So I've been playing the bass for about a year and a half, I play most nights and play with friends as often as I can. Until now I have only played songs I can get tab for, and spend time learning it before playing with friends.

I have an understanding of the major scale, but I don't know how to apply it? Does that make sense? As in, I know what notes would make up a D major scale, but when would I play them? If the guitar plays a D chord can I use any note on the D major scale?

Please answer this question like I have little to no theory knowledge! In all honesty I wouldn't even know how to find the root chord of a song (yes I am that basic).

I'm asking as I am trying to come up with a bassline for 'Boomerang' by the Plain White T's as I can only find guitar chords for this and not bass tab.

Is there an easier way to do this?


4 Answers 4


TL;DR: there is a huge amount of bass playing to do before you need to look at scales at all. Learning a scale pattern isn't going to hurt, but hearing and knowing chord tones is more important.

Asin i know what notes would make up a D major scale, but when would i play them?

Scales are best used as reference grids for reasoning about notes, and having a means to know where the sounding notes are relative to each other and to the harmonic centerpoint. The most important reference grid is the basic scale of the key the song is in. (The key may sometimes change during the song, and such a key-change, or shift-of-centerpoint is called a "modulation".).

The key i.e. harmonic centerpoint is decided by the tonic chord i.e. home chord. If the home chord is E minor, the song is "in E minor". And there may be a D major chord somewhere in that song. But an E minor scale may not fit every situation in the whole song, because there can be chromatic alterations. You can have an A major chord in the key of E minor, but in the next bar there can be an A minor chord. Or B minor or B major chord. These are chromatic alterations. The scale degrees are changed - the set of notes that seems to fit the harmony changes.

if the guitar plays a D chord can i use any note on the D major scale?

You might, depending on the situation and if you know what you're doing. But if you don't have any idea what's happening and what the context is, then no, playing randomly from a scale will create chaos, regardless of what the scale is. The D major scale is probably not even the right scale to think about, even if the guitar is playing a D major chord. If the song's home chord is A major, you should think of the A major scale as a basic reference grid to which you compare what's happening.

Having a sense for a harmonic centerpoint i.e. key is essential, and I strongly recommend trying to develop that sense. If you can't tell where home is, if you have to resort to calculation formulas and rules without being able to hear what your notes are doing, then it's better to stick to playing chord root notes.

I've been telling bass players to proceed along the following levels of complexity, when learning to construct bass lines:

  • (1) written chord root note only. If you strictly play the chord root note only, you don't need to care about scales.
  • (2) written chord root note only, and an octave above it, which is the same note. For example A on the fifth fret of the E string, and A on the seventh fret of the D string. If you strictly play the chord root note only, you don't need to care about scales. Try an octave down-up jumping disco bass line, or just throw the octave-higher note in for variation here and there.
  • (3) written chord root note and a fifth above (or fourth below which is the same note-name), for example if the written chord is D major, you alternate between D and A notes. Depending on the genre, this might sound dumb, silly and completely out of place, but it's a necessary skill for a bass player. If you strictly play the chord root note and the chord's fifth only, you don't need to care about scales.
  • (4) written chord root and other chord tones of the written chord, most importantly the third of the chord. For example if the written chord is D major, you alternate between the notes D, F# and A. D is the chord's "root", F# is the "third", and A is the "fifth". If it was a D minor chord, the notes would be D, F and A. Again, playing this kind of a bass line will usually sound dumb and get you kicked out of the band, but you just have to be able to do it and know what is what in the chord and on the bass fretboard. If you strictly play the written chord's tones only, you don't need to care about scales. But you have to know what notes a minor chord has, what notes a major chord has, what notes a diminished chord has etc.
  • (5) written chord root and a scale-step below it, along the scale of the key or whatever the prevailing harmony is. If the chord is a seventh chord, you can tell from the seventh what the note below the root is. If the chord is not a seventh, you'll have to know the key. For example if the song is in A major, and there's D major chord, you alternate between D and C# notes.
  • (5 B) written chord root, an octave above it, and a seventh, which is right below the octave-higher note. This is a variation of the previous bass line. For a written D major chord in key of A major, you'll play e.g. D - D' - C#' - D', where D' and C#' are in the next higher octave.
  • (6) boogie woogie bass below the written chord note. If there is a D major or D minor chord, play D - B - C - C# - D - B - C - C# - ... it may or may not fit any given instance. But you have to learn to play it anyway, and doing it will help you do the next variation. This is a chromatic line, and with chromatic lines you don't need to care about scales. "Chromatically" means, with one-semitone steps. The distance between adjacent frets on a bass (and guitar) is one semitone. If you go like fret 1, fret 2, fret 3, fret 4... on the same string, it's going chromatically upwards.
  • (7) chromatically stepping to the next chord root from below. Whatever chord there is, you look at the next chord - that's your target note, and exactly three beats or pulses before it you start stepping towards your target, so you land on the target note exactly on beat ONE, or whenever the target chord is supposed to start. For example if the current chord is D major, you play D, D, D, D, .... then you see a G major chord. Exactly three pulses before the G, you start stepping: (3:) E, (2:) F, (1:) F#, (ZERO:) G. Instead of three steps, you could do two, or just one. With chromatic lines you don't need to care about scales. You just go semitone by semitone.
  • (8) chromatically stepping to a target chord root from above. Kind of the same as trick 7, but from above instead of from below. Two added steps may work better than three. When you go from D major chord to G major chord, you go like D, D, D, D, A, G#, G, ... A is two semitones above the target note G, and G# is one semitone above it. This could also be called "chromatic approach from above". Again, this is a chromatic line, and with chromatic lines you don't need to care about scales. A single-step chromatic approach on the bass can be analyzed as a "tritone substitution". Theory geeks will get excited when they notice you did a tritone substitution!
  • (9) stepping to the next chord along the scale (which may be chromatically altered). For this you'll really need to know a suitable scale, so you don't mix major and minor chords, for example.
  • (X) walking bass. This is maybe the most difficult phase. It means all sorts of walking and jumping to target notes. But even with just the tricks 7 and 8 i.e. chromatic approaches from above and below, you may be able to fake a walking bass, if you do that constantly. If you throw in a few chord tones from tricks 4 (or 3), maybe nobody even notices that you don't know about scales at all! Only chord tones and chromatic approaches, no scales...

