How To Play Bass Guitar For Beginners In 9 Easy Steps

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Written By Will Fenton

Founder of MidderMusic. From numerous bands to stints working in music shops, read more about me on the 'Here's My Story' page!

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re likely familiar with the sound of the bass guitar.

It may not get as much of the spotlight as a lead vocalist, guitarist, or drummer, but the bass guitar serves as one of the foundational pillars of any rock band.

In fact, the bass in any musical ensemble serves as a guiding force for the movement of the music.

Imagine an organ without pedals, a choir without basses, or an orchestra without tubas, contrabassoons, or double basses. The ensembles would sound like something significant is missing. 

The same is true for jazz, rock, country, pop, and countless other genres that include bass guitar. So what is the bass guitar exactly?

It’s essentially an upright bass made more accessible by using electronics, modern tuning machines, an amplifier, and frets.

Here’s an ultimate guide on how to play bass guitar, first let’s take a closer look at the parts of the bass guitar.

Parts of the Bass Guitar

Parts of a bass guitar.

Body: This is the largest part of the bass guitar. It’s houses the electronics for your instrument, and can affect the overall tone of your bass depending on the type of wood it’s made of.

Bridge/Bridge Saddles: This is the metal end piece your strings attach to, and can be raised or lowered to adjust the height of the strings.

Pickups: These are the most important components of your electronics, as they detect the vibrations of your strings and transform it into an electric current. They’re essentially small magnets wrapped in wire.

Bass guitar pickups will come as either single-coil, split-coil, or humbucking. Each type produces a different sound, so when you’re shopping around, make note of the type of pickups used and determine which type you like most. 

Volume/Tone Knobs: These control the overall output volume of your bass, as well as the shape or tone of your sound.

Neck/Frets/Fretmarkers: This is where half of the magic happens when you play bass. This is where you will fret notes whenever you play.

Nut: The nut keeps the strings in place, and at a good height above the fretboard on the headstock-end of your bass. 

Headstock: The headstock is where you’ll find your tuning keys, allowing you to tighten and loosen the strings to adjust the pitch when tuning. 

Strings: You can’t have a bass guitar without strings!

Output Jack: This is where you’ll plug your instrument cable in so that signal can be sent to your amplifier for amplification. 

The bass guitar typically plays the root of each subsequent chord in a song, an arpeggiation of each chord, or uses some combination of the two.

As early as the 16th century, keyboardists would use Roman numerals and numbers to denote the inversion of each subsequent chord, implying the bass line of a song or piece of music.

That technique is called Figured Bass, but today, bass players can simply use their ears, or follow the root of each chord by knowing the chord name. 

Now that you’ve got an idea of the parts of the bass guitar and the role it plays in music, let’s start talking about what you’ll need to get started playing bass guitar. 

What You Need To Get Started

Bass Amplifier and Cable: One extremely important piece of gear you’ll need for your bass guitar setup is an amplifier.

Without an amplifier, you won’t hear much from your bass. It’s essential that you have something to amplify your electric bass, even just for practicing. 

Bass guitar and amplifier.

If you’re just starting to learn how to play bass guitar, you don’t need the most expensive, biggest, or loudest rig from the guitar shop.

You’d be just fine getting a simple 100-200 Watt bass amplifier for starters. I recommend getting a combo amp for convenience – they’re usually a little bit less expensive too, and don’t always compromise quality of sound.

Along with your bass amplifier, you’re going to need an instrument cable. This is what you’ll use to connect your bass guitar to your amplifier.

Be careful when purchasing your instrument cable. Don’t go for the cheapest one you can find because they’re not all the same. 

Fender instrument cable.

Instrument cables are almost always made to carry a monophonic signal. In the cable itself, there’s a wire to carry the signal, and a ground wire.

This makes the signal unbalanced, and more susceptible to outside interference, added noise, etc. The better quality the cable, the less noise you’ll get while you play. Avoid getting any instrument cable longer than 15-20 feet. 

