Although the bass guitar doesn’t have as big of a rep as the guitar (or even the drums), the bass is arguably the most important instrument in a band.
Not only does it serve as the glue that binds the rest of the instruments together, having a killer bass line can make all the difference when it comes to having a hit song, or an average one.
One of the great things about learning to play bass is that it doesn’t take long to start producing groovy bass lines as it’s pretty easy to nail some of the basics.
But don’t let that fact fool you, mastering the bass takes just as much work as any other instrument, so be prepared to put in a lot of time, effort, and dedication when learning to play.
Like any instrument, it’s easier to learn when you have a qualified teacher guiding you, however, there are some aspects of the bass that you can learn yourself at home.
This includes learning the anatomy of a bass guitar, learning how to read bass tabs, how to tune your bass, and which bass is right for you and your playing style.
In this guide we’re going to go through some of these basics to help you get started on your bass learning journey.
Why Should You Learn to Play Bass?
As we mentioned earlier, playing the bass might not seem as glamorous as the guitar, and lead guitarists and singers tend to soak up all of the attention. However, a great bassist is the secret to having a great band.
It’s definitely an underrated instrument, as the bass isn’t just heard, it’s felt, and it sets the basis of every song.
If the bass is taken away from a song, you can definitely tell, as just like the drums, it sets the rhythm. And as a less popular instrument, learning to play the bass guitar means that you’ll never have difficulty finding a gig.
It’s also a pretty cool instrument to learn how to play. Next time you watch a band performing live, check out how cool and collected the bassist looks the whole time.
Before you even begin playing, there are a few different things that you’ll need to consider/purchase if you want to start playing.
Amplifier and Cable
One of the most important things you’ll need is an amplifier of course. Without one, your bass isn’t going to be able to make much noise at all.
But don’t worry about spending hundreds of dollars on an amplifier at the beginning, as you can start by using an amp that is under 100 Watts. Once your skills have improved and you’ve become more confident, you can get a better amp to start playing at higher volumes.
We recommend trying out this Fender Rumble amp, which has a variety of different bass tones that you can experiment with. It’s also portable, which makes it easy for you to travel around with, and comes with a 5 year warranty.
You can also purchase bass starter kits that come with an array of accessories like an amp, cable, strap, picks, and case.
Speaking of cables, you will also need an amp cable in order to connect your bass to your amp. These come in a variety of lengths, but you’ll want to make sure that it’s long enough for you to be able to move around whilst playing.
It’s also worth keeping a few spares, as cables are quite easy to damage, especially if you travel around a lot with your bass. This bass cable from New Bee is 10 feet long, which makes it a great length, and it’s relatively cheap.
You also need to make sure that there are ¼ jacks on both ends of the cable, as bass guitars and amplifiers have the same jack input.
It might seem unnecessary for you to purchase a bass case at first, especially if you’re rarely going to take your bass out of your home.
However, they’re still a purchase we would recommend investing in, as leaving your bass out all the time means that it will get covered in dust. Cases can also protect your bass from damage, such as scratches or being bumped/knocked over.
If you’re going to travel with your bass quite often, we recommend getting a hard case, like this one from Gearlux. Not only will it make the travel process easier, but it will protect your bass from getting damaged as you carry it around.
If you’re planning on keeping your bass at home, a soft, padded case, like this one from Donner, will suffice. As we mentioned previously, a lot of bass starter kits often include soft cases as one of the accessories.
A strap is a relatively inexpensive but extremely useful accessory. If your bass guitar doesn’t already come with a strap, we highly recommend purchasing one. Not only are they comfortable, but they also make it harder for you to drop your bass. In addition, the bass is a heavy instrument, so younger players, especially, will want to have a strap so that they can develop good form.
You just need to make sure that the strap fits your body properly by adjusting it to your height. A strap is also a great way for you to show some personality, as there’s tons of colors and unique designs that you can choose from.
If you’re after an inexpensive, and basic strap, check out this one from Amazon Basics.
How to Choose a Bass Guitar
If you’re a beginner, there’s no need to fork out thousands of dollars on a high-end or vintage bass guitar.
However, you also want to make sure that you’re not purchasing a low-quality bass, as badly made instruments are much harder to learn how to play.
In terms of pricing, a decent bass will cost you around $200. As your skills progress, you can graduate to a higher-end model.
Different Types of Bass Guitars
Bass guitars are available in several different varieties. These include four, five, and six string basses, solid bodies, hollow bodies, acoustics, and electrics.
The various types affect the tone of the bass, but do not have any effect on it’s playability – besides the number of strings. You can also get smaller “scale length” basses, which are smaller for than full-sized basses and are perfect for younger players.
When trying to pick the right bass for you, it’s worth keeping your budget in mind. Try checking out your local music store to see what options are available for your budget.
Don’t forget you can test out instruments at stores, so you can find one that feels most comfortable within your hands. As a beginner, you don’t have to worry much about having the most advanced, or expensive bass, as you progress you can always upgrade.
