I have learned the concept of major and minor chords (as they are played on piano). However, when I look at how the chords are played on guitar, I see that four tones are involved instead of three. The additional tone is a "bass" tone.

What is the rule for determining the bass tone?

For example, I play D chord from C-major key. So, I would use D, F, and A tones, and a bass tone? How can I determine what it should be? Is it just the root tone of the chord (D in this case) played one octave lower?

  • Do you mean to ask "why does the D minor chord on the guitar have four notes, when on the piano it has three notes"? Even on the piano, you can play any number of D's, F's and A's from different octaves, and it will be a D minor, as long as the lowest note is a D. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 20:17
  • @piiperi the lowest note doesn’t have to be D as long as all of the notes are Ds, Fs, and As because it would simply become an inverted chord.
    – dalearn
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 21:03
  • @dalearn so when the OP asks "What is the rule for determining the bass tone", your answer is, "there is no absolute rule, but usually the root note is preferred"? Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 22:08
  • @piiperi For the most part, yes. The part of your comment that I was disputing was the last line. It is entirely possible to have an inverted chord where an added bass note would likely not be the note on the bottom but would instead be the note that is on the bottom if the chord were stacked up in root position.
    – dalearn
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 13:28
  • @dalearn Oh, that's true, I can see it now. I assumed the OP was looking at a basic D-F-A triad, and had never thought that he could add more Ds, Fs, and As, which is what's done on the guitar. However, if you change the lowest note, then it changes the expectations for the next chord quite a bit (in my opinion), and I wouldn't recommend doing that randomly, if there's no bass player. Or more like, the person who's responsible for the lowest sounding note in a band shouldn't pick those notes randomly. Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 17:04

5 Answers 5


You've already got some good answers. Let me see if I can add some insights to those. The bass note is the one that determines which inversion you get. All inversions are valid chords so the choice is up to you.

On guitar you may for instance recognize this progression: Gmaj - D/F# - Em Where D/F# is the first inversion of the D chord. (Tears in heaven ring a bell?)

Many times inversion will be used to create a smooth bassline. The other thing that may influence your choice is the note that is in the melody at that time. Imagine these cases for instance:

1) The chord is a Cmaj7 and the singer has to sing a B. Now singing a B against a C in the bass may be tricky, and you may not like that... changing the bassnote will then make it a little easier.

2) You have a C chord, and the melody is also a C. This may be fine, but in certain cases you may find it too dull / boring. Changing the bass note (to an E for instance) will make it sound richer, and you may like that at that time... (This is something that, amongst many others, John Williams uses frequently)

But the beauty of music is of course that you're free to make it sound how you want it, and the notes you choose are determined only by your taste, skill and imagination.


In basic triads, there are only three notes (tri) - on guitar, there's the possibility to play up to six notes, so using the note names, say your D minor, with D F and A notes, just using the top 3 strings will give that. Adding an open D will give you a root position chord - the root is the lowest note played. But you could also add 5th string ope, (another A), to produce D minor again, but with A (fifth note of the chord) at the bottom, giving a 2nd inversion. You could also play bottom string, 1st fret - another F note - which also fits the chord, giving a 1st inversion of Dm, although it's not as convincing and as strong as the other two options - and a bit awkward to play. But it's still Dm!

There is no rule for determining the lowest note, as long as it's one included in the chord, but the strongest sounding is usually with root at the bottom, which is how a lot of guitar sites would have you believe it's the only one. Not true!

  • 1
    Why not just tell beginners to play the written chord root as the bass note, and that's it? ;) Most of them will never encounter a need for the word or concept of "inversion". I've heard enough beginner guitar players play an Am tonic chord with the open low E playing loud and clear. (Hint: it sounds bad.) What good does it really do if they can justify their awful playing with stuff they read on the internet, where someone said something about "inversions" and "you can also do this" and "the E note belongs to the A minor chord". ;) Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 23:20
  • You've got a point, @piiperi, but I don't really like that idea, as it seems to promote keeping beginners as beginners by not teaching them the correct way. Sure, it's simpler, but I dislike the idea of lying to students to make things simpler. I'd agree if you said "tell them to focus on root position" rather than "don't tell them about inversions [yet?]".
    – user45266
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 4:09

I have learned the concept of major and minor chords (as they are played on piano). However, when I look at how the chords are played on guitar, I see that 4 tones are involved instead of 3.

Major and minor chords each contain 3 distinct notes (distinct letters). So a C major chord always contains C, E, and G.

However, the chord can be voiced as you like, with one or more instances of each of those notes spread over the range of the instrument. That's equally true on guitar and piano - there's no difference in what a 'chord' means on each of those instruments, although of course different voicings may sound better, or be easier to play, on different instruments.

So, my question is what is the rule for determining the bass tone?

