Level: Absolute Beginner
So you've bought your first bass guitar and you’re ready to rock. What do you learn? It can be confusing knowing exactly where to start but there really are a few things that will get you on the right track straight away.
This post links to many of my other free lessons which are designed to make you a better bass player. The lessons will give you a really solid foundation from which to build.
There is quite a lot of information here but, eventually, you will be using it all to make great music. Bookmark or save this page, take your time building up your skills and keep going. You will notice an improvement with good, consistent practice!
For some tunes to play right away check out these lessons:
How To Play A 12 Bar Blues On The Bass Guitar
How To Play 9 Famous Bass Guitar Riffs
What To Learn On Bass?
I find it really helpful to have an overall framework of what it takes to be a great bass player. You will find that everything you need can be distilled into these seven categories:
- Music Theory
- Fretboard Knowledge
- Learning Songs
This looks like a lot but, don't worry, there are very small gains you can make in each category that will compound very quickly into fantastic results.
Here are some of the tiny wins that you can achieve almost straight away...
Without decent technique you will literally fight and struggle with the bass, get frustrated and want to give up. Work on this area and everything else will seem easier.
This lesson shows you how to hold the bass and what to do with each hand. This will work on your coordination, fluency, accuracy, speed, strength, and stamina.
I recommend you start with fingers and then move onto slap and plectrum.
Once you get used to that, use this simple exercise everyday:
I have more exercises in my free ebook and loads of musical sounding and challenging ones in my book Creative Bass Technique Exercises.
Scales are also used to build technique (as well as improvise, compose, jam, and much more).
Bass Guitar Scales
Scales form the building blocks of bass lines. Since so much music theory is based on scales it makes a lot of sense to memorise a few. In addition, you can use scales to improvise solos, bass lines as well as building speed and accuracy in your technique. All good stuff!
Memorise the following one-octave scales. On these diagrams, the strings run horizontally, the frets vertically and the blobs are where you put your fingers (the numbers in them are the left-hand fingers to press down). The red blob bottom left is the lowest note in pitch (the ‘root’ note) and the one on the top right is the highest note (the ‘octave’). Play from the lowest to the highest note but feel free to change the order of notes - that’s called making music!
All these diagrams are moveable meaning you can start the red blob at a different place and end up with the same scale - just starting from a different note (so you can play any of these shapes starting on any of the 12 notes in music - pretty cool).
3fr.= 3rd Fret
5fr.= 5th fret.
Related lessons:The Minor Pentatonic Scale
Bass Guitar Arpeggios
See the infographic below this section for an explanation of what arpeggios are and how you might use them.
Bass Guitar Theory
Here’s an infographic explaining a few key terms you should know.
Look at any good bass player and you will see them using more than the first few frets. Actually, so much great bass playing does take place only in the first few frets but my point is that true mastery comes from being able to play what you want when you want. Knowing your fretboard inside out is essential for that.
Flea venturing towards the higher echelons of the fretboard
The following diagrams come from the free lesson: How To Find Any Note On The Bass Guitar. Check that lesson out as well as:
4 Very Useful Octave Patterns For Bass Guitar
3 Points On The Fretboard You Should Know
Joe Satriani Note Learning Exercise For Bass Guitar
There really is a lot of important and useful info in these lessons so be sure to go through them.
All The Natural Notes
All The Sharp (#) Notes
All The Flat (b) Notes
The above diagrams and many more useful ones can be found in a free ebook I wrote that you can download here or by signing up on the form at the end of this post.
Reading music enables you to learn so much more by quickly reading the notes as you would these words you're reading now. You don’t have to be anywhere near as good at reading music as you are at reading English; you can get loads out of having just a decent grasp.
It’s also brilliant if you want to do a last minute gig and you can’t practice or prepare - just read it and you’re ready to go! That does take a deeper understanding but with regular practice, you can learn to read well really quickly. It starts coming together the more consistently you do it.
I find that reading music tends to teach you more about notes and music theory more than TAB does. TAB usually doesn't display any rhythms so that's no big surprise. Reading music is a great way to learn and understand rhythm, harmony and melody - the three big cornerstones of music.
Check out these free lessons:
Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics - Note Names And Locations
Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics - Counting
Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics - Rhythms And Rests
Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics - Reading Exercises
Listen to the greats of the instrument. This really is the best way to learn the bass. Get a lesson direct from your favourite bass player by working out what they played. Want to play like Bootsy? Work out Sex Machine. Want to sound like Jaco? Figure out Teen Town (practice loads first!). To do this you can look at YouTube videos and TAB but I also recommend studying Awesome Bass Players and Classic Bass Albums. Immersing yourself in great music and the top players is the best way to train your ear and learn all kinds of cool lines, techniques and styles.
When you listen to different styles of music you get inspired and also develop your own unique voice on the bass. To then make the most of what you're listening to, you will need to...
