How to Play Bass Guitar
Learn how to play bass guitar with our step-by-step guide for beginners. Get started playing basic chords and understanding finger techniques.
By Ben Nemeroff
Bass may not get all the glory of the guitar or have the flash, crash, and bang of the drums -- but the instrument holds an important spot in any band, bridging the gap between rhythm and melody. The bass guitar is responsible for creating the undercurrent -- or bassline -- that ties a song together, giving it a rhythmic feel and a steady beat that helps both the guitar and drums propel the song forward.
In this guide, we’ll show you some bass guitar basics, helping you get started on your musical journey. We’ll give you some pointers on how to choose a bass guitar, tuning tips and finger technique, as well as how to play a song on bass.
In This Guide
• Why Learn to Play Bass Guitar?
• Is Bass Guitar Easy to Learn?
• Choosing a Bass Guitar That’s Right for You
• Bass Checklist for Beginners
• How to Tune a Bass Guitar
• Bass Finger Techniques for Beginners
• How to Play Bass Chords
• How to Play Bass Scales
• How to Practice Bass for Beginners
• Learn a Song on Bass Guitar
Why learn to play bass guitar?
While guitar gets the glory in terms of musicianship in the band, there aren’t quite as many bassists vying for the spotlight. However, bass guitar is the low-end bottom that provides a bridge between the showmanship and melody of the guitar and the driving backbeat of the drums.
Need another reason to want to learn to play bass? While you may marvel at a guitarist’s string-bending prowess when you listen to a song, when you plug your headphones in, the bass line is usually the part that makes you bob your head.
Many bassists have a firm understanding of the structure of songs and often take a front-seat role in songwriting. Take a look (and listen) to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney of The Beatles, Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins (who also played with Dee-Lite and James Brown), Geddy Lee of Rush, Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx, and Gene Simmons of KISS, and you have a litany of bassists who have been the songwriting forces behind their respective bands. Picking up a bass and learning how to weave its rhythmic texture into a song puts you in good company.
Is Bass Guitar Easy to Learn?
Playing bass guitar can be easy but the more you decide to delve into the intricacies of the instrument, you can apply that knowledge to play simple or more complex basslines in songs.
Depending on the musical genre and the level of mastery you aspire to with playing your instrument, it can determine how easy or how hard it is to learn bass guitar. For instance, for more tone and guitar-driven songs in the country genre, playing bass may be easier than rhythm-focused genres such as funk or hard rock and heavy metal.
The physical size and thickness (or gauge) of bass strings of a bass may also make it more challenging for new musicians to learn. However, if you have smaller hands, there are short-scale basses (like the Fender Mustang® Bass) that can make it easier for you to maneuver up and down the neck of your bass guitar and span a shorter distance between frets.
“Everyone's a beginner at some point. You get better at things by doing them more. You may be a beginner, but you'll get better. I guarantee it."
- Mike Dirnt, Green Day
Bass Guitar Basics
Choosing a Bass Guitar That’s Right for You
As a beginner, choosing a bass guitar can feel intimidating -- but it doesn’t have to be. From size to tone, to the number of strings and your budget, there are several factors that can help narrow down the right choice for your bass.
• Size: If you’re a beginner bassist with smaller hands or just want a lighter instrument with a shorter neck to more easily maneuver around the fretboard, a short-scale bass may be the perfect choice. The Fender Mustang Bass, Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar Bass Special SS and Squier Bronco Bass all feature a 30” long neck. Additionally, a lightweight bass may be ideal for individuals who experience back or shoulder pain when playing for extended periods.
• Tone: The tone a bassist gravitates toward is a matter of personal preference. Depending on your genre of choice and the sound you’re aiming to achieve, different bass guitars will offer their own distinct tone. Want a warmer tone? Opt for a bass from the Fender Squier range. In addition to a warm tone, they offer a thinner neck and profile, ideal for novice bassists and players with small hands. Crave a deeper, more rumbling tone? Look to the Player Precision Bass®.
If you have a desire to experiment and tinker with tone, outfitting your electric bass with the right amp or pedals can help you replicate the tones of your favorite artists. The Fender Mustang GTX series of amps is compatible with the Fender Tone app, which allows you to access hundreds of presets to help you sound like your favorite musician without having to string together a ton of effects pedals.
• Number of strings: While most bass guitars have four strings, there are some five-string models (such as the Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass® V) that offer players more creative freedom. If you’re just starting out on your musical journey, it may be best to master playing a four-string bass first before branching out. The thinner neck of a four-string bass guitar may be easier for beginners to play. On the flipside, a five-string bass increases the range of notes and scales that can be played.
• Budget: An instrument is an investment that will last a lifetime. Even if you’re starting out or on a budget, there are plenty of affordable options to find a bass you’ll love for years to come. For instance, the Fender Affinity Series™ Jazz Bass® packs a legendary sound at under $250. Electric bass bundles are another great choice for bassists on a budget, packaging together a bass, amp, strap, and other accessories to get you started.