Simplistically speaking, you choose one of the notes from the chord - which one you choose will affect what inversion of the chord you are playing, but it won't change the name of the chord. Usually you'll choose the bass note (and thereby inversion) for each chord such that the overall result sounds best to you, within the limits of what's practical to play.

If you want to be 'cleverer', you could play a pattern involving two or more of the tones in the chord, and you might even play a bassline that strays outside the notes in the chord, e.g. using a passing note.


The bass note is the lowest note, and the lowest sounding note has special harmonical importance. In the most basic form of a chord, the root note is played as the bass note. If the composer or arranger (or whoever wrote the chord symbols) wanted to have something else specifically e.g. F as the lowest note, then the chord symbol would be written as "Dm/F". (More advanced players should know that chord symbols can be seen as only describing the barebones elemental idea of the song's harmony, and the player can quite freely select different inversions or completely different substitute chords, and still accomplish the same function.)

The basic-level formula of "How to D minor on guitar" goes like this:

  • Have a D as the lowest sounding note. The lowest note can be called the bass note.
  • Have at least one F note anywhere, as long as it's not the lowest sounding note. F is the most important note, because it makes the chord a minor. (With an F# it would be a D major chord.)
  • Have at least one A note anywhere, as long as it's not the lowest sounding note. (In practice it will work as a D minor even with no A note at all.)
  • If it makes the fingering easier, or if you like the sound of it, you can have more D notes anywhere, it won't make the chord any more or any less a D minor.

Here are a few example voicings of D minor chords, with the lowest i.e. bass note D highlighted.

D minor voicings on guitar

Advanced players' note

You don't really have to play the exact chord inversion. Particularly if there's a bass player in the band, who plays D (or something else that performs the same function), all you need to play is the F note somewhere relatively high, and it will funcion as a D minor. Just don't play it too low, so it would step on the bass's toes. If you're a more advanced player, you can choose to play entirely different chords and still achieve a harmonic function that serves the song just as well. If you want to leave more room for imagination, you don't play anything at all. ;)

  • 1
    Just having a Dm chord written on some music doesn't automatically mean you have to play a root version of the chord (with D underneath). When it says Dm/F, yes, it specifically calls for 1st inversion, but there's no obligation to play root when it just says 'Dm'.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 21:29
  • @Tim: I don't recall ever seeing a lead sheet with a chord symbol written as "Dm/D", but my point wasn't to declare rules of nature like "in 100.0000 % of cases you must play this when encountering this symbol, or else..." I just don't think talking about the freedom to select chord inversions would make it any easier for the OP to understand where the fourth note came from, when it was supposed to be a three-note chord, like on the piano. This is only based on my assumption of what I thought the OP was asking. I hope he/she won't get fired from a jazz band because of my oversimplification. ;) Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 22:01
  • 1
    No, well, you wouldn't, and neither have I. It just came across, like on so many guitar sites, that Dm has to be played as root. Nowhere near so. I see 'Dm' and choose whatever I want, appropriate to what's happening at that moment, especially if there's a bassist to give me even greater freedom. You're right to keep the level of answer commensurate to the level of question/ner, though. Just didn't want the 'every chord on guitar must be root unless otherwise specified' to be repeated even once more!
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 22:09

As a piano player you have understood the triads and you ask which tone you have to play on a guitar: the root of the chord or any other bass tone? If you want to find the root note, which is actually the same note as the chord's name, regardless how many notes the chord will have. The guitar has 6 strings, the tones are E A D G H E. normally you can play just the basic note of a chord, the root. Then you can change the root to the fifth or play some passing notes like on piano (when you're advanced also chromatic approaches or the bass riffs and pattern you know from the piano as do mi so miso do or a boogie pattern). So you can play the tones of the triad up and down or look up some rock or blues riffs (that will fit also on the acoustic guitar.)

To play the bass tones you have to know where to find them on the frets. that's quite easy to derive as you know the keys of a piano and the scales. you'll find them here: enter image description here

they are arranged and tuned in a way that you can quite easy change from the root to the fifth, as the tonic and dominant are always in the same fret, as well the subdominant.

e.g. E A D or C F and G.

  • 2
    One is hardly going to play a four string chord on a bass guitar! One is far more likely to be expected to only play the root note. This question is about ordinary guitar, from the viewpoint of someone who plays piano.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 21:32
  • you're right, Tim, I misunderstood the question. that means originally I was right, then after reading the answers I thought the OP is asking about bass guitar as he writes "4 tones" and I thought he means "4 strings" and concluded that the others answering did not get that the OP would have asked for playing the bass (guitar). So my answer is not completely wrong and I might adapt it to the 6 strings guitar and probably don't to have explain the tabs system. a propos playing chords on bass git.: youtube.com/watch?v=3TFiMOFRGnY youtube.com/watch?v=7CrSdJPZLss Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 12:08

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