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How to Play Bass Guitar – Guide for the Beginner

Now here is a subject that is quite close to my heart, “How to Play Bass Guitar.” How long have you got?

After more years of playing this instrument than I wish to remember, I can only give you my perspective of it. I am sure there will be some things included here that many will not agree with. Some may even get hostile about some comments. But it is how I see this instrument based on my experiences and not from what others write in books.


For the Beginner

That is what I am assuming you are. And before we get too far into this, let’s be clear. In a three, four, or five-piece band, if the guitarist goes off in a huff, it all just carries on. If the drummer goes walkabout, there is a problem, but it doesn’t need to stop. If the singer goes, some will be unhappy, but the music continues. If the bass player goes home, you’ve got a train wreck.

When the bass stops, the bottom falls out…

Do you understand the importance of what I am taking on? You will be the glue that holds the whole thing together. Others may do the “fame and glory” bit. But they will be relying on what you are doing behind them. That is why learning what the bass guitar is about is the most important thing you will ever do.

You Don’t Just Hear the Bass

You feel it as well. It comes through the floor and even the walls. It is not just a sound; it is a presence. It is all around you. It is the foundation upon which a band is built. You could call the bass player the band’s secret weapon.

Working with the drummer, you will provide the foundation and the rhythm for the music. All bands will always need a good bass player. Get it right, and you won’t be short of a few offers later on.

Where Do You Start?

Where Do You Start

Well, getting a bass guitar would be a good start. But what kind and how much? Many bass players are guitarists who have moved across. For me, it wasn’t.

I learned the bass before I taught myself some basic guitar. I just wanted to play it. But in those days, there wasn’t a lot around in terms of instruments. Go into a guitar shop at the time, and there weren’t many of those either. You might get one or two. Today there are plenty.

I started to learn on a six-string acoustic guitar with the top B and E strings removed, leaving just the four. The octaves were wrong, but I didn’t care.

We didn’t start the Fire – Leo did.

Until the 50s, there were no electric basses like you know today. On our grainy black and white TVs, we had the sight of Joe Mauldin. He was rolling all over the floor with his upright bass backing Buddy Holly. Marshall Lytle did the same for Bill Haley. Quite funny to watch.

But Leo Fender changed all that. He designed the best bass guitar the world has ever seen, even until today. Contentious point number one. The Fender Precision was, and to a lesser extent, today still is, a work of art. No one has come close. We still needed amplifiers because we were blowing speakers left, right, and center. That came a bit later, again from Leo.

That first bass

Assuming you’re not going to shred up an old acoustic, there are a couple of options. You could try an acoustic bass. That is like an acoustic guitar but a bass version. With that, you don’t need an amp, so life will be a bit cheaper while you learn the basics.

It will have four strings, tuned as they should be, and if you buy a reasonable one, it will play well. It will probably be an acoustic-electric bass. That means it will have a pickup built in so you can plug it into an amp when you get one. Play it acoustic, or play it electrically.

You won’t be able to turn it up too loud because of the feedback you get from a hollow body guitar. A good example from an excellent manufacturer is the Ibanez PCBE14MH Acoustic-electric Bass.

Going Electric?

Going Electric

No problem, as long as you realize that you will need to buy an amp as well. And it will need to be a bass amp. And yes, they are different. They will have a more basic preamp than a guitar amp and, of course, a speaker designed to handle lower frequencies. I will come back to that.

There are some reasonable electric bass guitars for beginners that aren’t going to cost the earth. It is a mistake to spend a fortune when you are starting. Later on, if you want to upgrade, then you can consider that.

Electric basses have various configurations. Let’s take a minute to consider some of them, starting with the pickups.

Single coil or Humbucker

There is quite a difference in the sound they make, which may not be too important in the early days for a starter. The Single-coil tends to generate a bit more top naturally. It still has plenty of bottom end but can sound sharper.

I prefer them to the Humbucker. Humbuckers are good for some guitars, but I am not sure they work particularly well on bass. Contentious point number two. Electronics can be passive or active.

What’s the difference?

Active pickups will need an extra power source. Usually batteries. Passive pickups do not. Passive pickups tend to be cheaper, but Active pickups give you a higher output signal.

Some say that the active pickup gives you more control over the sound of your guitar. I have never really found that, and if so, it was hardly worth mentioning.

The number of strings

Don’t even go there. Contentious point number three. A bass guitar has four strings. For a starter, that is what you should learn on. One step at a time, so let’s master the four-string bass first. If you find four just aren’t enough at a later date, and you need five or six, then it’s up to you.

Short or long Scale?