Still not sure where to begin? Find your Fender and get paired up with an instrument that speaks to your style and sound.
Bass Checklist for Beginners
Having the right tools is the key to mastering your instrument. There are a few essentials beginner bassists should have to get started:
• Bass guitar strap - A guitar strap not only helps you to securely hold your instrument in the correct position for playing, but it also helps you show off a bit of your personality and sense of style.
• Cables - Whether you’re plugging your bass into an amplifier or stringing effects pedals together, cables help make that connection possible.
• Amps - There’s nothing like the feeling of plugging in your electric bass and hearing its rumble roar to life. Whether you’re cranking it all the way up to 10 or practicing at a lower volume, an amplifier can help you hear the true tone of your instrument and perfect your technique. Not sure which amp is right for you? Get some help and find out how to choose your ideal bass modeling amp.
• Digital tuner - Making sure your bass stays in tune can help you develop your ear. As you increase your skill level, you may want to experiment with alternate bass tunings. A digital tuner can help you find the right pitch.
How To Tune A Bass Guitar
While it may have a thicker, more bottom heavy sound than its six-stringed cousin, the guitar; the bass has the same first four strings, tuned to the same notes. The strings on the bass guitar are:
• E = The fourth (lowest tone) string
• A = The third string
• D = The second string
• G = The first (and highest tone) string
There are a number of ways to tune your bass. While you can tune it by ear or using harmonics -- playing a specific fret on an adjoining string and matching the tone of a higher, open string to it, the Fender Tune app makes it easy to stay in tune. Download the free bass tuning app to keep your playing pitch perfect.
“Music is like the genius of humankind, universal… People who have never really taken the time to get into music, their lives are a lot smaller.”
- Flea, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Bass Finger Techniques For Beginners
It’s been the subject of The Great Bass Debate for years: whether to play with a pick or your fingers. The truth is, there’s no wrong way to play bass. Depending on the genre and style you like most, as well as your own finger strength and dexterity. Both styles have their own merits:
• Play bass with a pick: If speed and versatility is what you strive for, playing bass with a pick may be your preferred method. Not only can you more quickly plunk out notes with a pick than you could with your fingers (barring years of practice and honing your technique), but experimenting with picks of different thickness can help you tweak your tone and give you a different sound.
• Play bass with your fingers: Sometimes referred to as fingerstyle, playing bass with your fingers yields a smoother sound and allows you to slap and pop your strings for a funk-fueled tone. Most bassists who play with their fingers find it’s easiest to start by using their index and middle fingers to pluck at the strings. However, with time, you can build up your dexterity and experiment with using your thumb to slap at the strings for an organic tone.
How To Play Bass Chords
When learning to play bass, you may not encounter chords as frequently as you would when playing guitar. However, learning how to play bass chords can only serve to enhance your playing. While basslines are often the cornerstone of a song, bass chords help to add color, flavor, and a bottom-heavy rhythm to a song.
A chord is a combination of three or more notes played together to produce a distinct sound. While chords are the foundation of a guitar education, it’s possible to play chords on bass, as well. The strings on a bass correspond with the first four strings of a guitar. So, many guitar chords that make use of only the first four strings can be played on bass.
How To Play Bass Scales
A bass scale is a consecutive series of notes played in an ascending or descending order. Every scale has 8 notes. This set of notes is called an octave. The notes on a scale remain the same, regardless of whether you’re playing a scale on bass, guitar, or ukulele. Each scale begins and ends with the same note -- known as the “root note.” The final note of every scale is also the root note, but the pitch of the note is raised one octave higher than the first note.
When playing bass scales, one of the easiest scales to start with is the G Major scale:
• 1st Note (Root Note): G
• 2nd Note: A
• 3rd Note: B
• 4th Note: C
• 5th Note: D
• 6th Note: E
• 7th Note: F#
• 8th Note (Root note, one octave higher): G
The G Major scale can be played on just one string of your bass, or span the full four strings. For instance, check out how to play the G Major on bass.
Learning to play the popular C Major scale on bass can help you play a number of songs. Playing scales not only helps to build finger dexterity, but helps you to recognize the same notes and tones, even when played on different frets. Learning scales can also help you recognize patterns and apply them when playing songs or writing your own music and basslines.
Want to learn and practice more bass scales? Here are some of the most popular bass scales:
A free trial of Fender Play unlocks a world of new scales, skills and more, helping you level up your skill as a musician.
“That is what intrigues me; songwriting and song structure and expression.”
- Geddy Lee, Rush
How to Create a Bassline
A bassline is a series of notes played on bass that ties together chord tones, the key a song is written and performed in, and the rhythm -- anchoring the beat and melody of the song. Listen to funky, upbeat intro to Rick James’ “Super Freak” or the dark, murky opening bass notes of “Come As You Are” by Nirvana and hear those notes repeated throughout and you’ll have a prime example of the power of a well-crafted bassline.