Make sure you get at least one extra cable because you never know when you’ll need it!

Bass Case: Since you’re likely spending at least $100-$200 on your bass guitar, you’re going to want to ensure that it stays protected.

Get yourself a bass case even if you plan on keeping it at home. Having a place to keep your instrument safe from the elements and unwanted guests is really, really important. 

Bass guitar case.

Even if you just get a soft case, it’s better than nothing, and most often your bass will come with a soft case upon purchasing. 

Guitar Strap: Straps for both electric guitars, acoustic guitars, and bass guitars can all be used interchangeably.

A guitar strap might not always seem necessary, but it will help make practicing much easier at times, and can even make playing with others more enjoyable. 

If you practice in a seated position for an hour every day, you’re likely to develop bad posture, which will result in pain in your back, neck, shoulders, and/or arms and wrists.

It may not seem like it, but playing any musical instrument will take its toll on your body over time, so make sure you get a strap so you can practice standing up! 

Sheet Music/Tabs: If you read music already, great. If not, get yourself a book to teach yourself how to read bass clef and tablature.

If the music notation and tablature are shown in conjunction with one another throughout the book, make sure you avoid habitually favoring one over the other. Learning both is essential to becoming a well-rounded bassist.

Choosing a Bass Guitar

  1. Consider your budget

Budget might be the biggest factor you consider when looking for your perfect beginner bass guitar. You can expect to pay at least $200 for a decent beginner bass guitar, but some smart shopping can help you save even more.

Check out the used gear section of your local guitar shop, as well as pawnshops in your town or city. Many times you’ll be able to find something pretty great for half the retail price, so do your homework! 

  1. Four or five strings
four and five string bass guitar.

Four? Five? Six strings? If you’re a complete beginner, you might want to stick with a four string bass, but if you’re already a guitarist, transitioning to bass guitar will be easier, and more strings will be more manageable. 

The standard bass guitar comes with four strings, and they’re tuned just like the lowest four strings of a guitar, but an octave lower.

A five-string bass comes with an added low B string, making it easier to play some chords, and opening up a new world of depth for styles like metal and hard rock. 

If you’re like me though, a guitarist of over 20 years, you’ll be happy making music with just four strings! 

  1. Body styles
Body styles of bass guitar.

The body style of your bass guitar is exactly what you think it is – it’s what your bass looks like. Since you’re going to be spending hours and hours with this instrument, you need to make sure it’s something you really like. 

If you don’t like the way it looks, why spend the money on it? Pick a body style that you know will get you excited to play just by looking at it. 

There are some tone woods that affect the way your bass will sound, like mahogany, alder, and maple, but at this stage in your bass-playing career, you don’t need to worry about that as much.

  1. What type of music 

Knowing what type of music you want to play can help determine the type of bass you purchase. If you know you want to play jazz, then a Fender J-Bass will likely suit your needs, and if you want to play metal, a five-string bass will serve you well. 

If you’re not sure what type of music you want to play, fear not. Get yourself something that inspires you. In reality, you can play any style of music on any bass guitar. Versatility comes down to the player first, and the gear second. 

  1. Buy online or In-store
How To Play Bass Guitar For Beginners In 9 Easy Steps 1

There are loads of benefits to purchasing a bass guitar online. You get to shop through a much wider selection of instruments and don’t have to wait on limited retail staff for help or advice. 

The downside is that you don’t get to play it before you purchase. Many online stores will have a return policy though, so make sure you read it carefully before making a purchase. 

Either way, get yourself the perfect starter bass guitar so you can get started practicing! 

How to Play Bass Guitar in 9 Simple Steps

1. Tune Your Bass

Learn to tune your bass by ear. This is a skill almost every experienced bass player has developed over time. Start by using an electric tuner to tune the lowest string to E.