Once you continue to practice and learn, you will start to have a better understanding of pickups and electronics, which will go on to shape your playing style and sound.
But as a beginner, just focus on finding an instrument that feels good, is comfortable to hold and play, and is within your price range.
Electric Bass Guitars
The majority of bass guitars are electric. Just like electric guitars you need an amplifier for you to be able to hear your bass properly. Most bass guitars have solid bodies – again just like most electric guitars – which transfers the vibrations from the bass well.
Acoustic Bass Guitars
Like acoustic guitars, an acoustic bass does not require any electronics, amps, or pickups to be able to function properly. Instead, their sound holes project the sound. Acoustic bass guitars are perfect for playing rock, country, and blues music styles, thanks to the deep, natural tones that they produce.
Semi Acoustic Bass Guitars
Semi acoustic bass guitars are the best of both worlds: they have the punchy sound of an electric bass mixed with the resonance of an acoustic bass.
These bass guitars have what is called a semi-hollow body, which has f-shaped sound holes. When unplugged, a semi acoustic bass produces more sound than electric bass does, but it still needs a power source (like an amplifier) for the best sound.
Electro-Acoustic Bass Guitars
When plugged into an amp, these bass guitars produce the same rich tones that an acoustic bass does, just louder. They can be played either with or without an amp, however, they have piezoelectric pickups.
This means that they make tones which are different from standard electric bass guitars that makes them prone to feedback. So, you need to adjust the volume slowly to reduce any harshness.
Four or Five Strings?
A standard bass comes with four strings, and most beginners will begin to learn bass on a four-string model. These four strings are very similar to the lowest four strings on a guitar (low E, A, D, G), except they are just one octave lower.
So, if you’re already familiar with playing the guitar, learning how to play the bass won’t be that difficult.
Five string bass guitars have an additional string, which is similar to the B string on the guitar (it is one octave lower as well). Five string basses can make playing complicated chords or scales easier to play, as your hands don’t need to change positions as frequently.
Most beginners start off by playing four-stringed models, as they’re usually easier to learn, and five string basses are rarely used by live bands.
Learning on a four string bass will also help you to get to grips with the basics better before you move onto more complicated skills and techniques. It’s also worth noting that five string bass guitars are usually more expensive than standard four-string basses.
The tonewood simply refers to the wood in which a bass guitar is made from. The body, neck, and fretboard are all made from wood, and each type has a different effect on the tone and sound of your instrument.
Some of the more common tonewood choices are:
- Mahogany: This is a heavy wood which has a high sustain. It gives a soft warmth that creates a deep, full bodied sound that is emphasized in the lower midrange.
- Ash and Adler: This wood creates a full balanced tone which provides clarity, and sustain. It also has an attractive finish.
- Agathis: This is a cheaper material which has a reasonably balanced tone that emphasizes the lower midrange.
- Maple: Dense and heavy wood which creates a long sustain with a clear tone for a bright sound. Maple is the preferred tonewood of professional bassists and recording musicians.
- Rosewood: Is warmer than maple, and is typically used for fretboards/fingerboards.
- Basswood: Similar to mahogany, but is inexpensive and softer. Suitable for a variety of different music styles, but is also great for faster playing styles or more complex techniques.
Electric Bass Pickups
To put it simply, electric bass pickups are magnets that are wrapped in wire. The purpose of a pick up is to create a weak magnetic field that the bass string disrupts, which will create an electronic signal from the bass to the amp to produce an audible sound.
There are a few different kinds of pickups. These are:
- Single-coil Pickups: These are thin, which produces a pretty clear sound. They’re also the most popular and common choice.
- Split-coil Pickups: These are usually used in the middle of the neck. They produce a deep, rounded sound.
- Humbucking Pickups: These are wider than the other two types of pickups as they have two rows of magnets instead of one. Because of their size they produce a thicker sound, almost like a growl.
As a beginner, you shouldn’t worry too much about using pickups. However, as your skills progress, we recommend trying at least two different pickups to experiment with so you can discover which sounds you prefer.
What Music Styles Would You Like to Play?
Although you may not be able to answer this at first, your preferred music and playing style will influence which style of bass you should opt for. For example, if you like to play exclusively funk, this requires a different bass style than blues or jazz.
Part of the process of learning to play bass includes finding which kind of music that you want to play. But if it is too early for you to decide which style you prefer playing, both the precision bass and jazz bass can be used to learn and play any type of music.
Once you start experimenting with different music styles you might want to upgrade or change to a different bass style too.
How to Tune a Bass Guitar
It’s really important that you keep your bass in tune, especially as a beginner, as this is when you’re developing your listening skills the most. Being able to differentiate between notes is an important skill, which will improve as you progress. Therefore, playing in tune is critical to developing your “ear”.
