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I'm primarily a rhythm (acoustic) guitarist with a little bit of music theory. Mainly I play songs from a chord sheet in my church band, no score.

I'm interested to learn a bit of bass as I was given one but am unsure how to figure out what to play from a chord chart... I mean GGGG CCCC EEEE DDDD fits but that's like a rhythm guitarist just playing one downstroke per beat!

  • That's... kinda what a lot of bass parts are like. If you can read guitar tab you can read bass tab. If you want to play along with chords then you either just play the root note of the chord (or lowest note for inversions or slash chords) or you have to make up an arpeggio or melody to go with the chords. Getting some bass tabs online for songs that you listen to often will probably be helpful in understanding. Contrast U2 with James Brown and you'll see bass has a wide range of ways to play it. – Todd Wilcox Apr 4 '16 at 18:16
  • In most cases if you start on the root note of the chord (or bass note in inversions) and play the chord tones (three notes on major/minor chords four on 7ths, dim etc.). you will be playing something that works. Bass guitar is a rhythm instrument and the notes should fall in time with the beat. – Rockin Cowboy Apr 4 '16 at 18:26
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    A Bass Teacher is excited about getting a new student. He learns all the notes on the E string in for his first lesson. Next week he comes in and the instructor shows him all of the notes on the A string. The third week comes, the teacher is waiting, but he never shows up. Annoyed, he calls him to see where he is. "Oh, sorry man, I got a gig...". Root, Fifth(up) or Fifth(down) & Octave are enough to get going. – david strachan Apr 4 '16 at 18:56
  • I suppose I feel a bit nervous of volunteering to fill in in our church (amateur) band one week with no gauge of my abilities. Is it fair to say that if I can keep the rhythm and keep it very simple, I am 'safe' not to ruin everything? – Mr. Boy Apr 7 '16 at 14:09
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Remember that you're part of the rhythm section! Don't underestimate the responsibility that comes with playing a very simple line - even just roots - with even feel in a way that locks in with the drummer, fits the feel of the song, and drives it forward. Even in 4/4, just playing quarter notes won't always do the job (or if it does, your bandmates are a bit unadventurous when it comes to choosing songs...) and even parts that are just straight quarter notes have to be played with the right feel.

One thing that's a bit different to being a rhythm guitarist thrashing away is the importance of muting. Of course muting is important with all guitar styles, but with bass you need to take particular care to be (usually) playing one note at a time only, and to get the notes starting and stopping at the right time for the feel of the song. You also need to use muting to control the timbre of your bass - with a very simple bassline, I'm often using left hand muting to slightly dampen notes in the quieter passages before opening up for e.g. the later choruses.

As Rockin' says, you can experiment with branching out into chord tones and passing tones - and there is a skill in doing that in a way that doesn't compromise the rhythmic foundation. Ultimately you can work up to how to construct walking basslines, though they won't fit with every style.

Try to come up with a little 'library' of simple bass riffs that you can play on each chord root involving fifths and octaves, thirds and sevenths (remembering that the intervals in the riff will need to be modified depending on the chord type.) To get some ideas listen to some different styles like straight pop and rock songs, punk, disco, techno, and hip-hop. Don't forget to move down from the root as well as just using the chord tones above.

If you are a guitarist already, it is true that you might not have a huge amount to learn in the 'what notes to play' department. But bass isn't just about that - there are a number of right-hand techniques to master if you wish, such as: playing with a pick; straightforward playing with fingers; 'fingerstyle funk' using multiple fingers to cross strings and throw in 'dead' and half-muted notes; using your thumb as Abraham Laboriel or Victor Wooten do; and, of course, the dreaded 'slap' (which doesn't have to mean sounding like Flea - it can be just subtly throwing a couple of slapped notes in for timbral interest.)

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    “not really a well-rounded bassist until you've mastered a number of right-hand styles” –perhaps, though many great bassist actually specialise completely in just one of these styles and won't normally use anything else. – leftaroundabout Apr 4 '16 at 20:17
  • @leftaroundabout It's certainly true that many prominent bassists are famous for one style... and many of those are genuinely masters of just that one style, while others are more flexible than their best-known repertoire would suggest. There's also often a lot of respect given to the kind of 'session' bassist who isn't necessarily a household name but is often the inspiration behind a big hit, and they can often really turn their hand to anything. Even if you want to develop one distinctive style, learning a breadth of styles and appropriating the elements you like from each is one way to go. – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 4 '16 at 20:40
  • The OP seemed to be asking partly about how to get a bit of variety into a 'playing for fun' situation though, which was where I was coming from. – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 4 '16 at 20:43
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    Great point about muting. Particularly about the concept of playing notes how long they are supposed to be. Note lengths can really change a groove. – Basstickler Apr 4 '16 at 21:48
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    I would also tend to agree that you don't have to play every style to become a master but as you've said, it can really help with the style that you want to play. In particular, I would point out how much you can learn about the tone of the instrument by playing slap bass since it is so far removed from the normal finger style approach. – Basstickler Apr 4 '16 at 21:50
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Generally speaking, the role of bass in most music is to add depth to the harmonic content and provide a connection between drums and pitched instruments. There are a very, very large variety of ways to approach the bass, so if you're interested in becoming a bass player, as opposed to just playing the bass, then you will need to spend a good amount of time looking into the different styles and approaches for all of the genres that you are interested in playing.

