My call for advice involves music nomenclature of intermediate-level bass players who can’t read sheet music. I am such a bass player, self-taught and want to take my playing to the next level. My goal is to be able to quickly learn pop and rock songs so that I can play along to backing tracks and then to play with others in a band. I can do this with relatively simple songs based on my listening skills and knowledge of the song. So far, I have been able to avoid non-standard tuning and capos.

The guitar chord sheet is my primary tool for relatively simple songs involving little more than the root note of the chord. If a little more rhythm or spice is needed I may include its 5th or its arpeggio. So far so good. The challenge for me comes when the song is more complex and a significant number of "intermediate" notes should be played in between the chord changes or in the case where the bass is carrying all or part of the melody. For this I try to learn the song using a bass TAB which is much more granular. In either case, I always produce a Word document for the song since there are always custom elements and formatting required.

Chord sheets have the advantage of displaying the root of the chord. They also contain the lyrics, which are immeasurably useful in navigating from the beginning of the song to the end. They also indicate where the chord is located; either on, before or after a lyric and for me, they can usually be packed into 2 printed pages so that I can avoid page flipping when the printout is on my music stand. Almost always I need to edit these sheets to strip out chords that I don’t need. These and other small edits are not a problem for me. But the down side is chord sheets rarely, if ever, show the intermediate notes that the bass player should be playing; this is a major drawback.

Here is a good example of a chord sheet I am trying to learn on the bass.

TAB on the other hand, does show each individual note for the bass player but typically contain no lyrics and often is so lengthy that there is no hope of packing it into 2 pages while having the font size large enough to be readable.

So here is the same song in TAB format, notice that the granularity and level of tonal detail is much higher than that of the chord sheet; but the lyrics aren’t there.

Other examples would be the melodic bass lines created by Paul McCartney and Sting.

My question: Is there a nomenclature for 4-string bass players that combines the advantages of both the chord sheet and the TAB ?

Thanks for any tips or ideas.

PS. Please be somewhat gentle with any answer, I have had no formal training and still trying to learn bits of music theory when I can.

  • yes, there is something called TAB + which has some duration inform.ation and shows the tab and sometimes the implied chord also Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 11:47
  • if i can add one piece of advice its to learn note duration even if you dont bother with pitch yet, then you can use piano scores of tunes you like to get an alternative take on possibly incorrect TAB Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 11:49
  • @bigbadmouse I did a search for TAB + and can't find anything. Can you supply a weblink ?
    – Steve
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 15:58
  • halleonard.com/feature/8430043/tab Features tab+. Lots on Google - omit the space Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 16:32
  • Steve - forgot to say "google with no space and quotes" so "tab+" including the quotes or google will discard the + Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 9:42

2 Answers 2


Welcome to the site!

The next level? That could mean several things.

One might be not relying on the words to songs as navigational aids.Eschew that and concentrate on writing out just the chord chart. Since a lot of songs are similar to poetry, they can be written out on separate lines, either 4 or 8 bars per line will do the job. Don't worry about words - there's often an intrinsic feel to how songs are spread, and you'll know when the 'next line' will start. Often it's heralded by a drum break (while the singer takes some air in for the next).

So, write out the root of each chord initially (sic!), and just respond to that. Get used to following the line, counting as necessary (That's something even advanced players still do!)

Another may be learning scales. Majors and minors to start with. That will be a great help, as when you transition from one bar or chord to the next, you'll need to know which the appropriate notes are to make that journey, albeit 3 or 4 notes in either direction. Understand that with scales, notes 1, 3 and 5 (also 7) are the pillars of chords, so in a couple of static bars, they can come out to play before the others.

Another. Listen carefully to songs, and get yourself used to writing the chords as they come along. Don't worry about key - just use RN (I, IV, vi, etc.) so your ear becomes attuned to how changes sound, and what you represent that with. You'll obviously have to establish 'I', but that's part of the job anyhow. Without being aware of the key, thus 'I', you'll be floundering. It'll also establish what roots etc., are in a song, and that then develops into, o.k., I now can write chords out, given what 'I' actually is.

