender's earliest creations.

The bass guitar's success is due to many advantages over its much older (and bigger) acoustic cousin:

  • Portability (easier to schlep)
  • Frets (easier to play in tune—that's where the Fender Precision Bass got its name. It's precise!)
  • Ease of amplification (easier to play loud)

Since those early days, the bass has matured into one of the most exciting and versatile instruments in music, due in no small part to the community's many brilliant and innovative players, builders, and gear designers. In short, you're in good company!


The Parts

Before we dive into the whole playing bass thing, it'd be wise to get familiar with its anatomy.

Here's a handy pic to reference as you and your new bass get acquainted:

Fender Precision Bass: Parts Diagram

In addition to your bass, you'll of course need an amplifier—that's the “electric” bit in “electric bass.” You'll also need an instrument cable to link your bass to the amp and a strap so you can play standing up.

Fender Precision Bass – With Strap, Cable and Amplifier


You must play in tune!

Despite nearly every modern phone possessing tuner capabilities, learning how to tune your bass the old-fashioned way is a basic skill that every budding bassist needs to know. Before we dive into tuning, a quick intro to the open-string pitches is essential:

Notation showing bass open string pitches

These notes show the open-string pitches of a typical electric bass. The notes in brackets only apply if you have a 5- or 6-string bass. It's those middle four we're going to be concerned about to begin with and they are, from lowest to highest: E, A, D, G. It's good (but not essential) to know that bass is a transposing instrument, meaning it's written an octave above where it sounds. This is to prevent having to add a bunch of “ledger lines” (extensions, as visible in lowest note above) to the standard 5-line “staff” we use to notate music.

There are two primary ways to tune that don't require a tuner:


01. Tuning to a Reference Pitch

This requires matching a note on your bass—preferably one of the open-string notes—to a note provided by the reference instrument. While this is technically possible with any note, E is good to start with, as it will make tuning the rest of the bass as easy as possible.

So, let's say a nearby piano player offers you an E to use. First, ask them to play the E below middle-C. Then, play your open-E string. Using the tuners, adjust the pitch of the string until it matches the piano, as best as you can tell.

You could continue this process for the remaining strings, asking for a reference note, then matching it to your bass. But this is almost never how it's done in real-life. Most of the time, we tune to one reference pitch, and that in-tune string to tune the rest of the bass. In essence, we are tuning the bass to itself. Which brings us to:


02. Tuning the Bass to Itself

Other than being a fundamental skill every bass player should know, tuning the bass to itself is essential in two situations. First, there's the one described above: You have an in-tune string and want to use that for a reference. Second, sometimes no reference is available, but you still want to play bass. Either way, the goal is to match the pitch of an open string to a fretted note, in this case the 5th fret of the string below the one you're trying to tune. This is much easier to understand visually:

Show Me More!




If you ever find yourself without a tuner, there's always SBL’s Groove Trainer, which in addition to killing loops, practice tracks, and a metronome, includes a great tuner. And it's TOTALLY free.

SBL Groove Trainer image

Check out the FREE Groove Trainer!




Ready to play? We're almost there.

While we know you're anxious to get started, you'll want to first know about the parts that put the “electric” in electric bass, specifically the pickups, controls, and the amp. Understanding how they work (in a basic way) is an essential part of making the bass sound good.


Pickups are magic.

Guitar pickup diagram

Magnetic pickups (the ones in almost every bass) are remarkably simple, yet they are somehow able to transduce the vibration of a string into a musical note. The key lies in their construction:



A pickup is basically a magnet wrapped with thousands of turns of fine copper wire that's insulated to prevent it from touching itself. This magnet—coupled most often with “pole pieces,” ferrous rods or blades that help focus the magnetic field—magnetises the string(s), which are made from a ferromagnetic metal.

As the now-magnetised string vibrates, it induces a current in that dense coil of copper wire in the pickup, thanks to Faraday's Law. This AC current then travels out each side of the coil, goes through your onboard tone controls, and is amplified. This oscillating current, varying in amplitude and frequency, is an electrical analog to the acoustic sound waves created when you pluck a string on your bass.

This is “transduction”: we've taken one sort of energy (acoustic) and turned it into another (electrical), preserving the fundamental qualities of the original.