This refers to the length of the guitar. This is the distance between the bridge and the nut, not the length of the neck. It’s important to understand these aspects if you want to know how to play bass guitar.

The Long Scale

There has been some variation in the Long scale basses over the years. But it is now accepted that 34 inches is the standard. It will weigh about nine pounds. The Fender Precision is one of the best Long scale bass guitars. With a five or six-string bass, you may find the neck is an inch or two longer on some models.

Personally, I use an older Fender Precision bass because of the feel and the sound values. It will also allow you certain technical playing options. Having said that, it is not the only bass I use.

The Short Scale

Usually, between 30-32 inches from the bridge to the nut, it feels different. I use a vintage Gibson EBO. It has a humbucker, and so it is only suitable for certain things and is not a guitar to be pounding out heavyweight bass lines. But it is a guitar for finding and picking out harmony and counter-melodies with the right tonal settings.

There are some advantages of short scale bass guitars in the way it plays as it is so easy to hold. And with the neck shorter, it means the frets and, therefore the notes, are closer together. Nice and comfortable for bass chords. They are usually also a bit lighter at about seven to eight pounds.

Making the Choice – Long or Short Scale?

Making the Choice

If you have smaller hands, then the Short scale bass is certainly going to be easier to play. There is a potential problem with Long scale basses and developing good techniques.

Some players change their good technical hand attitude because they can’t reach and make the spans. This is not going to help. If you have smaller hands and choose the long scale, then be prepared for some hard work and plenty of finger and hand stretching exercises.

Mini versions

As an alternative, some manufacturers like Squier make “mini” versions of the long-scale basses. So, here are a couple of very good options for Long and Short scale basses that do not cost the earth.

First, here’s a great long Scale bass, the Squier by Fender Affinity Precision Beginner Electric Bass Guitar. Virtually the same guitar but the “Mini” version is the Squier by Fender Mini Precision Bass. And a short-scale option is the Ibanez GSRM 4 String Short Scale Bass Guitar.

So let’s return to the amplification. Whichever electric bass you choose, you’re going to need an amplifier. This is going to add a little to the costs. Here is a good option from an esteemed maker of bass amps, the Orange Crush Bass 25W Bass Guitar Combo Amp.

The Budget

It is important you decide just how much you want to spend and then try and stick with that. It is all too easy to go crazy. You go down to the guitar shop, and the first thing the assistant shows you is a $2000 Fender.

Set your budget and stick with it if you can. There are plenty of options to choose from, at reasonable prices for the beginner. As we said earlier, you haven’t got to cough up a fortune despite what some shop assistants will say.

Try a Few

Always a good thing to do. Just to see what feels right in your hands. This is important because it needs to feel comfortable. It is also the time to decide whether a Long scale neck will be too much, and you should be playing a short scale.

But being perfectly honest, if you are buying your first bass guitar, there probably isn’t a need to go to a local music store because you probably won’t know the difference at this stage, and profit seeking salespeople could talk you up to a bass that you really don’t need at this stage.

Therefore it is probably better and definitely easier to just buy from a reputable brand like the ones I’ve mentioned online. So, consider what your budget is, then have a look around online to see what basses are available for around that amount and make sure they are from quality manufacturers such as Fender, Squire, Ibanez, Epiphone, Schecter, etc.

Next, let’s move on to the basic things to know about the construction of the neck of the instrument?

The Neck

  • This includes the headstock, where the tuning machinery is located.
  • The fretboard, a thin piece of wood, possibly Rosewood or Maple, that holds the Frets.
  • The Frets are embedded in the fretboard and are divided up into increments of half a step each. These determine where the notes are where you put your fingers.
  • The internal Truss rod, which is how the neck is attached to the body, which you can adjust to keep the neck from twisting or going out of shape.

A couple of extra points

The fretboard should be smooth and slightly arched. The frets should not feel rough under your fingers. Although you will be able to feel them, of course. They should not protrude over the edge of the neck.

You do get Fretless bass guitars. They take extra skills to play and carry a unique sound. Best left alone for the starter until you have mastered the basic instrument. But then try it out. The sound can be great.

Tuning It Up

Tuning It Up

An important skill to master early, and it is a skill if you want to know how to play bass guitar. If it isn’t right, it is going to sound wrong. And later, when you might be playing with other musicians, the problems will get a lot worse.

Hearing the differences between notes is a skill you need to acquire. But if the instrument is out of tune, then it becomes a lot harder. Developing your ear is important.

An octave down

The bass is tuned an octave below a guitar. The strings are tuned the same E, A, D, and G, but they are pitched an octave lower.