Work On Your Ear
To be able to put on your favourite piece of music and figure out the bass line requires you to have a good ear. You need to be able to listen to a piece of music, pick out the bass line and work out the notes, rhythms and techniques. This takes a little time but, with practice, it comes much much easier. HINT: go through all the free lessons on this blog and you’ll pick a lot of this stuff up. I will be releasing ear training courses specific to bass in the near future so sign up for the newsletter to keep updated.
Not to be too anti-TAB but one thing I have noticed over years of teaching is the real lack of a good ear in many bass players who rely solely on TAB (or a video showing you exactly how something goes). These two approaches do not rely on your own ear, resulting in weak listening skills. I understand the allure of TAB and videos: It's definitely more difficult in the short term to use your own ear, especially with the internet around to give you all the answers immediately.Listening and working out bass lines yourself (at least as part of your practice routine) is one of the best investments you will ever make in yourself as a musician. Click To Tweet
Here’s a great way to start working on your ear. Learn the major scale (see above) and learn to be able to sing or hum the notes of the scale without the bass anywhere near you. Then learn to pick out the intervals within the scale.
An interval is the distance between 2 musical notes and they are named from the major and natural minor scales. Since all bass lines consist of notes followed by more notes it pays to be able to figure out quickly the sounds (intervals) that are taking place as the bass line progresses. Each interval has a unique sound that maps to a shape on the bass guitar fretboard. If you can learn the shape and link it to the sound (interval) you’re in business!
Here's an infographic that highlights this in detail:
The fancy word for this is repertoire and it simply means everything you know how to play on the bass. This is why you took up the bass and this is what you will be working on constantly. Learn rock, jazz, pop, funk, blues, classical and everything in between! You’ll learn something from every different style and it will make you a better bass player.
Here are a couple of free lessons to get you started:
How To Play 9 Famous Bass Guitar Riffs
How To Play A 12 Bar Blues On The Bass Guitar
A lot of the information in this lesson is powerless without context. The really cool stuff starts to happen when you know what to do with the scales, theory, fretboard knowledge and so on. Sign up for the newsletter to be informed of plenty more free lessons and tips that will show you exactly how to turn all this into amazing sounding bass playing.
DOWNLOAD The Bass Guitar Basics You MUST Know: 2 page PDF summarising what you need to know.
How To Improve Your Bass Playing In The Quickest Time
Do you have any questions about what to learn when you start the bass guitar? Comment below.
I NEVER THOUGHT THIS WAS GOING TO BE SO HELPFULL…THANK YOU VERY MUCH !! NOW I KNOW HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE CHORDS WITH THE TEACHER, OR I MIGHT SAY..YOU GUYS KNOW HOW TO EXPLAIN IN BASIC AND SIMPLE WORDS !! WOW !!
Good to hear that! Have fun with it and create as much music with it as you can…
I really want to learn how to groove and ghost noting..
Good idea!Check these out.
I am 65, so, am I too old?
Absolutely not. I’ve had MANY emails from 60 – 80 year olds. Some are coming back to the instrument and some are starting. If you a) want to and b)can spend some time on it and can c)be at least slightly serious about improving, you can get better. Focus on one or two simple things to gain a small win and then gain some momentum from that. Good luck!
Hi Bob, I am 52 and just picked up my first Bass Today! If I can – then you can 🙂 Dan’s lessons and teaching style is truly unique and by far the best I have come across. Make it fun and I am sure you can do it! Best Regards Rod from NZ
I am younger than 14 but older then 11 so can you give easier to understand details even though I’m in band and honors band I am a beginner on the bass guitar because I play alto saxophone?
Hmmm…I know it’s a little tricky sometimes when you’re new to this. Do you have a music teacher at school that can help take you through some of this stuff? Your sax skills will probably help you. I recommend going through the easy technique lessons I have on my site. That will make playing bass much easier once you have decent technique. Good luck!
please i need more cords on bass guitar
Check out my chord lessons – search ‘chords’ in the search bar. Cheers.
I am blind and started on the Bass about six months ago and I am doing surprisingly well! I love your website and everything you teach, but there is one small problem…
I am definitely sure there are more than a few blind Bass Players out there and it would be a giant help if you would say the frets or even the note names when learning the different scales as well as many other “practice” and playing videos. Like I said, you and your website are a gem but things such as this would be a giant help for us visually impaired people…
Chris, that’s amazing and very inspiring! That’s so great that you’re doing well. I understand. I had a left-handed bass player the other day mention that my diagrams are hard to follow for them. I am right-hand biased and I suppose and I regret to say my lessons aren’t geared towards the visually impaired either.
It must be hard to try and follow when I don’t mention the names or frets. I’ll try my best but it might be hard to do this every time if I’m being honest. This is just a) me forgetting in the moment of teaching a video and thinking of a million things (this is totally my error), b) me trying sometimes to keep the pace of a video up.
I do often mention the fret and/or note but not always. Not doing so all the time is just one of many teaching errors on my part! Keep up the great work and I hope you can get something from my future videos.
Thank you Chris, this would help us all. Keep playing that bass, it’s an amazing instrument for guys like us. Thanks again