From Guitar to Bass: 5 Things to Keep in Mind when Learning to Play Bass

Many of today’s bass players started off as guitarists and simply took up the instrument to fill the needs of a band. In other situations, a guitar player might simply want to learn another skill. Although guitar and bass can be very similar, there are quite a few differences that need to be accounted for. With careful practice and dedication, these tips can take any guitarist from a good bass player to a great bass player. If bass isn’t your thing, be sure to check out our Wired Theory articles for lessons on writing music on guitar! 

Let’s just into these tips!

1. Don’t play to show off, play to make the music sound good.

Guitar generally tends to be a much busier instrument than a bass. Because a guitar player might be used to doing so much at once, simply laying down a groove might be a bit more difficult. Listening to bass lines and paying close attention to what the bass player is doing will help you hear what a bass line should sound like when you are coming up with your own bass lines. Reading charts will also help you learn what a bass should be doing in a song. Taking a solo or doing a bass fill is fine here and there, but if you do it too much, it starts to lose its effect.

When creating a bass line, you can never go wrong with just sticking to the root notes. Adding rhythmic variation and fifths can make a bass line more interesting. Using other chord tones, such as the third and seventh, can also add color to a bass line. Paying attention to the bass in a certain style or genre of music not only will help you determine which rhythms should be used, but will also aid in note choice. For example, a rock bass line could easily just stick to the root with a straight eighth note pattern. Walking bass lines typically tend to use only quarter notes and utilize the root, third, fifth, and seventh, with half- or whole-step approach notes to the root of the next chord. Latin and bossa bass lines usually use roots and fifths with a dotted quarter to eighth note pattern.

Here are some examples:

Rock Bass Line HQ

Jazz Bass Line HQ

Latin Bass Line HQ

On another note, if you are in fact looking to show off (tastefully of course), check out our Shred Lessons for tips to get your shredding chops up!

2. The 1-finger-per-fret rule can be broken.

Bass fingerboards are quite a bit bigger than guitar fingerboards. This means that, when using the 1-finger-per-fret rule, your hand will be stretching a lot more on a bass neck than it would on a guitar neck. This can be quite uncomfortable at first. There are two ways this discomfort can be eliminated; 1) stretching exercises, and 2) not using the 1-finger-per-fret rule all the time.

The exercise I find most helpful is to start with my index finger on the twelfth fret of the highest string of the bass (G for 4 and 5 strings, C for 6 strings). I use the 1-finger-per-fret rule to play up to the fifteenth fret, while keeping my other fingers down on the strings. So, 12-13-14-15, with all fingers down. Then I move down one fret, and play 11-12-13-14. I repeat this until I reach the first fret, and then move down to the next string (D for 4 and 5 strings, G for 6 strings), and repeat the exercise.

Here it is in sheet music/tabs:

HQ Bass Tab 1

Sometimes, in the lower register of the bass, the 1-finger-per-fret rule can simply just be uncomfortable, particularly on lower strings, such as the B, E, and A strings. In this case, I use upright bass fingering; 1, 2, and 4. Upright bassists generally don’t use the third finger in the lower register because it is far too painful and difficult to use 1-2-3-4 fingering; the frets are simply too big! An upright bass fingerboard is roughly twice the length of an electric bass fingerboard. So, when I’m playing the B, E, and A strings, I’m usually using my first finger on the first fret, my second finger on the second fret, and my fourth (pinky) finger on the third fret.

3. Lock in with the drummer (particularly the kick drum)

Believe it or not, the bass drum is called bass drum for a reason. In most songs, the bass drum plays the same rhythm that the bass does. If you’re ever not sure what to play, just stick to the root notes and listen to the bass drum, and you should be pretty safe. Once you get more comfortable with that, you can add in roots and other chord tones, and can even add in some rhythmic variety; just be careful not to lose the groove. Stick to the groove that the bass drum is doing, and you’ll be fine!

Most of the time, you won’t be able to practice this with a drummer. In that instance, simple metronome practice can be very helpful in getting better at locking in with a beat and a groove. In addition to using a metronome, a drum machine can be VERY helpful in laying down an actual groove to keep up with, and emulates a drummer much better than a metronome can. Try a variety of different tempos, and make sure to lock in with the groove at very slow tempos (60 BPM) and faster tempos (240 BPM) and everywhere in between.

Another thing that can be very helpful with locking in with a groove is practicing beat displacement. This is done by playing on the upbeat with a metronome instead of the downbeat. For example, I could play the “and” of an eighth note instead of “one.” This could be applied to sixteenth notes as well, playing on the “ee,” “and,” and “uh” of the beat instead. It looks something like this:

HQ Bass Tab 2

The first three measures demonstrate sixteenth note beat displacement, while the last measure demonstrates eighth note beat displacement.

4. Stay in the lower register, but don’t be afraid to play some high notes in the right places.

Most bass lines are written to be played in the lower register of the instrument. This keeps any notes from clashing with higher notes in the melody, and ensures that a song will sound good. Most of the time, you’ll be staying in the first position of the bass. (Quick tip in case you don’t already know: first position=first fret, second position=second fret, etc. The position implies which fret the first finger is on.) Staying in this area of the bass will ensure that your bass lines sound good with the rest of the ensemble.

When you are given a chance to solo or do a fill, it is best to move into the upper register; this makes it easier to hear and allows the bass to stand out a bit more. Since it generally makes the bass sound higher in pitch than it usually does, it makes the bass solo or fill sound more interesting and is more easily noticed by listeners. Fills can also be done really well in the lower register, usually by playing something involving the related scale or pentatonics while using a different (usually busier) rhythm.

5. Use articulations!

Adding different quality to the sound of your bass will create a much more interesting bass line. Using elements such as slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, dead notes, bends, grace notes, palm muting, and even harmonics can really spice it up! It’s important to be careful when using them, however. If articulations are used too much, they lose their effect, and simply don’t sound interesting anymore after a little while. It’s also important to use them in the right places. For example, palm muting in a part of a song where the bass really needs to stand out and play a bit louder probably isn’t the best idea, since palm MUTING makes it sound a bit quieter. Pay close attention to bass lines you like, and listen for articulations. This will make it much easier to decide when certain articulations should and should not be used in a song.

Learning a new instrument is a lot of work, and can be quite a challenge. Learning another instrument in addition to your primary instrument opens many doors in your music career, and can lead to a lot of new opportunities down the road. There’s a lot to keep in mind when transitioning from guitar to bass. Despite all the challenges a musician must overcome in any musical endeavor, the most important thing is to just have fun with it. The whole reason we play an instrument is because we love music, so don’t let any challenges drive you away from something you enjoy.

Best of luck!

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This article written by community contributor Beth McPherson.

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