Try to wean yourself off tab, as often there are inaccuracies, which may be followed blindly. Not good. Write out your own charts, for exercises. Play them in different keys. Get used to how to get from V>I, I>vi, etc.

Another. Make up patterns, riffs, that are short, initially. One bar is good. Let's take 1561 on the four beats in a single bar. Play that pattern on each chord in each bar, using the 1 as the chord root. No, I'm not saying it's a wonderful bassline, but more of a step up to finding your way round.

That's for starters! I recommend taking a look at RGT (now LCM) bass guitar exam books, which I've used a lot with students, for several other bassic ideas. This answer doesn't provide a shopping list - that's not part of the site's remit - but hopefully points you in a fruitful direction to make your own, which eventually will become redundant, as it develops from stuff on paper to stuff inside your head as you listen and play.

  • Tim, thank you for your reply, your advice is good. I have a few questions but this reply box limits the the number of characters so I'll try to submit them individually. From my original question should I take it that you are unaware of a nomenclature that combines the advantages of chord sheets and TAB ? Out of necessity I may have come up with an approach that I can share on another reply.
    – Steve
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 15:32

I have not received a meaningful answer to my question: ”Is there a nomenclature for 4-string bass players that combines the advantages of both the chord sheet and the TAB ?” Therefore I will share what I have come up with in the hopes that someone can improve upon it.

My method is applicable to standard tuned basses and assigns a number to each of the four strings. The E-string is assigned “1”, the A-string is assigned “2”, the D-string is assigned “3” and the G-string is assigned “4”. If we limit this discussion to the first 12 frets only, there are 5 different locations to play an E note on the fretboard, likewise there are 5 locations for the notes A, D and G. For all other notes there are 4 different locations. The problem with standard chord sheets is that there is no information as to which of the 4 or 5 locations a particular note should be played. My method solves this problem and for lack of a better descriptor, I call it “The bass Chord Sheet”.

The nomenclature is simply NoteString#.

If a piece of music written in tab or standard notation (or in your own head) calls for the C located on fret 8 of the E-string to be played then my notation would be “C1”. This is to be read “play the C note on the 1st string”.

If the C located on fret 3 of the A-string is to be played then my notation would be “C2”. This is to be read “play the C note on the 2nd string”.

If the C located on fret 10 of the D-string is to be played then my notation would be “C3”. This is to be read “play the C note on the 3rd string”.

And if the C located on fret 5 of the G-string is to be played then my notation would be “C4”. This is to be read “play the C note on the 4th string”.

The 4 notes played on open strings would be notated Eopen, Aopen, Dopen and Gopen or perhaps just E, A, D and G.

For any notes played on fret 12 or higher, we use a “+” sign.

So if the E located on fret 12 on the E-string is to be played then my notation is “E1+”. This is to be read “play the E note on the 1st string but at or higher than the double dots”.

If the F located on fret 13 on the E-string is to be played then my notation is “F1+”. This is to be read “play the F note on the 1st string but at or higher than the double dots”.

Thus, the first line of Amazing Grace could be notated with a D1 over "Amazing", D over "Grace", G2 over "sweet" and D1 over "sound" . . . or some other combination of D and G. (I couldn't get the formatting to work to show this more clearly in this text box).

Of course, this method can be easily extended to 5 or 6 string basses and to alternate tunings.

Note that this compact nomenclature has the benefits of tab (the precise note to be played is indicated) and the benefits of the chord sheet (contains the lyrics and where to play the note). I have successfully used this nomenclature on full songs and see no drawbacks. An additional advantage of this over tab is that it forces you to become familiar with the actual note names on the fretboard. A skill that allows one to communicate with others in the band more effectively. It also allows better communication with one’s self when trying to improve or construct basslines. If anyone sees improvements or an alternative to this method, please post your idea.

Happy bass playing !

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