How to Play the Bass


I was recently asked to write an article under the title, “How to Play the Bass.” Personally, I think that a better title would be, “Why to Play the Bass.” The twisted motives behind the “why’s” make juicier reading than the “how’s” anyday of the week. Well, I wrote the article and aimed it at the rank beginner but decided to spare the prey for another day (due to a gray area concerning rights of ownership). I will not, however, hesitate to bore readers of this blog with the aforementioned article. Maybe soon I’ll get into the “why’s” as well. A few people still have to die or move to Tibet before I can mention names though.

How to Play the Bass

The electric bass is a fairly new instrument developed and introduced in 1951 by Leo Fender. The electric bass or bass guitar was instantly popular among musicians who were playing bigger venues at louder volumes. It was much smaller and more durable than the string bass and became the bass of choice for many traveling bands.

Learning to play a musical instrument is much like eating good food. The process is best enjoyed one sensible mouthful at a time. Many young musicians bite off a huge mouthful, become frustrated, and put the instrument in the closet. I intend to keep things very simple and hopefully this article will inspire you play and enjoy the bass.

The first thing to do is to understand the function of the bass. The bass is part of the rhythm section of the band and cooperation with the drummer is of utmost importance. Listen to almost any song and you will hear and feel the interaction between the bass and drums. You will also find that the bass plays very simple parts but with a great degree of rhythmic accuracy. This interaction between the drums and bass is called “the groove” and it is the single most important factor in popular music.

Let’s get physical. Sit on a comfortable stool or armless chair and hold the bass in playing position. Make sure that your feet are free to move, you’re going to need them. Now count out loud, “one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and.” Don’t be self-conscious, every good musician started by counting out loud. Tap your right foot as you say “one” and “three.” Tap your left foot as you say “two” and “four.” Lean into each step as you count. The average pop song is under three minutes long so just count and tap for three minutes as the groove starts to take shape.

Let’s break some musical barriers and concentrate on one string at a time. Play the lowest, fattest string on the bass. For right now, stroke or pluck the string with your finger, your thumb or a guitar pick. Whatever you use, try to make the string sound big and full. Let it ring and feel the low vibrations coming through the body of your bass. If you develop an appreciation for the way the bass feels, you can always practice with or without an amplifier.

Now, let’s add playing the bass to our counting and tapping. Play the lowest string every time you say “one” while tapping your right foot. Take your time and be sure to feel the bass vibrate against your body. Now add a bass note every time you say “three” while tapping your right foot. As simple as this seems, playing long notes for three minutes at a time is very valuable practice and will help you to be a better musician.

By now, your counting and tapping should be feeling natural so let’s add another bass note. Play a note as you say the “and” that comes between two and three. Your right foot will be up. If we use CAPITAL letters to indicate bass notes, your count looks like this: ONE-and two-AND THREE-and four-and ONE-and two-AND THREE-and four-and etc. Once again, take your time, count out loud and do this for at least three minutes. Remember that feel is everything.

After you can play/count/tap this pattern naturally, you can add your left hand to the equation. The bass neck is similar to the guitar but it is a larger scale. Many bass parts can be played using only the index and little finger of the left hand. Put your left index finger on the lowest string between the fourth and fifth frets. With your thumb on the back of the neck, put pressure on the string and play it. Try to make the note last by maintaining the pressure. This might hurt a bit at first but with repetition and practice, your note will sound big and full. Now, without moving your hand, put your little finger on the lowest string between the sixth and seventh fret. With your index finger still in position you should have a good grip on the bass. Apply pressure and play the note. Now go back and forth between these two notes and make each one sound good.

Let’s put all of this together. Start your counting and foot-tapping. Remember to count out loud. Play the same pattern you played before. ONE-and two-AND THREE-and four-and. Now, each time you say “ONE” you will play a new note. Play the open string, then the note with your index finger and then the note with your little finger. Repeat this for the length of a pop song.

If you did everything in this article, you should have a good idea of what goes into playing the bass. If it appeals to you, dig in. There are thousands of sources for technical information but the most important source is you. Listen and Feel.