The Electric Bass for beginners: Where it Fits, Proper Technique, and First Lessons is guest written by Adan Meza.
Introduction to The Electric Bass
Hi there, my name is Adan and welcome to a beginner’s lesson to playing the bass. If you need a refresher on how notes work or on how to properly hold a bass, then please scroll down to resources and read Ariane Cap’s “How Notes Work” and the “How to Hold a Bass Guitar” article. Once you do that, you will be ready for this lesson!
This lesson will cover what the role of the bass is in a band, playing notes on a Bass, and a few exercises for you to try out. With that out of the way, let’s get started!
The Role of the Bass in the Band
Think about the instruments you expect to see in a standard rock band. You will have drums, a bass, a lead and/or rhythm guitar, and a vocalist. The electric bass is part of the rhythm section of the band and usually works with the drums to create a steady beat for all other instruments to play on top. You as a bassist help keep the band in time (like a metronome) and fill in gaps to make the band have more body or oomph. A great example is the opening to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” which has drums, a bass, and a shaker.
Could you imagine this song if the bass was just missing? A lot of the groove that makes you want to dance would just disappear. As I heard a friend of mine say, “people don’t really appreciate the presence of the bass until it’s gone.” So always remember you matter and that you are crucial to the band getting a great sound.
How to Play Notes on a Bass
Now with your dominant hand on the bass pickup (as shown below) you are ready to play some notes. A standard bass player will use their thumb, index, and middle finger (or T-i-m) to play the strings on a bass.
Your thumb usually mutes strings you are not currently playing or rests on the pickup as seen above. The index and middle finger do most of the playing through alternate picking (example in resources) where you alternate between your index and middle finger when you play notes. If you play any notes without holding down the strings on the neck you will play open notes on the string. When properly tuned, the strings will play an E, A, D, then a G as you go from the heaviest string to the lightest string.
To get more variety, we need to place our fingers on a fret as shown below to change the open string note to a closed note. Each fret is a half-step so the notes ascend in as you go from the left end of the neck to the other.
The tabs you will see later here will number the frets from left to right, so a “3” on the E string means holding down the third fret on the E-string. This would make a G note since three half-steps means E à F à F# à G. A fret should be held down close to the fret marker but without touching it. Make sure to rest your thumb on your fretting hand behind the neck. This will improve your fretting technique and give you more leverage when you hold down strings. Here are some examples below.
Reading Bass Tabs and Playing Songs
Now for the fun part of the lesson: playing a song. There are many YouTube videos and tabs out there that will help you learn songs.
Example Tab From “Seven-Nation Army”
Here is a tab from “Seven-Nation Army” by the White Stripes at 122 BPM.
Even if you don’t know how to read music, tabs make it easy to pick up songs. All you need for now is the bottom half of this tab. Tabs are written down with the G string on the top line, D on the second, A on the third, and the E string on the bottom. You can use Youtube to hear a song and memorize how long a note needs to be held. This tab has two bars which is separated by the thin bar line between the 5 and the 3.
The spacing between the numbers gives you a hint for how long to hold a note before you play the next one. To find out what fingers you need to use for each fret, place your index finger on the lowest number fret in the current bar you’re playing. For the first bar in the picture above, that means you put your index on the 5th fret of the A string. There is a one-finger per fret rule that people tend to follow. So for this bar that means your index plays all notes on 5th frets, your middle does all notes on the 6th fret, and so on. If you follow my logic, the first note you play in the tab (the 7th on the D string) should be played with your ring finger. Most first-time players tend to use their index for fretting all notes but do your best to stick to the one finger per fret rule.
Play at a slow pace and make sure you alternate between your index and middle fingers between notes. Once you feel you are good to go, try the second riff of the song below.
Example Tab From “Seven-Nation Army”
This part is easier and has a consistent note length. Given our one finger per fret rule, you should guess that your index finger frets the first eight notes of the tab and your ring finger frets the other half. Try your best to avoid the temptation of using only your index. Your other fingers need the practice! For your plucking hand, make sure you alternate hitting the strings with your index and middle finger.
Practices to Improve your Tempo and Finger Strength
The best thing you can do to get better is practice with a metronome. All songs have a tempo that can be expressed in beats per minute (BPM). The metronome gives you a tick-tock sound at the BPM you want so it’s a good idea to practice with it as you learn new songs and practice scales. There are many free metronome apps online and just googling metronome will give you a browser-based one. For your reference, “Seven-Nation Army” has a BPM of 122.
A common scale to practice for beginners is the major scale as shown below. Here is a D major scale that starts on a D note on the A string. Your index should hover over the 4th frets, your middle over the fifth, your ring over the sixth, and the pinky over the 7th. As you play up the major scale (we say up since the notes get higher as you play them) keep to this one finger per fret rule. You won’t have to shift your hand to hit the higher-pitched strings so keep your wrist steady and let the fingers move for you.
Set your metronome to 60 BPM and play a note as you hear the tick. You should play the entire tab in rhythm with the 60-BPM tempo. Once you mastered it, go up 5 to 10 BPM and see if you can still effectively play the tab. You can practice with so many different scales so look online for other ones. Scales follow a pattern so if someone gives you the first note and the name of the scale, you can easily know all the notes in that scale.
That’s all for today! I hope you enjoyed this brief lesson into the amazing world of electric bass. Check out the resources below for more instructional and entertaining bass content.
- “How Notes Work” by Ariane Cap. From Music Theory for the Bass Player. Please consider buying the full book on https://arianecap.com/
- “How to Hold a Bass Guitar” by Learn to Play Music: https://www.learntoplaymusic.com/blog/how-to-hold-a-bass-guitar/
- Alternate Picking Video Guide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNAYIfITgpw
- Scott’s Bass Lessons YT Channel (Instructional): https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWTj3vCqkQIsrTGSm4kM34g
- The Talking Bass YT Channel (Instructional): https://www.youtube.com/user/TalkingBassVideo
- Davie504 YT Channel (Bass Memes): https://www.youtube.com/user/Davie504
- Ultimate Guitar Tabs (Tab website for songs): https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/
About the Author
Adan Meza is a musician and history teacher located in Chicago, Illinois. He has been playing Bass since 2018 and has collaborated with different bands and projects in the city. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.