Because a string has a different sound or “timbre” depending on which part you're listening to, the position of a pickup has a major impact on a bass's tone. This is also why many basses offer two (or more) pickups, expanding the range of possible tones from dark and woolly (neck pickup) to midrangey and aggressive (bridge pickup). That said, some of the best bass playing ever was done with a single-pickup bass! I mean, if it worked for James Jamerson…

For an example of an extra-fat neck-pickup tone, check out this track from Jamaican dub legends Sly & Robbie, with Robbie Shakespeare on bass.

A classic bridge-pickup sound might sound something like this track, from bass GOAT Jaco Pastorius:


The knobs

There are two main types of onboard electronics in a bass: active and passive. Active basses have an onboard preamp that buffers (conditions) the signal and typically includes an EQ that allows cutting and boosting of the bass's output around specific frequency centres, much like the BASS/MID/TREBLE controls in your car. To boost the signal, active basses must have an external power source, typically one or more 9-volt batteries. (Quick note: the jack is usually the “on” switch for the preamp, so be sure not to leave a cable plugged into your active bass!) The knobs on active basses vary greatly, but a typical setup might be Volume/Pickup Blend/EQ control.

Without an external power source, passive basses only allow you to cut the signal. The typical passive bass offers a volume control (or possibly two; one for each pickup) and a tone control, a simple filter that cuts high frequencies as the knob is turned counterclockwise.


Amps

After the pickups and whatever onboard electronics your bass has, there's one more vital link in the bass guitar chain: the amp. Amps come in a lot of shapes, sizes, and types, so a full-on deep dive is outside the scope here, BUT you will need to know the basics to get going. If you're just starting out, my advice is to get a combo amp that's small enough for practice at home but loud enough to get by when you make your first foray into jamming.

The loudness of an amp is measured in watts. You'll want to find an amp that's rated for about 100 watts or above. A “combo” amp is one that combines the amplifier part with the speaker part—while we might collectively call this “rig” an “amp,” it really is composed of two separate parts. In non-combo formats, these two parts are separate, with the amp “head” usually resting on top one or more speaker “cabinets.” Cabinets (and the speaker(s) in a combo) are often described by two numbers: (1) the number of speakers, and (2) the diameter of each speaker, in inches. A cabinet with four 10-inch speakers is called a 4x10, for example.

To plug your bass into the amp, you'll need a “guitar cable.” One end goes into the jack in your bass and the other to the jack labelled “input” on your amp.

Make sure the “EQ” knobs are centred and the volume is turned down to begin with. Turn on the amp and turn your bass's volume all the way up; most bass players tend to play with their volume all the way up, all the time, unless they have a two-pickup bass


Let's Start Playing!

Ok, now you can identify the parts of the bass, you're a burgeoning tuning expert, and you know what the knobs do. You are officially ready to begin your bass journey!


Two Hands, One Bass

Bass is an instrument that requires very different things from each of your hands. One hand—the “fretting” hand—is responsible for navigating the neck, depressing strings just behind the frets to play notes. The other—the “plucking” hand—is situated at the body of the bass, plucking, picking, slapping, or thumb-picking strings to get them vibrating and making a sound. If you're right-handed (like approximately 90% of all humans), then the fretting hand is your left and the plucking your right.

Because playing bass requires you to synchronise each hand to a high degree and they have such different jobs, it is most effective to look at each separately before trying to sync them up.


The Fretting Hand

At SBL, we think the best bass technique comes when we work with our bodies, rather than against them. It's about striking the balance between what music and your body demand. For more about this body/instrument connection, check out Randy Kertz's SBL course on how to play injury-free:

Show Me How!

To begin, let's look at your left hand, away from the bass.

First, pick up a small object on a flat surface—I'm using my AirPod case, but anything will do.

Notice that your thumb naturally assumes a position that affords you maximum grip strength. Take out the object, and maintain that position, looking at your palm like this:

Bass Technique: Photograph of Palm Position

Keep track of where your thumb naturally rests relative to your fingers. For most people this is somewhere between their middle and index fingers, with perhaps more overlap toward the middle. This position—the natural position of your thumb—represents the ergonomically ideal place for you to grab something. It's this hand-position that we're going to now insert our bass's neck into!