Then use the fifth fret of that string to tune your open A string. Use the fifth fret of your A string to tune your open D string, and use the fifth fret of your D string to tune your open G string. 

Bass guitar tuners.

Learning to tune by ear can be frustrating though. Just be patient with yourself. Getting an electronic tuner can help to develop your ear as well.

Make sure you’re paying attention to how the string sounds when it’s in tune, instead of just mindlessly relying on a digital display to tell you when your strings are tuned. 

Having a developed sense of pitch and intonation will take you further than you might think in the world of professional music. 

2. Right Hand Technique 

There are two different techniques most commonly used to articulate notes on the bass guitar: plucking and picking. 

When you pluck the strings on the bass guitar, start by resting your thumb on either a pickup or the pick guard. It’s important to keep your thumb as an anchor for your hand, but it’s important to ensure that your hand stays relaxed.

If you ever want to develop speed as a player, relaxation is key, and now is the time to build it into your muscle memory. 

Once your thumb is planted, you can use your index and middle fingers to pluck the strings, while leaving your ring and pinky fingers to float in a relaxed and somewhat collapsed position.

Plucking a bass guitar.

The other technique for articulating strings on the bass guitar is by using a pick. Using your finger to pluck the strings produces a softer, darker tone, and using a pick to play the strings produces a more aggressive, punchier tone. 

To use a pick, simply grasp it between your thumb and index fingers and pluck the strings, either by alternating direction (up and down), or picking in an all-down direction.

Alternating will produce a more melodic, legato bass line, and picking with all down strokes will produce a more in-your-face bass line. 

When it comes to music though, anything goes, so use your ears and imagination to produce the sounds you like!

3. Left Hand Technique

The left hand is where the other half of the magic happens. Bass guitarists will refer to each of the four fingers of the left hand as a number. The index finger is 1, the middle finger is 2, ring 3, and pinky 4. 

To properly fret your first note on bass guitar, start by resting your 1st finger on the 1st fret of the low E string (Hint: the 1st fret is the fret closest to the headstock).

Once your finger is resting in that spot (just resting without applying pressure yet), begin to pluck or pick the low E string with your right hand in a slow and steady rhythm. 

How To Play Bass Guitar For Beginners In 9 Easy Steps 2

Once you’ve got a rhythm going, begin to gradually increase the amount of pressure you’re applying with your left hand. You’ll hear the string go from an atonal thump, to a thump with a little buzz, to a buzz with a little tone, to a clear note. 

As soon as you hear a clear note, stop increasing pressure with the left hand and remember how that amount of pressure felt.

This is how you teach your hand the amount of pressure needed to play a note, and this is important because excess pressure creates tension, and tension is the enemy of fluid playing. 

4. Learn to Read Tablature

Tablature is the oldest form of notation for guitar music, going all the way back to the lute during the renaissance period.

It’s easy to understand because it’s simply an image of the neck of the guitar (or in this case the bass guitar), and uses numbers to show you what frets to play on which strings.

Bass guitar tablature.

The obvious downside to using tablature is the lack of denotation of rhythm. This is where music theory comes into play. 

5. Learn Music Theory

If music is a language, then music theory is the grammar for that language.

If you’re learning to play bass guitar, you need to learn how to read bass clef, and if you’re learning that, you might as well learn how to read the grand staff because it will make playing in ensembles so much easier in the long run. 

There are countless resources online to help you learn how to read music, and even more to help you understand music theory.

How To Play Bass Guitar For Beginners In 9 Easy Steps 3

As a bass player, you serve as the foundation of the ensemble. If you play the wrong bass note, the whole group sounds off. 

So make sure you understand, if nothing else, these two concepts:

6. Playing the Roots

The root of the chord is the note that the chord is built on. If the guitarist is playing an A Major chord, then your note will be A. 

As a bass player, the easiest way to lead the group is to simply play the root of each chord.

