Cheat Sheet

Bass Guitar For Dummies

The real fun and challenge of playing a bass guitar is that the patterns of the chords and scales never change, no matter what musical key you’re in. Memorizing the order of your bass’s musical notes can prepare you to tackle those chords and scales. Once you know the notes, you can master basic chords, 7th chords, modes, and solo scales and become a truly versatile bassist. And while you’re working on those chords and scales, use playing exercises to strengthen your left hand and increase your versatility even more!

The Order of Musical Notes

Knowing the sequence of musical notes is basic to understanding how to play music. On a bass guitar, each note (including sharps, #, and flats, ♭ó) is one fret, or a half step, away from the note next to it. Knowing how to read music is not nearly as important to bass players as it is for classical musicians. However, if you have a basic understanding of chords and scales and memorize the order of the notes for your bass guitar, it will go a long way toward helping you know how to place your fingers when someone shouts for an “E” or an “A.”

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Basic and 7th Chords, Modes, and Solo Scales for Bass Guitar

In order to play bass guitar well, you need to acquaint yourself with some important chords and modes (scales). A basic understanding of music will help you master these approaches, but here’s an overview of what you need to know:

  • Basic chords, or triads: These consist of the three most important notes of any musical scale: root (1st), 3rd, and 5th. You can find the notes for the triad by playing any scale up to the 5th note, skipping every other note.

  • 7th chords: A 7th chord has one more note than the triad — the 7. The sound of a 7th chord is a little more complex than the sound of a triad, and it’s extensively used in contemporary music.

  • Modes, or scales: In almost all songs, one mode (scale) predominates. Mode is simply a fancy word for a musical scale. Know the mode you’re playing in, and you’re well on your way to providing great bass lines for any song.

  • Solo scales: A solo scale is exactly what it sounds like — a scale you play when you’re soloing or the featured player in a band. Solos are usually reserved for traditional melody instruments, such as saxophones, but bassists are also asked to perform solos on occasion.

Following is a readily accessible diagram of the most important chords and modes for your bass playing endeavors. The open circles on each diagram represent the root of a chord or scale — the starting point for your fingers. The black dots represent the chord- and scale-tones.

You only need three strings to complete an octave, thus the three string diagrams presented here — even though your bass has four or more strings.

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Strengthening the Left Hand to Increase Bass Playing Versatility

For bass guitar players, a strong and limber left hand makes playing the bass more comfortable and enjoyable, and it helps in tackling complex chords and scales. A good exercise for the left hand is the following permutation exercise:

  • 1 stands for the index finger.

  • 2 stands for the middle finger.

  • 3 stands for the ring finger.

  • 4 stands for the pinkie.

Simply play through each column on every string and notice how your hands become more and more coordinated and limber. The numbers represent the different fingers of your left hand:

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