Building a bassline weaves together some of the skills you’ll pick up along your musical journey, transforming that knowledge into the joy of creation. Some tips to keep in mind when building bassline include:
• Find a key: Start by knowing the key of the song. Learning your scales and listening for the root note that crops up in the song and its chords can help you narrow down the key of a song. This can help you to craft a bassline that compliments the song.
• Pick apart chords: Listen to the chords a guitarist is playing and break them down, note by note, into an arpeggio. This can help you create a bassline that gels with the chords in a given song.
• Listen for timing: Bass, at heart, is a rhythm instrument. It sets the tone and pace for a song. When crafting a bassline, keep in mind the tempo or signature of a song and use it to inform your bassline’s rhythm.
In this Fender Play Live session, watch as host Dylan Caligiuri is joined by bassist Caleb Buchanan, giving you a crash course on what goes into building a memorable bassline.
How to Practice Bass for Beginners
Setting good practice habits is essential for new bassists. For any beginner musician, making practice a regular part of your routine is critical to progress and building proficiency. Here are a few tips for carving out time to practice, as well as making sure you have what you need to get in a quality practice session.
• Make time to practice. Practicing for even a few minutes a day is better than not practicing at all. The Fender Play app allows you to set practice reminders at a time that works for you. You set the date and time, we remind you when to practice. Similarly, the app tracks your progress and gamifies your practice session with Streaks. Whenever you practice in the Fender Play app for at least 7 minutes, 3 times per week, you earn points toward your streak.
• Have a devoted practice space. Having a space dedicated to your practice can go a long way toward making it a regular part of your routine. If you can, find a place where you know you can practice uninterrupted. This space can include a stand or case for your bass and a comfortable seat that encourages good playing posture.
• Start with scales and techniques. Start by learning fundamentals such as bass scales or by focusing on one technique at a time.
• Be patient with yourself. No one picked up an instrument and learned it in one day. As you progress, you’ll be able to link these smaller skills together and work your way up to playing entire songs or basslines.
Learn a Song on Bass Guitar
One of the most rewarding parts of learning to play an instrument is putting that knowledge into practice by playing a song. Learning to play songs you love helps you develop a greater appreciation for the musicianship of the artists who created those tunes, as well as to develop your musical ear and experiment with new skills you learn.
An easy song for beginner bassists to learn is “La Grange” by ZZ Top. The heavily-bearded trio’s sound treads the line of blues and hard rock. The simple, yet driving bassline of the song gives new bassists a chance to hear the influence the blues has had on a variety of genres -- from rock to funk to country.
What makes “La Grange” such a great song for new bassists to play is that it offers up a very simple riff, playing just a few single notes -- with attention to tempo -- on a single string. There is a neat slide between a few frets on the A (second lowest) string on the song’s bridge, but this one is all about rhythm and a steady tempo. It’s also a great opportunity to experiment with playing bass with your fingers and how it affects the tone.
Learn how to play La Grange on the bass here.
Explore Bass Collections
Still hungry for more songs to play on bass? Check out Fender Play’s collections. These carefully curated collections teach you how to play a variety of songs on bass, grouping them by artist, genre, difficulty level, or related techniques. Browsing through collections can help you to level up your playing, learning some of the fundamentals within your favorite genre, or gaining a firmer understanding of the techniques some of your favorite bassists use across a variety of their songs.
Check out a few of our favorite bass collections:
• 10 Easy Songs to Learn on Bass - Perfect for beginners, check out 10 iconic basslines and songs -- From Salt n’ Pepa’s “Push It” to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” that are easy for new players to learn.
• Slap Bass - Learn how to master the slap and pop bass technique when you explore this collection designed to help you improve your skills.
• Blues Form Bass Basics - With 4 blues-based skills and 7 songs, this collection gives you a crash course in playing bass with blues fundamentals. Learn and apply shuffle groove and bass arpeggios in a variety of songs including “Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker and James Brown’s iconic “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
• Must-Know Rock Riffs - Learn 14 essential rock basslines and riffs, spanning classic rock favorites like “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” by Pink Floyd to pop-punk mainstays like Green Day’s Longview.
• Walking Basslines & Arpeggios - The walking bassline is a staple of various genres -- from rock to rockabilly to the blues. Learn this fundamental with 4 skills lessons and play it in 8 songs in this collection.
Check out Fender Play Bass Lessons
Learning to play an instrument is a great way to challenge yourself and take your love of music to the next level. When you learn to play bass guitar, you’ll find a new appreciation for the rhythm and melody of your favorite tunes. Sign up for a free trial of Fender Play and unlock skills, scales, and songs to learn and play on bass.