Level: Beginner to Intermediate (who is looking to check up on the basics)
One thing this lesson isn’t is a get-good-quick promise. It’s more a suggestion of a few simple things to learn and practise that will set you on the right path and give you a very solid foundation to build on. There’s nothing worse than investing months or even years into playing the bass and then realising you’ve been doing some key things wrong.When you begin learning the bass guitar or want to up your skill level, the faster you can get yourself into good habits the better. Click To Tweet
These tips are based on 15 years of teaching bass one on one and seeing exactly why some people improved quickly whilst others didn’t.
When you deeply understand why and what you need to learn, you will actually improve faster. You’ll certainly avoid the bad habits that many beginners get into.
Get a bass that is easy to play
A standard bass has a 34-inch scale length (the string length from both ends of the bass – the bridge and the nut). Along with the thickness of bass strings (the ‘gauge’), this can present a problem for beginners, especially ones with smaller hands. You absolutely don’t need big hands to play the bass, by the way, just good technique (more on that below).
If you already have a bass you like but it’s tough to play then learn to set it up yourself or take it to a local music shop or a luthier to do it for you. Read this post on how to set your bass up to learn why it’s important and how to learn to do it yourself (PRO TIP: this will save you a lot of money over the years!). If you don’t have a bass but are worried about the size then get a short scale bass. This is simply a smaller sized instrument with a shorter fretboard. One of my students once had a Luna short scale bass and it played and sounded great. There are tons more from different brands on the market so plenty to choose from.
One other thing you can do is to get some low gauge strings (40-60-80-100 will do it). The gauge is the thickness of the string and these thinner strings feel easier to play. To many bass players’ ears, you do lose some tone with these strings but Victor Wooten uses 40-55-75-95 which is part of his particular setup that allows him to play so many crazy techniques at super speed.
He could probably play like he does on any instrument but it sure is easier on his beautifully set up Fodera with lighter gauge strings.
Learn to hold your bass properly
Sometimes you can know if a bass player is any good simply by looking at how they hold the instrument. It either looks extremely uncomfortable and like a foreign object or like an extension of their body. The fact is that it is a strange and unwieldy instrument! However, if you hold it correctly, it becomes comfortable as well as making all parts of the fretboard accessible.
There are a few ways of holding the bass and you will see different players doing different things, By all means, try a few out and see what works best for you. For example, you see bass players holding the instrument a bit more like a classical guitarist would which keeps the wrist straighter (which is great for avoiding strain and potential injury down the line) and the fretboard very accessible.
Here’s one method for playing whilst sitting down that can then be easily transferred to when you stand up and play.
Develop your basic technique
You only have to look at YouTube to see videos of talented 10-year-olds playing at breakneck speed or 100 mph slap bass licks everywhere. However, most bass playing in a band or recording setting involves simple, fundamental techniques executed really well with great time. This is good news for you because, if you are just starting out or are looking to reach the next step, just work on the basics.
That means – probably – fingerstyle for the most part, then some slap and plectrum. You are a unique player with your own goals so you can choose which techniques will best express what kind of bass player you want to be. I recommend really nailing basic fingerstyle and then introducing some basic slap and plectrum. These techniques simply are tools to creating different tones and effects so, I believe, the more you know the better (especially if you want to play lots of different styles and certainly if you want to turn pro).It doesn't matter what you play, just make sure you play with groove, feel and accuracy. If you do; the simplest bass line will sound amazing. Click To Tweet
Understand the bass guitar fretboard
Which way is up/down on the neck and which direction do you go if you want to go to the next highest or next lowest string? This may seem simple but a lot of beginners get this wrong which can lead to all kinds of confusion!
This is counterintuitive if you don’t know the bass. Towards the floor is down and the neck is pointing upwards so that’s why the top picture seems correct and lots of beginners will say that. We are musicians though and we talk in terms of pitch (how high or low notes are). So it’s basically opposite – when you go towards the floor the strings sound higher and towards the head of the bass, the notes get lower.