One thing that is usually lost on a lot of guitar players is the feel needed when playing bass (as I mention above the difference between playing bass and being a bass player). Bass is often thought to be easy by guitar players because it's like the same instrument but you only have to play one note at a time but that leaves out the nuance. Tone is very important and a good bass player will not only know how to dial in all the knobs but how to attack the strings for the sound they need. For instance, Jaco gets some of his tone from play close to the bridge, which will have a thinner tone and tighter sound. Playing closer to the neck will give you a warmer, more rounded tone. Getting in touch with this really helps. As a bass player myself, I am just as often thinking about the tone when writing as I am the actual notes. I've experienced really liking a part when played near the neck and thinking it was awful when played over the pickups or near the bridge (and vice versa). The tone can completely change how the bass line is functioning or experienced.

The most basic approach is to play the root note of a given chord. Different genres or songs within genres will call for a different approach for rhythms. You can play big whole notes (or one note per chord), or consistent 1/4s, 1/8s, etc. Once you start to explore syncopation, you will find a variety of ways to handle this as well. You can follow the guitar/keyboard rhythms, follow the vocal rhythms, follow the drum beat, or have a rhythm of your own within the song to act against the other instruments.

For note choices, it's good to remember the basic function of the bass: to connect rhythm and harmony. Many chord progressions (if not most) will have chords whose bass notes are not very close together interval-wise. Many players will choose to find notes to connect bass notes that are not intervalically close to smooth out the motion from chord to chord. One example of this is a "walking bass line", which consists mostly of small intervals (seconds and thirds) moving at a consistent pace, usually 1/4 notes. This is the standard Jazz approach to bass but is also used in lots of other genres at different times, perhaps most commonly in Blues.

You will also find that 'root-5' bass lines are very common, with country and bluegrass probably being the most common place to find them in more modern music. The root and 5th of a chord are the most 'solid' sounding chord tones and can be played fairly consonantly for just about any chord/chord progression. Clearly this is a different approach than the small intervals found in a walking bass line, however, you will find that a similar effect of smoothing out the feeling of distance between notes will apply when moving from chord to chord.

From there you can get creative, as long as your band mates allow it... A lot of modern (pretty much 60s and beyond) bass lines are essentially a part of their own and help define the song itself, not just supporting the other instruments. This is very common in Fusion and Funk, as well as some approaches to Rock, Soul and RnB. It can really happen in any genre though, like "Kind of Blue" with the bass taking the melody.

If you're interested in checking out the full extent of bass possibilities, I would recommend Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, and Les Claypool (and there are a lot more). Les Claypool is an interesting example due to his unique approach. He functions as the main instrument in many of his songs, often fulfilling both the bass and harmony roles, but has his own style that is very aggressive, dissonant and unique. It is also very interesting to listen to his compositions and notice when he is playing more standard bass lines and how he brings his unique flavor to those standard lines.

Hopefully this gets you off to a good start! Happy Bass Tickling!!!

  • Bootsy Collins (James Brown), Christopher Wolstenholme (Muse), and of course Wilton Felder (Mowtown, including I Want You Back) are other names to look at. – Todd Wilcox Apr 4 '16 at 20:08
  • Absolutely agree with those additional suggestions (can't believe Bootsy didn't come to mind for me in particular) but I would say Bootsy would be best connected with Parliament, the most funkenest of PFunks that ever funked this great earth. I honestly didn't even know he had played with James Brown. – Basstickler Apr 4 '16 at 21:45
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    !! At the end of "Superbad", James Brown yells out, "BOOTSY! Lemmie hear ya!" He also can be heard saying, "C'mon Phelps! C'mon Phelps!" He's referring to Phelps "Catfish" Collins, Bootsy's brother, who was playing guitar. – Todd Wilcox Apr 4 '16 at 22:23
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    Some additional names for your research: Stu(art) Hamm, Dave LaRue, Geddy Lee. – Kirk A Apr 4 '16 at 23:05

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