No need to panic

There are lots of ways to tune a bass guitar. You can use a piano or a keyboard. Likewise, there are plenty of apps you can download to your phone.

Perhaps a digital tuner might be the easiest way. Just plug the bass into the tuner and use your tuning machines on the headstock. When you match the tuning on the screen, they are ready. For some great options that work equally well on a bass as on a guitar, check out our reviews of the Best Guitar Tuners and the Best Clip On Guitar Tuners you can buy.

There is an alternative no technology answer called the 5th fret method. This will rely on you being able to tune up your ‘E’ string first, though. Perhaps it is something to try when you have developed a bit of understanding of pitch, and your musical ear has improved.

Practice and More Practice

There is a saying that “Practice makes Perfect.” That is wrong. “Good practice makes you better.” Bad practice just creates more problems.

Decide how much time you want to practice and when. It’s not a good idea to say, “Okay, I am going to do four hours.” That will probably be too long. That level of dedication may come later. Just set aside 20 minutes, preferably four or five times a week, to start with. If you want to practice more, do two 20 minute sessions a day with a good break in between them.

Only practice what you can’t play!

But remember, you can only practice what you can’t play. As soon as you can play something, that can not be seen as practice; it is just playing. This is the biggest reason that players don’t improve; after they get good at quite a few things, they keep playing them over and over again (sometimes for years) and think they are practicing, they are not.

You have to continually find new and harder things to practice, which will ensure that you continually improve. So practice for 20 minutes per day on 100% new material/techniques or things you are trying to improve, then ‘play’ anything you want for as long as you want.

When you start off, make sure you practice the important things. The basics of your technique are important. Get them right early on, and they will stay with you for life. Take it slowly at the beginning. Make each note you play as good as it can be. And make them flow into each other as smoothly as possible.

How to Play Bass Guitar – Taking Lessons

Taking Lessons

This is certainly something to consider early on when learning to play bass guitar. Try to find a teacher who is recommended. Go to your music store; they might know people. You will get to learn some basic bass guitar techniques for hand, wrist, and finger positions.

How many lessons you need will be a personal thing. But I would think that half a dozen might be enough to allow you to set up your practice regimes. Then, later on, you can go back again to take another technical step forward.

I didn’t have the option as there were no bass guitar teachers. Observation and asking questions was the answer for my generation. An option that is also good today if you get a chance.

And Finally

Let’s have contentious issue number four. I have already voiced my opinions as to the reasons why the bass guitar is essential in a band. It is not, in the main, a solo instrument. It’s a foundation, the building block for the guitars and keyboards. With the drummer, you create everything.

Let the soloing and crazy speed merchants take their center stage. You just do what you do. Today, I see so many people who try to play the bass like it was a guitar. They receive endless plaudits for the speed of their playing. Irrelevant. It does nothing for the rhythm section, which is what you are.

Big influences in songs

You can have bass at the front of certain songs, and it works. Johnny Deacon on “Another One Bites the Dust” is a good example. He sits at the front. But is he playing with the drummer? Yep.

Recently, I watched a bass player who is highly thought of on YouTube. In four and half minutes of racing maniacally up and down the fretboard like a demon, not once did he get in with the drummer and create the “feel” of the music. It was all about him. You can be a good musician. But it doesn’t always make you a good bass player.

Some play technically correctly and fast, and take their solos in jazz fusion styles. But then they return to their prime job with the drummer. So just to prove I am not against soloing on the bass in context, here is one of the greats from the present day doing her stuff, Saraswati at Montreux (feat. Mohini Dey & Dave Weckl).

Looking for a Great Bass Guitar?

Then we’ve got you covered. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Bass Guitars, the Best Acoustic Bass Guitars, the Best 5-String Bass Guitars, the Best Beginner Bass Guitars, the Best Bass Guitars For Kids, the Best Short Scale Bass Guitar, and the Best Left-Handed Bass Guitar you can buy in 2023.

Also, have a look at our comprehensive Ibanez GSR200 Review, our Fender American Professional Precision Bass Review, our Sterling by Music Man StingRay Ray4 Review, and our Cordoba Guitars 4 String Acoustic-Electric Bass Guitar Review for more highly recommended bass guitars currently on the market.

How to Play Bass Guitar – Final Thoughts

What you have got here is a great instrument. You can make the band good or great. Learn to love it and appreciate it. Let’s finish with something that I remember Suzi Quatro saying.

“The bass player’s function, along with the drums, is to be the engine that drives the car. Everything else is merely coloring.”

Words to live by for anyone serious about learning to play the bass guitar.

Until next time, keep it in time, keep it low, and have fun!

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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