Now that you know where your thumb naturally wants to rest relative to your fingers, you have a means of checking whether you're practising good fretting-hand technique. We want to maintain this thumb/finger relationship as much as possible—it is our hand's strongest and most comfortable alignment for fretting notes.

It's also important to make sure your thumb is in the right position on the back of the neck, along the axis parallel to the frets. Ideally, this is somewhere near the middle:

Bass Technique: Photograph of good thumb position on back of bass neck. Example 1
Bass Technique: Photograph of good thumb position on back of bass neck. Example 2

Not the top or bottom:

Bass Technique: Photograph of bad thumb position on back of bass neck. Example 1
Bass Technique: Photograph of bad thumb position on back of bass neck. Example 2

When our thumb is centred on the back of the neck, we have the best chance of grabbing notes across the neck's full width.


One-Finger-Per-Fret

It's time to think about how your fingers fit into this whole fretting-hand thing. A good rule of, um, finger is to try to assign each of your four available fingers to its own fret. Something like this:

This is an efficient way to play many bass lines and will help you preserve your stamina, BUT, there are many moments that may require a break from this “rule”! You'll discover them as your journey progresses, but here's the most notable one, octaves:

A final note on your hand's fretting responsibility. As we're sure you can intuit, each time you fret a note you make a string shorter. As the string is made shorter, its pitch increases. To get good tone out of our fretted notes, try to depress the string as close as you can to the fret, without being directly on top, like this:

Bass Technique: Photograph of good fretting position.

Be sure not to depress too far behind the fret, or else you'll get unwanted buzzing. In short, don't do this:

Bass Technique: Photograph of bad fretting position.


The Plucking Hand

There are myriad ways to get the string vibrating so that it makes sound. One of the coolest things about bass is that it attracts musicians that love pushing boundaries. We encourage you to do the same, but only after you've learned the fundamentals. You need a foundation to build on, and that means learning to play bass “fingerstyle,” with the tips of your plucking-hand fingers. Later, you can tackle slapping, tapping, picking, and all the rest!

There are a few critical factors to get a good finger style tone that won't tire you out:


Pluck through the string, not up!

A common misconception among budding bassists is that the finger itself does the plucking. That's not true! Sure, the finger makes final contact with the string, but it should only be the end of a chain of muscles that work together. This chain includes the muscles in your hand and forearm, too. Instead of imagining that your finger muscles—which are weak compared to the rest of your arm—are doing the work, imagine that your entire arm is one big plucking machine. Pluck through the string, parallel to the bass's top, rather than up and away from the bass. As ever, this is a much easier concept to show than tell:

Not only does plucking through the string help your stamina, it gets you a big tone.


Alternate your plucking fingers as much as possible!

To ensure you have maximum endurance and the chance to one day tackle super-fast bass lines, you'll want to begin practising alternating plucking ASAP. That means that for everything you play, the objective should be to alternate plucks between your first (index) and second (middle) fingers. While there will be some special occasions where a part necessitates a different approach, this is a good habit to establish as soon as possible.


Strapped or lapped?

Obviously, you can play bass sitting or standing. For many, sitting is a practice-time posture and standing only comes up when we hit the stage. As a beginner, it's critical you make time for both approaches, as each requires adjustments to your technique.

It's generally a good idea for beginners to practice using a strap whether or not they're standing. Many basses tend to “neck dive,” meaning the weight of the headstock pulls the neck toward the floor. Without experience, this diving can force a beginner into compensating in ways that prevent developing good technique. If you do choose to use a strap, you'll want to adjust it so that it's actually holding the bass up when sitting … it does no good if it's hanging loose!


Ok, are you finally ready?

When it comes time to learn how to make music with your new favourite instrument, there is no better way than seeing and hearing from great teachers! Good thing Scott's Bass Lessons has hundreds of hours of the best instructional bass content on the Internet.

To know how to set up a winning practice routine, learn fundamental musical concepts, and tackle every style of music from rock to afro-cuban, you'll find no better companion on your journey than SBL!

There's a ton of great content, but we'd suggest starting at ground zero with SBL's comprehensive slate of Beginner-focused courses.

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