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Scales and Chords You Need to Know for Playing Bass Guitar

Bass guitarists choose notes from a scale, an orderly ascending or descending sequence of notes, to create their music. The most commonly used scales have seven notes, beginning with the root (the first note). The eighth note (the octave) in the sequence sounds similar to the root, but it's a higher root. A chord is a combination of three or more notes taken from a scale.

You don't have to read music to play bass; music isn't a visual art — it's an aural art. You hear it. Some great bassists can't read a note and still manage to come up with incredible bass parts. Most bass players, however, find that reading music is a useful skill when playing with other people. Some band leaders require you to read music.

Music often is written on paper so it can be communicated to others; the same note can appear on paper in several forms. One form is the fingerboard diagram, or grid, which is simply a picture of the fingerboard (in an upright position). It's the clearest way to show you how to space your fingers along the fingerboard for playing the different scales and chords.

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A grid is composed of the following elements:

  • The vertical lines on the grids represent the strings, from low (left) to high (right). The first grid shows four strings. The second shows only three, even though your bass has at least four, because on almost all parts of the neck, you can play one complete scale (one octave) or chord using only three strings.

    The beauty of indicating finger positions on grids is that you can superimpose the grid onto any part of the bass, as long as you have enough strings and frets to work with.

  • The horizontal lines in the grid represent the frets.

  • The solid black dots and the open circle represent notes to be played. The open circle is the root, or tonal center. The root is the most important note in a scale or chord, and it's usually the first note you play.

  • The numbers next to the dots tell you which finger you use to play the note, as follows:

    1 = index finger (the pointer)

    2 = middle finger (well, never mind)

    3 = ring finger

    4 = pinkie (little finger)

  • The arrows from dot to dot indicate the sequence of the notes to be played (if there is a specific sequence). On the bass, you almost always play one note at a time.

The four-finger technique can help you play everything with the least amount of effort, the fewest shifts, and the greatest level of consistency. Using the same fingering time after time when playing the same scale or chord is essential for developing speed and accuracy and for smooth playing.

In other words, keeping your fingering consistent helps your hand become familiar with the moves and builds muscle memory so you can occupy your mind with other things (like fending off overly excited groupies).

The major scale starting on the root C, called the C major scale or the key of C, looks and feels exactly like the major scales that begin on any other root. For example, it looks exactly like the major scale starting on D (which, you guessed it, is called the D major scale, or the key of D).

Both scales have the same structure and are played with the same fingers in the same sequence; the D scale just starts two frets above the C scale.

When you memorize a pattern for playing a scale or chord in one key, you can play the same pattern for that scale or chord in every key, anywhere on the neck of the bass.

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