Although tuning a bass can be tricky as a beginner, the more you do it, the easier it will become. As we mentioned earlier, the bass is tuned one octave lower than a guitar, and the strings are tuned to the same four notes as the four lowest guitar strings (E, A, D, G).
One of the easiest methods is to use an electronic tuner. This one from Fender simply clips onto the headstock (where the tuning pegs can be found), and a microphone will pick up the sound coming from the string.
Play one string at a time and keep adjusting a string either higher and lower until it is in tune. There are also several apps which use the microphone of your phone or tablet to help you tune your strings.
An alternative way is to use a guitar. If you, or someone around you, have a guitar which is in tune, you can play the low E, A, D and G strings to help tune your bass. Use your ears and adjust the strings of your bass until they match the pitch of a guitar.
The final method – which doesn’t require any technology – is to tune by ear using something called the “5th fret method.” For this, you need at least one string in tune – preferably the low E string – and use that string as a reference point.
Once the low E string is in tune, press your finger down on the fifth fret of that string. This is what the A string should sound like, so using the tuning pegs, alter the A string until it matches that note.
With the A string in tune, you can now press your finger on the fifth fret of A string to tune the D string. Adjust the tuning pegs until the notes match. For the G string, press down on the fifth fret of the D string and adjust the G string until the pitches match.
How to Read Bass Tabs
Bass tabs are a simple music notation system that can help you learn how to play bass guitar. They can be found in books, magazines, and online, and are a great option for beginners to learn notes, scales, and songs.
However, they’re not a substitute for reading music, or using chord charts. This is because bass tabs only show you where to play a note, and don’t provide any information about the rhythm of a bassline.
With that being said, they are much easier to use in comparison to standard music notations. You can use tabs to work on your music reading skills which will help you to become a more well-rounded musician.
The tab system notes the strings horizontally. As a standard bass is four strings, the lowest string (E) is at the bottom. The notes are then added as a fret number across the string. As bass guitars have either 20 or 24 frets, you will see fret numbers between 0 and 24.
For example, if you see 3 written on the E string line, that means you put your finger on the 3rd fret of the E string. If you see a 5 on the D string, press down on the 5th fret of the D string, and so on.
As rhythm is rarely noted on bass tabs, it’s best to listen to the song you’re learning to get a sense of the rhythm you need to follow.
Although there’s not much to know when it comes to reading bass tabs, they’re a great way for beginners to learn to play and to start building up their music reading skills.
Tips for Practicing Bass
It’s important that you practice bass regularly, as this is the quickest and easiest way for you to build your skills. It may be difficult to fit practice into a busy daily schedule, but even just ten minutes a day can help. Here are some more tips to get you started:
- Practice regularly: Try and practice for around 30 minutes everyday, as this is the best way to build your skills.
- Practice without any distractions: It’s important that you can practice when you are able to concentrate. Take yourself to a quiet area, away from any distracting noises or environments.
- Start with techniques: There are a ton of technique exercises that will help build your skills as a beginner. For example, run scales, practice chords, and play arpeggios (plucking each note in a chord) to get your fingers used to moving and your mind thinking fast.
- Work on your timing: As a bassist, you need to have a strong sense of time – remember you create the rhythm. You can develop this by using a rhythm device such as a metronome or drum machine.
- Start slowly: Don’t try and take on too much too soon. Not only do you need to master certain basics and skills before moving on to more advanced techniques, but it can also demotivate you if you’re not succeeding at what you’re attempting.
- Monitor your progress: Make a note of your exercises and goals, and what you need to improve on. This will help you succeed.
Frequently Asked Questions
How often should you practice bass?
Ideally you should be practicing for around 30 minutes a day. Not only will this help you quickly improve your skills, but whatever you are learning or working on will be fresh in your mind.
However, it can be difficult to find time to practice, especially if you have a busy schedule. If that’s the case, even just 10 minutes a day can help.
How much should I spend on a bass guitar as a beginner?
It can be tricky to start learning a new instrument as you don’t want to spend too much money on something that you might quit after a few weeks.
So, beginners are recommended to keep their budgets low, and as their skills progress they can upgrade their instruments accordingly. With that being said, if you buy an instrument that is too cheap, it can be difficult to learn how to play as it doesn’t sound very good.
You can pick up electric bass guitar kits for beginners for around $140-$160. These can be pretty handy as they come with an array of accessories you will need such as an amp, case, cable, picks, and strap. However, most decent bass guitars will cost around $200.
Can I teach myself how to play bass guitar?
Whilst an experienced instructor can have a tremendous impact on your learning, it is possible to teach yourself how to play bass at home.
There are tons of resources you can find online such as YouTube tutorials, apps, books, and websites that can help you. Just remember to be patient, as learning a new instrument can take time.
We hope this article has provided you with what you need to start your bass guitar journey. Just remember to put in a lot of time and effort – learning a new instrument doesn’t happen overnight – but also just have fun with it!
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