If we sum all of the above, and if those 10 tricks are representative of all commonly done basslines, we can say - and I claim - that for MOST pop/rock/blues bass playing, you don't play from any scale at all. You know your chord tones and add some chromatic stuff, and that gets you something like 80% of everything. I'm sure there are lots of bass players out there who play nice and varied bass lines, but they have never memorized a scale pattern in their lives.

But. Outside of ALL THAT chord+scale+chromatic, in its own separate category is: learning basslines and riffs from existing songs. You learn to play a bass pattern, and know what style and chord it's in. Then you move the same pattern to other chords. Memorized movable riffs and patterns over chords is yet another way of playing bass lines which doesn't require caring about scales.

Here's a really nice bassline from Johnnie Taylor's "Still Called The Blues". It's in Bb minor, so it fits the video below. It would fit pretty much any blues in Bb, although that's a rare key for blues tunes.

Johnnie Taylor Still Called The Blues bassline in Bb or Bbm

You basically play minor blues with that pattern. It's a blues and the same bass line works equally well over minor and major chords. First you play it in Bb like in the tab, then in in Eb, then in F, etc.

If a song is in A or A minor, the first chord's pattern would be one fret i.e. one semitone lower like this:

Johnnie Taylor Still Called The Blues bassline in Am or A

Someone might comment something about the particularities of that bass pattern, and the fact that it has a "minor seventh" or "dominant seventh", but... As the most important thing there could be in music, I say that you have to learn to listen. Learn a pattern and try playing it over different things. Do you notice anything different? Try to apply a pattern from some other song - what does it sound like? You cannot infinitely rely on any teacher or tab or internet forum to tell you what to play and when some note fits or doesn't fit. At some point you have to be able to hear yourself.


I'm asking as I am trying to come up with a bassline for 'Boomerang' by the Plain White T's as I can only find guitar chords for this and not bass tab.

One important point: "guitar chords" are bass chords too, if we mean letter names. (Guitar tab is another matter.) But if you see "C ... F ... G," then it's as simple as playing the note C, the note F, and the note G.

That's the most basic starting point in bass playing, and you can go far with it. If you want to liven things up, you can start adding extra notes; e.g. during the time that the chord is C, you can play notes that do or don't belong to a C chord. (The actual bass line in "Boomerang" does a lot of quick arpeggiating of the notes in the chord.) But start by just playing these "root" notes and wait until you get bored to try anything fancier!



You can never go wrong by studying and plucking/fingering the notes of the D Maj scale, (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, next octave higher D), and then experimenting with repeating whichever notes form a pleasing riff or run that pleases your ear.

Evaluate the songs you have learned to play before this date. Were any of them rooting in D Major?

Study what that bass player did, and isolate his or her parts. Practice those. Improvise on your own.

Bounce any fresh ideas you come up with off of your musical friends. Once they begin to add guitar and percussion, you may find that you have written a new song!


Firstly, learning from tab isn't the best. You only learn each individual song, rather than learn what a bassist might play in a specific key - as you're finding.

Using your key D example, get your guitarist to play a load of D chords, and play each note in your already known D scale.

You'll find that some fit perfectly. Those will be ^1, ^3 and ^5, Matching exactly the notes the guitar plays at that time. The other notes in that scale are what I call 'stepping stone ' notes. They can be used to bridge the gaps, as bass players will most often play ^1, ^3 or ^5 on the main beats in a bar - beats 1 and 3. I'll stop there, as this could develop into a very long answer, but try that first. Good luck!

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