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Hello i play guitar and sing for 1.5 year. I know the very basics of music theory, and i am writing and recording (with an audio interface) simple songs. With simple songs i mean just a guitar playing 4 chords and me signing.

I find really interesting trying to play only at my low E string, sometimes i call it a "wanna-be bass player". And i would really like to add at my simple songs something similar with what i am doing at my low E string, but with a bass guitar in order to do it the correct way (Let's not talk about playing guitar with an octave-pedal as it's not like the real thing). Good for me, i can always ask my friend to give me his bass guitar for some days.

I have no intention on learning bass guitar. I want to take the fast-road of adding simple bass at my simple songs. What i thought as a good idea is just playing the root of the chords at the bass guitar everytime i change the chord maybe with some rythm variations. But in which of the 4 strings should i do it (Taking into consideration, that the song has just guitar and vocals)? And in general are there any tips for my occasion, i should be aware of?

Please understand that i am a total beginner, and i might have said something wrong and you are laughing at me right now. So correct me if you can. Thank you in advance :)

  • Start on the low strings, but do what makes fingering work for you. If you're playing a B on the A string and the next chord is Eb, go up to the G string. – Ed Plunkett Sep 28 '16 at 15:58
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    About 4 years after starting playing guitar (self-taught), I helped out some friends by playing bass for them until they found someone to take over full-time. I learned so much more about how to navigate the fretboard of a guitar by playing bass for a year than I had in the previous 4 years. – Yorik Sep 28 '16 at 17:26
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Playing the root of the current chord "on the one" (i.e. for each measure) is the central core of many more complicated baselines, and just doing it will provide some additional structure to your song. One easy thing to try is to explore when you cut the note off: you can just let the notes ring, or stop the note to be a half note, or a quarter note or do it really staccato.

As you've already indicated, continuing down this vein, just setting up rhythms using the root of the current chord (and making sure you pay attention to when the notes end) is probably the next thing. Large swaths of punk music are based on just pedaled 1/8 notes on the root.

Traditionally, the first thing you'd want to learn the notes over, say, the first 5 frets on each string, this should be easy since they are identical to the four thickest strings on the guitar. This gives you about 1+1/2 octave range. You can just pick out the root notes from there.

At this place on the bass you will probably want to consider the 1-2-4 technique for your left hand: your hand only covers three frets, using your index on (say) fret 1, middle on fret 2, and ring+pinky together on fret three; then you move this around as you need to. This technique is a bit different from guitar, where you usually span 4 frets, one per finger (+extensions) -- trying to do this on the bass can cause hand strain.

For three chord songs this works really well:

  • Find the root of the I chord one the E or A strings (e.g. for a song in G, the 3rd fret of the E string); put your index finger there.
  • The root of the IV chord will be on the next thinner string; again you can use your index finger to fret it. (C, 3rd fret A string)
  • The root of the V chord will be two frets further along on the same string, and should fall under your pinky (+ring finger). (D, 5th fret A string).

If you also use the vi chord, I'd probably just shift up to it (in my key of G example, slide up to the E that is the 7th fret on the A string), since the other way of playing it (2nd fret of D string) might involve a bit of a stretch.

Actually, if you find the tonic (root of the I chord) on the A string (or D string) you should be able to play the roots of all of the chords in your 4 chord songs without having to shift position or stretch, and only using your index finger and pinky (whole hand).

Here's the fretboard diagram indicating how to do this:

   G   |    |    |    |    |
   D   |    | IV |    | V  |
   A   |    | I  |    | ii |
   E   |    | V  |    | vi |

where I've labeled the frets by (root of) chord name. Note that you have the option of playing either higher or lower on the V chord. You can move this up/down the neck and even shift over a string, so that you use the G,D and A strings instead of the D,A and E strings.

  • As a bass player, I would say that the 3 fret concept that you are presenting is not a great idea. It can cause strain on the hand to stretch that way, especially depending on the size of your hands, but to suggest that approach is to take away a lot of options for the player, regardless of whether or not they are a beginner. – Basstickler Sep 29 '16 at 15:33
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The most basic approach to bass would indeed be to play the root notes of the chords and follow the rhythm. Choosing which string to play on would need to take a few things into consideration. You can just play the note wherever you find it and that will give you the correct note but the other aspects to consider have to do with tone and texture.

A lot of times you want to play the bass note an octave below the guitar's root, as this will broaden your frequency range, adding more depth to your harmony and providing a strong feeling of support, which is largely the function of basic bass parts. The bass is tuned an octave lower than guitar, so if you know your root note of your guitar part, you can just play it in the same place on the bass, ie, same string and fret.

Next, we want to consider tone. As you may have noticed with guitar, each string has a slightly different tone about it, which is most noticeable when playing the same note (same pitch/same octave) on different strings. You should find that the same note played on a lower string will have a thicker/rounder tone to it. This has a lot to do with the thickness of the lower pitched strings having more low frequency strength but also has to do with the length of the vibrating string. Anyhow, in some approaches to bass, whether it's style or genre, it will make a little more sense to play a note that could be on the A string on the E string instead, to add this thicker tone to the mix, but in other situations, you may want a thinner tone that has more high end clarity.

Where you pluck the string can also affect the tone quite a bit. Plucking closer to the bridge will have a thinner tone than plucking above the pickups and plucking near the neck will have a more round tone with less high end clarity than plucking above the pickups. I would recommend experimenting a little with this by playing a single note and changing up where you pluck the string, or recording the bass line once for each spot (near bridge, over pickups, near neck). This should put you in touch with how it affects the tone and can allow you to make an informed decision about which will best suit your music. You can of course pluck the strings in between those spots as well, such as midway between the neck and the pickups but I suggest starting at those three points first to get in touch with the concept and better able to hear its effect.

Similarly, if there is a pickup selector on the bass, which is a good bit less common than on guitars, your tone should be affected similarly, where the bridge pickup will be more thin and your neck pickup will be more round.

Beyond all this, you can then consider whether or not you actually want the bass note to be an octave lower or not. The bass having thicker strings will inevitably have a thicker tone than guitar while playing the same note in the same octave. Sometimes it can be nice to play the same pitch and just add the thickness to the tone instead of adding the depth of being an octave lower.

A lot of times when I am choosing which octave to play my bass notes in, I also consider the overall range that I will need to cover. I'll also consider what key I'm in and what note I want to be the lowest. So if I'm in G, I might want the G to be the lowest note I play, as it would have the thickest sound and encourage a sense of resolution. In such a case, if the chord progression has an E minor in the mix, I may choose to play those Es above the G instead of the open E, probably on the A string, so that I can maintain G as my lowest note.

In short, you can usually just choose to play the bass note an octave below where you play the root on the guitar, which should work fine but to add a touch of nuance, you may want to consider the tone and octave placement. I know you mentioned that you don't want to full on learn to play bass but I would suggest taking a close look at it and trying to get in touch with how it affects your music. It could change how you approach writing on guitar when you know there will be a bass player involved in the music.

  • You can also play around with the third note of the chord. Unconventional but it helps avoid things sounding too muddy – bigbadmouse Feb 27 at 10:53

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