Bass Guitar Syllabus (what to learn to become a great bassist!)

If you want to learn bass guitar online you need focus and direction. There's so much information out there that's it's easy to become disillusioned and lost in a sea of lessons.

That's why I wrote this post. 

This is for beginner to intermediate players looking to take control of their learning and reach a higher level. That said, more experienced players will benefit from these ideas, especially the listening section.

Think of what follows as sensible guidance on your bass playing journey. Each of us is different; with unique goals and preferences. However, I believe that no matter what kind of player you want to be, the fundamentals remain the same. This is by no means an exhaustive list (although there's a lot here!) but what follows should really help you learn bass guitar properly.

The way I think about learning bass guitar stems from thirty years of playing and nearly twenty years of teaching. It's really the teaching that has formed my philosophy and I really think the lessons and ideas here will help you immensely. 

My thoughts on learning to become the best musician you can be is summed up in the following diagram.

Bass Guitar Syllabus

Once you can make the connections between all the disparate subjects, your confidence grows as do your musical powers. The more you learn, the more they make sense and the more 'light bulb moments' you will have.

You don't need to rush any of this. Take your time but constantly strive to learn something new and increase your ability.

Make that your process and over time, you will gradually get better until you can do things you can only dream of today.

Where I have a free lesson or a resource that will help you, you'll find a link. Know that there are plenty more free lessons on this site too. You'll find them here, split up into the categories from the diagram above.


Bass Guitar Technique

Why?

Without solid technique you won't be able to express yourself on the bass. You'll feel frustrated and want to give up. With good technique, the experience of playing bass is transformed to one of effortlessness and enjoyment.

What To Know:

Here's what I recommend you know:

  • Fingerstyle - alternate index and middle fingers, one finger per fret, extended fingering, raking, rolling.
  • Slap: pop, slap, left and right hand interplay, patting.
  • Plectrum: alternate picking, rock, funk styles,
  • Articulations: hammer-on, pull-off, bends, slides, vibrato, shake, ghost notes.
  • Muting: to control note length and unwanted noise.

Goal

To have complete control over note lengths and unwanted noise and to be able to play effortlessly and in time. To master a variety of techniques to get a range of tones out of the instrument.

Further reading: I wrote a book of seventy musical sounding bass guitar exercises. It's not any old exercise book, though; instead, it delves into theory, creating bass lines, playing in time, and learning scales and fretboard patterns.

Creative Bass Technique Exercises

Creative Bass Technique Exercises


Theory

Why?

Theory teaches you the inner workings of music. It is the gateway into true mastery and understanding. When you know how something works you can then apply that knowledge in a variety of different ways including:

  • Composing
  • Transcribing
  • Playing by ear

What To Know:

Goal

Bass line creation: know how to form lines from chord tones (arpeggios) and scales.

Figuring out music: use your ear to work out bass lines, rhythms, harmony, and melody.

Improvise: be able to jam with musicians in a variety of styles and genres.


Groove/Feel/Timing

Why?

Playing in time with good feel and groove is really what it's all about. You can play the simplest bass line in the world but if it's out of time and stiff, it will sound bad. So too does the blisteringly fast line played with great technique but no groove and slightly out of time. 

Along with technique, this is the area to master as soon as you can. These lessons will help.

What To Know:

  • Rhythms: whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note, triplets.
  • Feels: 1/16th, shuffle, swing, rock 1/8ths,
  • Beat placement: behind, on, ahead.
  • Metronome: play at different tempos

Goal

Play in time (with great feel) across a wide range of tempos


Fretboard Knowledge

Why?

Put simply, the more of the fretboard you know, the more places you can play on your bass. This opens up a whole host of options for you including more sophisticated bass lines, fills, and solos. There are tons of ways you can easily learn your fretboard.

What To Know:

Goal

Know ALL the notes across the fretboard and how to play scales, triads, arpeggios, and chords in a multiple locations.


Mindset

Why?

You're not going to get any of this together without some work. You know that but how much do you prioritise the practice side of things? It should be the number one thing you work on at any stage of your playing. Create good practice habits and develop a disciplined practice routine and you can achieve anything you want (disclaimer: within reason!).

What To Know:

Goal

Develop a regular practice routine with clear goals for each practice session. Have several long term goals and targets to work towards and never allow yourself to play the same old thing for weeks on end. 

Check out: The Bass Guitar Practice Journal. I wrote this to help keep you on track as well as to learn how the professionals approach practice. Learn more here.

Reading

Why?

If you couldn't read English you'd be in trouble right now. I'd like t think you'll learn a lot with this syllabus and my other free lessons. You're doing so because you can read. For most bass players, reading music is a lost art.

You don't need to sight read anything that's put in front of you but gaining at least a passing knowledge of reading music will help you in these areas:

Self study: find music and play it quickly.

Do away with memorising! Turn up to a rehearsal, session, or jam night and read a chart or lead sheet.

Study rhythms and music theory with ease

What To Know:

Goal

Identify and play simple rhythms and notes on lined music paper without TAB. Make and read chord charts.


Develop Your Ear

Why?

Your ears are your most powerful weapon. When you get them to a good level, you can learn new songs easily and quickly, make up bass lines, fills, and solos on the spot, survive and thrive in jam sessions, and much more.

It seems difficult at first but there are tangible things you can do.

What To Know:

  • Figuring songs out by ear
  • The nuts and bolts of music theory are the things you need to be able to identify by ear. This video shows you ten tips that will help strengthen your ear.

Goal

Put on your favourite bass line and figure it out quickly. Improvise with other musicians and be able to create your own bass lines, fills, and solos in different genres (and keys).


What Kind Of Bass Player Do You Want To Be?

This is a serious question. I started off by saying that we all have different goals and desires. Do you want to play like Victor Wooten or Sting? Your technical requirements will be very different. Do you want to write music, become a professional, play in a decent band at the weekends?

What you will need to do for each situation and the time you require will differ so get to know your goals as soon as you can.

Use a journal or log book and get to work! The more you can define and gain clarity for yourself, the more the path to get there will open up for you.


Listen To Music!

Everything you want to learn and know about is contained in the thousands of great bass lines that have been recorded by great players. By listening to those lines and working them out, you can absorb the wisdom in that music, taking it in like a sponge. 

This is why you need a good ear and this is why you need to listen to as many different styles as possible. Listening to music with a critical ear counts as practice. Here are hundreds of great songs for you to listen to and add to your repertoire!

They're all relatively easy so, at first, just enjoy them, then use your ear to figure out as many as you can (I have lots of lessons here on learning famous bass lines).


Bass Player Manifesto

I'll leave you with a manifesto. Listen to these simple rules and remember that making your life simpler will help your bass playing. 

  • I will work on my technique
  • I focus on tone, timing, taste - the three elements of great bass playing!
  • I will make do with the gear I have and I have no room for G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)
  • I will work on my ear until I can understand music better 
  • I don't get despondent when I hear an amazing player; instead I learn from them. 
  •  Every practice session is maximised so I improve even 1%.
  • I have a clear game plan for my development. My improvement is completely under my control
  • I will follow my musical soul. 
  • I push myself and open up my musical horizons. Nothing is off limits and I'm curious about new music and new things to practise.

This lesson may well help you further:

The First Things You Should Learn On Bass Guitar

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