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Summary: I play electric guitar. My partner plays bass. What is the theory behind playing together as a duet and making it work musically. Please could someone point me to a good resource?

I have been playing guitar for 1.5 years as a hobby. 1 year of acoustic and half a year of electric. I bought a bass guitar a month ago for my partner for us to learn to play together as a duet and we’ve been practising ever since. She now has only a month of experience playing bass.

I’m transcribing songs by The Smiths by ear and figuring out which notes fit the song and therefore which scale fits the song. She is then reading the tab I’ve written so we’re playing together.

I understand that I can play chords and she can play notes which fit those chords. However I’m learning to pluck individual notes using the scale (playing lead?) instead of playing chords so we’re playing the exact same notes at the same time.

This is my strategy for us to both practise together.

I’m really looking for a great book on how to play as a guitar/bass duet but I’ve been unable to find anything so far. Even the guys at the music store couldn’t point me to a good book which covers this.

  • Have a listen to 'Nivram' by the Shadows. – Tim Feb 27 at 10:24
  • Of course Nivram does have a drum part, and my first thought/assumption when I read your question was that a drums + guitar + bass trio is a perfectly standard band line up. But do you definitely mean without drums? Would you be amenable to using a drum machine - or perhaps even finding a drummer? It's much easier to create a conventional arrangement for bass-as-part-of-rhythm-section. – topo morto Feb 27 at 12:06
  • @topomorto We are playing along to the track and that has drums in it. Before her involvement, I’ve used fl studio to record my guitar without bass along with a drum beat I’ve created with the same software. So I’ve listened to the track’s drums and tried to replicate them with the software. The track is Reel Around the Fountain by The Smiths. – Jamie Butterworth Feb 27 at 12:46
  • when I was 17 in 1965 we had a boy group in our town and we played the songs of the joystrings as this one: youtube.com/watch?v=Lbl41DdKs4I (Joy Webb, Peter Dalziel and Bill Davidson) Their job was to create songs that newbies like us could play without any knowledge of guitar playing. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 27 at 16:49
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It sounds like you have two questions in one.

If you are accurately transcribing The Smiths you should end up with independent parts for bass and guitar. Transcription is a whole separate topic from how to use the bass and guitar together. You might look for some good transcriptions of The Smiths to make sure you are getting the parts correct. For some The Smiths are Godhead so there should be some good transcriptions available, just beware of crappy online tabs.

Unfortunately I couldn't find a great transcription source for The Smiths, but this might be pretty good.

But, my honest feeling is cut to the chase and check out this book:

...1,000 pages of real transcriptions of all recorded Beatles songs as performed for the recordings! I can't think of a better source to study pop/rock music. The scores are beautiful and you can so clearly see all the parts as an ensemble.


The follow is a general approach for bass and guitar arrangement. Some of it surely will apply to The Smiths, but it's really meant to be a general outline.

I understand that I can play chords and she can play notes which fit those chords.

Yes. But let's take a step back and think about that.

I think there is a attitude in some rock music that the rhythm guitar provides chords and the bass just plays the chord root down in the bass octave to support the guitar with a bigger sound.

In my opinion that's an impoverished view of the bass part. It also seems to misalign the bass within the band. The bass should be aligned with the drums. Aligning with the drums should help make the bass function independently of the guitar.

Also, rather than the guitar providing the chords (the harmony) and the bass just doubling at the octave, the bass should be understood as generating the harmony. The distinction is subtle, but suffice to say that a lot of bass patterns server to outline the chords, the harmony. The bass needs to be rock solid rhythmically with the drums and in providing the harmonic foundation.

  • The bass will generally play the chord root in rock music. When it plays more than roots, the root often is played on the first beat of a bar (or the first note of a chord change) to get the chord defined after which it can continue moving in a variety of ways.
  • The bass very often just plays steady quarter or eighth notes, but it could play some kind of rhythmic groove, or various pick up notes before the beat, whatever the rhythm it can stay on the root the whole time.
  • The root can be embellished simply by playing a neighbor note a scale step above or below the root and then going back to the root.
  • when the chords change the bass can either go directly to the next chord root, or a short segment of the scale can be used to lead into the next chord. For example AAAA AAAA EEEE... or AAAA ABCD EEEE...
  • The bass can arpeggiate the chord in a number of ways.
    • generally the first beat will always be the chord root
    • play roots and fifths of the chords, or roots, fifths, and the root in the upper octave, ex. A1 A1 A1 A1 E2 E2 A2 A2 where the numbers indicate octaves
    • play all the chord tones starting on the root

From that little outline it should be clear the bass can simply hold a note, play arpeggios, or play scales. There is no limitation in the basic musical material. However, the bass really needs to make the harmony clear. Careful handling of the roots should go a long way for harmonic clarity.

