If you're new to the bass guitar you need some direction. In all honesty, there are loads of things that you don't need to know now and a few things that are absolutely essential. This guide has no waffle and nothing in it that you can't use in your bass playing. So without further ado let's get stuck in.
1. Focus On Technique
The biggest barrier to starting out is the physical challenge of the bass. Once you learn a couple of exercises and get your hands coordinated, you'll be able to actually play some basslines. This will trigger a snowball effect that will keep you motivated. The video below shows you what to do with your hands and gives you a very simple exercise to work on.
The full lesson is here.
This is an easy but useful exercise to get you going.
Make sure you download my free ebook which contains this exercise and loads of other useful bass stuff. It's a boring exercise but it gets the fingers prepared for a more ear-pleasing future.
2. Hold Your Bass Properly
This is so important and often overlooked. It's a simple thing that takes a little time but once you have your bass secure, your hands are free to play. Make sure you don't grab the neck with your fretting hand.
The video in the first tip goes through this too.
3. Don't Give Yourself Too Much To Learn
Learning the bass can be overwhelming can't it? Be patient, give yourself as much time as you need and choose one or two things to learn. Don't try to do too many things at once (although you can batch things when you feel comfortable - see Tip 10). You can work on technique with a metronome which also tightens up your timing. That's cool. But don't try to learn slap, hammer-ons, Jaco lines, and how to read music all in the same week. Pick one thing, learn it well and then build on that strong foundation.
4. Work On Your Ear And Groove
I alluded to this in Tip 3. Using a metronome, drum machine, loops, or playing with a real drummer will help you to work on your groove, feel and timing. This is what people who you play music with want you to have oodles of. Check out this lesson on working with a metronome. Aim to play in time and make it feel good. This will come to you over time so be patient with yourself and stick to the process.
This is really two tips in one: Your ear is going to be very important in terms of your ability to pick out basslines and make stuff up on the spot. The diagram below contains some famous tunes you can link to patterns on the bass.
5. Learn Your Favourite Songs
I get lots of questions about what to learn. Write down a list of your favourite songs, add them to a playlist and then aim to work on those. Provided they're not horrifically difficult you'll learn them and get a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. These are emotions you want as a beginner because, as you know, there can be a lot of frustration. Play stuff that you like and you'll want more. This is my playlist:
6. Get Your Bass Set up
A bad bass you have to fight will make you want to give up. Fear not; a good bass doesn't mean an expensive one. Just get your bass tweaked by a professional or, better yet, learn to do it yourself and your bass will feel beautiful in your hands. This setup guide from the guys at Fodera is fantastic.
7. Learn The Major And Natural Minor Scales
Many of the songs in Tip 13 use these scales. They're extremely common and form the building blocks of much of western music. Theory becomes easy to learn when you know these particular scales. Relative keys, triads, chords, modes. All that stuff comes from simple scales.
8. Pentatonic Scales Rock
After the scales in Tip 7 learn these ones. They come from the Major and Natural Minor scales above and they sound awesome in riffs, lines, solos, and fills.
There's a full lesson here on this incredibly useful scale.
9. Learn Basic Fingerstyle, Slap, And Plectrum
These are all cool playing styles. Start with basic fingerstyle technique then add in the others. They are all very different and it's all about adding a range of tones to your palette. Some of the previous tips will help you get the fingerstyle down. There's a good slap exercise here.
10. Use Musical Sounding Exercises
Multiply skill acquisition by working on more than one thing during a technical exercise. You can work on arpeggios, one-finger-per-fret technique, and timing while playing something that sounds fun. I wrote a whole book on this. Here's an exercise from the book:
11. Learn To Play A 12 Bar Blues
There are loads of different types of blues including jazz-blues which adds more sophisticated harmony to the standard 12 bar form (based around the I IV and V chords). Knowing the basic 12 bar blues form is a must.
12. Tap Your Foot When You Play
Think of time as a grid on which you place your notes. You have to be very aware of where the beats are at all times especially when playing complex syncopated rhythms. The way to start mastering your inner clock is to tap your foot on the beats as you play. Your notes will either be on or off these beats and if you start to internalise quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes you'll be well on your way. Start slowly and build-up to the point where you can do it without thinking about it.
13. Learn Some Famous Riffs
You need momentum when you begin something otherwise you'll lose steam and get frustrated because it's new and difficult and you're getting nowhere. A great thing to do is focus on small wins and these famous riffs will give you something fun and relatively easy to play. You can then build on this.
9 Beginner Bass Guitar Riffs - The Chain, Locked Out Of Heaven, Under Pressure, Another One Bites The Dust, Feel Good Inc., Smoke On The Water, Seven Nation Army, Money, Billie Jean.
14. Develop A Practice Routine
None of this will come together without some effort on your part. The good news is that a tiny amount of practice is all you need at first as long as you're consistent with it. A ten minute a day practice routine will develop the playing habit. It will then grow and you'll become a rock star *. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can ever give you. * or jazz, blues, pop etc.
15. Keep Your Bass Close By
Designing your practice environment is important. If your bass is downstairs locked away in a dusty case and your amp's in the loft, you'll watch another episode on Netflix. Instead, have your bass on a stand; cable and amp ready to go and you'll pick it up often. It's simple, but it works. I often play my bass with no amp so there's even less of an excuse.
16. Learn The Notes
The middle part of the neck is a grey area for many bass players who dare not venture there. Yes, it's true that a lot of action for us low-enders takes place in the first few frets. However, understand the patterns located all over the fretboard as well as the note names and you'll be able to play anything, anywhere.
17. Embrace Music Theory
There are plenty out there who think that learning theory will somehow suck the flair and soul from their playing. This is utter nonsense. Yes, there are traits in playing that are hard to pin down and this is where the magic comes from. But knowing theory opens up a whole universe of music. Knowing the inner workings of music will train your ear and give you the tools to write music, not to mention converse easily with other musicians.
18. Study The Great Players
Many people don't know where to begin when they start playing the bass guitar. Listen to the titans of the instrument then work out the fills, lines, and solos they play. Figure out why your favourite lines work and how they're being played. Having a solid grasp of theory and technique will help in this regard. Your ear and your playing will develop so much if you do this. Here's a list to get you started.
- Nathan East
- Pino Palladino
- Anthony Jackson
- Tony Levin
- Jimmy Johnson
- Leland Sklar
- Gail Anne Dorsey
- Abraham Laboriel
- Tim Lefebvre
- Will Lee
- Darryl Jones
- John Entwistle (The Who)
- Jack Bruce (Cream)
- Chris Squire (Yes)
- Geddy Lee (Rush)
- Billy Sheehan
- Les Claypool (Primus)
- John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)
- John Myung (Dream Theater)
- Bryan Beller
19. Play In A Band
This is the best way to improve quickly as you'll learn which skills you actually need and which you can reserve for Instagram. Don't worry about becoming an expert before joining a band; just jump in at the deep end. Rehearsals are low-pressure situations where you can make mistakes. You will learn quickly and have loads of feedback so you'll know what to work on next time.
20. Record Yourself Playing
When you're in the midsts of practice, errors will bypass your conscious mind. Recording yourself (preferably to a click or drum beat) holds a microscope to your playing. You can then listen critically from a different point of view and find out the areas you need to improve. Common things you might hear are buzzes (not fretting properly), tuning issues (accidentally bending strings), and timing issues. It's sometimes a hard listen to hear yourself play but it's good for you so try it.
If you enjoyed this post, check out 100 Pro Tips To Improve Your Bass Playing.