This may seem trivial but I think a true understanding of the notes on the bass and the layout of the instrument begins with getting this right. It really helps with translating what you hear in your head to musical sounds on the bass too.
Playing in tune
Two things relating to this. Firstly, always tune up before you start playing. Again, trivial, but I’ve heard hundreds of out of tune musicians!
Secondly, when you fret a note, make sure you press gently against the fretboard and do not pull downwards on the string. This detunes it slightly and is almost like a mini bend when you don’t want one. A correct fretting hand position will ensure that you fret the note properly without inadvertently playing out of tune.
The video above (in ‘How to hold your bass properly’) shows you exactly what to do with your left and right hands for fingerstyle so follow that closely.
Learn the major scale
The coolest sounding scale to start with is the minor pentatonic because so many rock, funk and pop bass lines have been made up using it. Just play it up and down and it sounds great. However, for a brilliant technical workout and as something that will be used over and over again to explain music theory and how bass lines work, the major scale is a must. I’ve taught pupils for years who never learnt it just assuming it was boring (no matter how much I tried to demonstrate how important it is!). You can play so many bass lines using the major scale too so it just makes no sense at all to ignore it. Learn this inside out and back to front.
Here is a moveable one-octave shape to get you started. There are loads of different ways to play this but this will do to start with.
Establish a practice routine
This is such a huge subject. One of the biggest factors in slow or minimal progress I see in teaching is either not having a practice routine or not putting enough time into the instrument. You have a very simple question to ask yourself:
Do I want to reach my potential as a bass player?
In other words, do you want to be good? If the answer is yes (if you’re reading this then hopefully it is) then you will need to invest time into it. Aim for consistency. Ten minutes every day is better than fifty minutes once a week. If you want to get REALLY good then up 10 minutes to 30 or 60 or more. This will change depending on your circumstances and also your hunger to improve. Read this Bass Guitar Practice Checklist post to learn a bit more about how to practice. There are also a few posts here on the subject.Establishing the good habits to get better through small but consistent practice is probably the most important thing you can be taught Click To Tweet
Over-Reliance On TAB
TAB has its place but I’m generally not a huge fan of it. I was very lucky that I had music lessons from an early age and learnt to read music on the piano (albeit not very well…). Guitar and trumpet followed before bass guitar lessons but from the beginning on bass, I could read very comfortably. I realise that not everyone is as lucky as I was to get all those lessons. However, not knowing TAB was a huge blessing in disguise. If I wanted to learn something I either used my ear or looked at the notation. I was also lucky to develop as a bass player before the internet was in most homes. This meant no going onto YouTube or some TAB site to learn a song. Shock horror! I really have noticed students relying more and more on the internet to teach them a song than on their own ear. These students regard learning a song quickly by ear as witchcraft. It’s not. Just by learning a few simple skills you can train your ear to quickly be able to pick out and identify bass lines as well as make up your own that pop into your head. HINT: learn that major scale I just told you about! Developing a great ear is so important as a musician. Knowing a few scales and identifying the sounds and patterns within them (‘intervals’) is the goal here.
Not knowing the notes on the bass
This follows on from an over-reliance on TAB. The G on the E string is called “G” not 3 as TAB would have you believe (I don’t want to knock TAB too much; it’s great for some things and if it gets people playing then I’m all for it. Reliance on your own ear and your own knowledge is better in the long run though). Understanding the fretboard and the best way to navigate it comes from a deep understanding of it. Make sure you learn the fretboard inside out. I have a few free lessons on the blog you can check out here or you can just go here where I’ve organised it all into a free course that you can go through at your own pace.
This is all basic stuff but completely bewildering if you are new to music or the bass guitar. So take your time learning everything in this lesson. Here is a useful place to find out a few key points to learn: The First Things You Should Learn On Bass Guitar. That will give you a fantastic start on your journey. Comment below if you have any questions.