If you are sight reading a piece of music from standard notation, without the tab, how is it possible to work out the position? I'm wondering if there is a trick, as I want to be really good at sight reading for all of my exams.

Suppose one of the bars contains an A, written on the bottom space of the bass clef staff. In tab, this a could be shown as being played on the fifth fret of the E string. But when there is no tab, you would need to work out whether to play it on the open A string or fifth fret of E.

In general, how to you know which option to choose for a given note?

  • 1
    Do you have a picture with such a sheet? I'm not sure if I understand you correctly.
    – Arsak
    Mar 24, 2021 at 20:08
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    I did, and I'm having trouble understanding. It sounds like you want to know which octave to play on the bass given a note in the bass clef.
    – Aaron
    Mar 24, 2021 at 20:39
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    It seems like you are asking about position instead of octave. The notation says octave by design, just not the position you play it in which typically it doesn't matter. Some are easier to play than others, but if there are multiple positions something can be played on, one is no more correct than the other.
    – Dom
    Mar 24, 2021 at 20:50
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    In the example you provided I see Ab chord, not A. Note on the 4th fret of the E string is Ab. Mar 24, 2021 at 21:03
  • 1
    oh i see i missed the flat by accident but i was sort of rushing for an example
    – Areze
    Mar 24, 2021 at 21:35

4 Answers 4


When there are multiple options for the same note, you can choose the one that best fits the context. Taking the example of an A written on the bottom space of the bass clef staff, it could be played with the open A string if the preceding note is nearby on that string or in a nearby position on another string; but it could also be played on the E string if the surrounding notes are nearby on that string or on another in a nearby position.


Another consideration is the articulation that you want. Sometimes you may prefer an open string rather than a fretted note because you want the note to ring out more strongly. Sometimes you may prefer to play the note fretted on a lower string so it can be stopped or muted more precisely.

Aaron's answer is pretty good to start with, but there is also a common technique to use open strings to pivot from one position to another even if you're higher up on the neck. This is probably more common on the upright bass, but it's useful on electric, too.


An octave above a note is 3 lines and it's on the next space up, or 3 spaces, and it's on the next line up.

EDIT this question has been edited so much, my answer appears to be rubbish!

Now, it seems to be asking which particular place to play a particular note!

Pease note that just because tab says play it there doesn't mean tab is telling the best place - in some tabs, it may be the only place the tabber knows!

The choice will always be up to the player. With that quoted A - which I'm taking as A♮, otherwise you wouldn't be playing it as A♭ on the A string. Yes, it could be A string open, it could be 5th fret E string, it could even be 10th fret low B string!

Where you play it is up to several criteria. Where you already are on the fretboard means probably find the closest A (same octave, obviously). That will also influence what comes next - where that might be. An open string often sounds different from a fretted one, so deciding to play open will need that choice to be made with that criterion. Fatter strings sound different from thinner ones, so another choice - what tone do you want? You may play the bottom sting with thumb, and A string with a finger. Again tone can come into the equation.

Bottom line (you're playing bass!) is it's your choice, with regard to all the above criteria. The only way to get there automatically, which is what it will partially become, is to play lots - practise!

  • Thanks , I have made a response to your answer
    – Areze
    Mar 24, 2021 at 20:28

I want to recommend a book that I've been working through for the last few weeks. It's a step-by-step guide to sight reading on bass. Since I've been using it, I've made tremendous progress, where every previous attempt I've made to learn how to read music has ended in me quitting out of frustration. The author breaks down the process into such small, easy-to-digest exercises that it's virtually impossible to get frustrated. You just follow the process. Anyway, just wanted to share this with you.


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