Things get a little more interesting (and complicated) when you start to play arpeggios of chords, and substitutions of bass notes using chord extensions beyond the root, third, and fifth of a chord. (Again, learn music theory!)

7. Spelling Chords and Playing Arpeggios

If we’re using the example of the guitarist in your band playing an A Major chord, then if you wanted to play that as an arpeggio, you would play A, C#, and E.

Playing arpeggios makes the music come to life a little bit more, adds some harmonic diversity, and makes the bass part more interesting to play overall. 

Knowing chord qualities will affect the arpeggios you play, as not every chord is Major. Being able to spell chords is an essential skill for the aspiring bass player. 

To begin, simply memorize how to spell a Major chord based on each of the natural notes. 

A,C#,E. B,D#,F#. C,E,G. D,F#,A. E,G#,B. And so on…

Now that you know how to spell all of these major chords, you only have to learn how to alter them in order to create different chord qualities. For example, to turn an A Major chord into a minor chord, you lower the third by a half step, resulting in a spelling of A,C,E. 

To turn your A Major chord into a diminished chord, lower both the third and the fifth by a half step, resulting in a spelling of A,C,Eb. 

If you’re a complete beginner, take this information in a little bit at a time, and focus more on developing good playing technique. 

8. How to Practice Bass Guitar

Whether you’re new or a seasoned guitarist transitioning to the bass guitar, practicing is a step that you cannot skip.

Practicing is the time you spend focused on perfecting your skills through mindful and controlled repetitions. If you sit down and start jamming or banging through something you’re learning, you aren’t really practicing – you’re just playing. 

Practicing requires laser focus on one or two very specific things at a time. Practice playing one note without any excess tension in your left hand for one minute, or practice playing a single major scale without looking at the notation.

Either way, make sure you have a goal in mind before you start practicing.

Always use a metronome when you practice. As a bass player, you serve as a major part of the musical pulse of your ensemble (along with the drummer), so having an excellent sense of rhythm is absolutely essential.

You could shred scales and riffs all day long, but if you can’t do it in a precise rhythm, you’re not going to mesh well with other musicians. 

9. Take Bass Guitar Lessons

Taking lessons in person might not be the best option available to you, since they’re usually pretty pricey.

Even if they’re a financially viable option for you, there are websites like JamPlay that are incredibly affordable, and give you the freedom to learn at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home. 

Jamplay bass guitar lessons.

I highly recommend JamPlay, as they have hundreds of hours worth of video lessons, interactive practicing tools, access to private instructors if needed, and all for a very low monthly subscription cost.

It will take some self-discipline, but you might actually be better off teaching yourself using an online platform like JamPlay.

You can check out our comprehensive guide on the best online bass guitar lessons here.

How To Play Bass Guitar – Final Thoughts

Learning to play the bass guitar might seem daunting or even unattainable at first.

There are countless options when it comes to gear and bass guitars alone, and getting set up with the right equipment for you is just the beginning. 

However, if you take the time to…

  • Learn how to use your gear
  • Find a sound you like
  • Practice consistently with a metronome
  • Work through online lessons at your own pace
  • Continue to challenge yourself to keep going

You’ll be well on your way to becoming the best bass guitarist you can be – just remember that the only competition is between you and yourself! 

FAQs

How long does it take to learn the bass guitar?

Learning to play the bass guitar is an on-going and lifelong process, but with the right motivation and focus, you could learn a new song in less than a day. 

Is it easy to go from guitar to bass?

Because the strings of a standard bass guitar are the same as those of the lowest four strings on a regular guitar, it’s easier for a guitarist to start learning the bass, but there is a nuance to playing bass well that most guitarists are unfamiliar with, and will have to learn.

How can I teach myself to play bass guitar?

You can teach yourself how to play bass guitar by using any of the online platforms available like JamPlay, TrueFire, or Scott’s Bass Lessons. Move through lessons at your own pace, practice regularly, and you’ll be able to play songs on bass guitar in no time!