However I’m learning to pluck individual notes using the scale (playing lead?) instead of playing chords so we’re playing the exact same notes at the same time.

Of course there is nothing wrong with doubling up parts. But, sometimes you want independence of parts.

  • The first step in the direction of independence it simply play the two parts at different intervals. So, you probably are playing where the two parts are doubled at the octave. Try playing in 3rds, 6ths, or 10ths. The two parts will be similar in rhythm and direction, but you will actually be harmonizing. This kind of thing may need to be worked out beforehand to fit the chords. Sort of like this...
        Am      | Em      | Am

Guitar: C D E F | G G E E | C

Bass:   A B C D | E E G G | A
  • Try thinking more about the two rhythms played by bass and guitar instead of the pitches. If you play different rhythms, you will mostly likely end up playing different pitches.
  • If the bass plays patterns like those in the bass outline above, then when you play scale-based parts it should not result in duplicate parts, because the bass will be mostly on chord tones while your guitar is playing the full scale.
  • Try setting out the general contrast you want to achieve between the two parts. Things like...
    • bass plays stead down beat, guitar play with syncopation
    • bass uses rests, guitar keeps a steady flow
    • bass play fast rhythms, guitar plays long notes
    • bass stays locked into a simple pattern, guitar follows long, wide ranged lines

Any pair of contrasting roles can be traded between the bass and guitar.

Along with getting the correct transcripts of bass and guitar for existing songs and studying how other bands do things, you can experiment with this outline of ideas using various common four chord progressions. Try some one hour jam sessions to get a feel for the possibilities and what the two of you like and don't like. Don't overlook the value of using musical rests or simple patterns.

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There's no better approach than learning the bass parts and guitar parts from your favourite songs and trying to play them. Try by ear but also get through all available transcriptions and tutorials for the songs and strive for being as close to the original as you can. Then record yourself from time to time to watch the progress.

At this stage you will learn the most by simply repeating and recreating what has already been done. This way you will naturally understand more about the role of each instrument, about different possibilities and about what works between guitar and bass and what doesn't.

One most important insight might be that even though the guitar and bass sort of operate and can be played the same way, their role and the approach to playing differs a lot - it's a bit like a different mental state to be in. Bass is a part of rhythm section even in an absence of drums, so the focus is on being the perfect timekeeper, creator of pulse, and groove - the rhythmic excitement. That's way it's a good idea to use a metronome until you will feel comfortable with keeping a steady pulse and be tight.

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    Seconded. If learning the parts by ear turns out to be too difficult or time-consuming, it might be helpful to invest in the program Guitar Pro, and download the arrangements for your favorite songs. For practice purposes, you can then also mute the guitar and bass in the software and play along to the drum tracks. – Richard Metzler Feb 27 at 14:10
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You may need to start digging up transcriptions, depending on the genres of music you are interested in playing. As an extreme example, you could play the Beethoven duets for clarinet and bassoon.

It's not quite clear if you want to play true duets, where both players take the melody line at various times, and/or the melody requires both parts playing the same rhythm to build a chord progressionn, or if you just want to "transcribe" some jazz or rock tunes so that the harmonies are covered with your two instruments. Either way, it'll be helpful to have someone with experience in music theory support the transcriptions.

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I understand that I can play chords and she can play notes which fit those chords. However I’m learning to pluck individual notes using the scale (playing lead?) instead of playing chords so we’re playing the exact same notes at the same time.

If you are playing the exact same notes at the same time then you are doing it wrong. The bass guitar almost never plays the tune.

If you go on Youtube you can find many tutorials showing just the bass guitar part for lots of popular songs. Good search terms are

bass guitar cover

bass guitar [name of song]

Here's an example:

and here's a more advanced one:

  • she's so cute! I'll have to play e-Bass again! – Albrecht Hügli Feb 27 at 16:44
  • Thanks for that Yonit video. What a tidy player! Certainly not a track for beginners..! – Tim Feb 27 at 17:53

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