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4 Essential Bass Guitar Scales: A Beginners Guide

Learn how to play essential bass guitar scales with this guide. Start practicing beginner bass scales or ones from your favorite genre with Fender.

One of the fundamental building blocks of a bass guitar education is learning to play scales. Not only does learning to play scales give you an understanding of what notes are contained in a specific key and their corresponding chords, but learning to play bass guitar scales can help you to develop an ear for different tones. Bass scales, for beginners, can also help you to increase your finger dexterity -- maneuvering along the fretboard to play notes in a given scale -- and later applying that knowledge to play or write guitar solos.

So, what are bass scales? A bass scale is a series of notes played in a specific order, up and down the neck of your instrument. Every scale is made up of eight notes that are called an octave. The tone of each of these notes in an octave remains the same whether you’re playing them on bass, guitar, or ukulele. Every scale starts and finishes with a “root note.” This note bookends the scale and the final note of the octave is the exact same note as the one your scale started with, just raised one octave higher.

There are different types of bass guitar scales. Each one serves their own purpose and lends a different feel when applied to a song. Let’s learn more about the different types of bass scales and some of the different genres where you’ll hear or play them.

1. The Major Scale

The major scale is the most common and important type of bass scale. Many songs are written in a major key, making use of a variety of major scales to set the tone. In terms of sound, a major scale has a bright and cheery feel when you listen to it.

Regardless of whether you’re playing a C Major scale or a G Major scale on bass, all major scales use the same formula of intervals in their construction. Intervals are the “steps” between each note -- either a whole note or half note. While there are eight notes in a single octave, that means there are seven steps in between each of those notes.

The major scale formula is:
• Whole step
• Whole step
• Half step
• Whole step
• Whole step
• Whole step
• Half step

Let’s apply that formula to the G Major scale. The G Major scale on bass can be heard in a wide variety of popular songs. Once you start playing it and committing it to memory, you’ll be able to listen for it and recognize it in some of your favorites. Starting with the root note of G, the G Major scale makes use of the formula above and strings together the following notes:

Root (1st) note: G
• 2nd note: A (whole step)
• 3rd note: B (Whole step)
• 4th note: C (Half step)
• 5th note: D (Whole step)
• 6th note: E (Whole step)
• 7th note: F# (Whole step)
• 8th note: G (Half step)

When playing the G Major scale on bass, it’s helpful to know where to place your fingers on the fretboard. One of the easiest ways to visualize that is by using tablature. Sometimes known as “tabs,” tablature uses a series of lines and numbers to show you what notes to play.

In order to read tablature, the lines on a tab chart represent the strings on your bass, with the bottom line representing the lowest-toned string (E). The highest line on the chart represents (you guessed it) the highest toned string on your bass (B). The numbers on a tablature chart represent which fret you’ll place your finger on -- on a particular string -- in order to play the correct note.

Check out how to play the G Major scale on bass using tablature:

G Major Scale (enlarged)

Ready to try your hand at playing (and hearing) the G Major Scale yourself? Break out your bass and learn how to play this scale on Fender Play. A free trial unlocks this lesson and more songs and scales to increase your musical knowledge.

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J21p55hM6hI&t=4s

2. The Minor Scale

Standing in sharp contrast to the Major scale, the Minor scale has a darker, more murky tone. When you hear the minor scale in songs or by itself, it typically lends a sad, downcast feel. As one of the most important bass scales for beginners, learning to play minor scales can help you to recognize and create music that has a greater range of emotions when played.

Like the Major scale, the Minor scale has its own formula that applies to every minor scale, regardless of the root note that serves as its starting point. The Minor scale formula is:

• Whole step
• Half step
• Whole step
• Whole step
• Half step
• Whole step
• Whole step

To see that formula in action, let’s apply it to the C Minor scale. This scale is one of the best minor scales for beginner bassists to learn to play since it’s found in a number of popular songs. The C Minor scale pops up quite a bit in the blues and jazz genres.

Here’s how the Minor scale formula would be applied to play the C Minor scale.

Root (1st) note: C
• 2nd note: D
• 3rd note: Eb
• 4th note: F
• 5th note: G
• 6th note: A
• 7th note: Bb
• 8th note: C

With that formula in mind, bass tabs can help you learn how to play the C Minor scale and where to place your fingers in order to sound the correct notes in the correct order. Here is one way to play the C Minor scale on bass:

C Natural Minor Scale (enlarged)

Now that you know the formula to create a Minor scale and have seen how to play it using tablature, Fender Play can show you how to play the C Minor scale on bass, building speed, finger dexterity, and a working knowledge of this important bass scale that you can apply to countless songs.



3. The Major Pentatonic Scale

While the Major scales and Minor scales are among some of the most important scales for musicians to learn, there are still even more scales that can lend a whole new dimension to your playing and increase your knowledge and appreciation of music.

One of these other types of scales is the Major Pentatonic scale. Unlike the Major and Minor scales that are made up of 7 notes (technically 8, if you’re counting the root note twice), the Major Pentatonic scale consists of just five notes. These pentatonic scales get their name from the Greek word “penta,” which means “five.” The Pentatonic Major scale can be heard in a ton of different musical genres. You’re just as likely to hear the Pentatonic Major in a heavy metal tune as you are a classic blues song.

The Pentatonic Major scale formula removes specific notes from the standard Major scale formula. It omits the 4th and 7th notes from the formula, leaving you with just five notes. While your root note will always remain the same in either a standard Major scale or a Pentatonic Major scale, your Pentatonic Major scale will only consist of five notes: G, A, B, D, and E.

Let’s compare the two, using the G Major scale vs. the G Major Pentatonic scale on bass:

G Major Scale:

Root (1st) note: G
• 2nd note: A
• 3rd note: B
• 4th note: C
• 5th note: D
• 6th note: E
• 7th note: F#
• 8th note: G

G Major Pentatonic Scale:

Root (1st) note: G
• 2nd note: A
• 3rd note: B
• 4th note: omitted
• 5th note: D
• 6th note: E
• 7th note: omitted
• 8th note: G

Now that you understand more of the musical theory behind pentatonic scales, let’s take a look at how to play the G Major Pentatonic scale on bass using tablature. Don’t just listen for those notes, but take a look at the structure of a pentatonic scale and the numerical patterns (which frets you play) to help this scale make more sense to you:

G Major Pentatoni scale (enlarged)

Armed with both the musical theory behind this scale and a visual of how to play it using tablature, check out Fender Play to see, hear, and practice drilling the G Major Pentatonic scale for yourself.

4. The Minor Pentatonic Scale

Like the Major Pentatonic scale, the Minor Pentatonic scale is made up of five notes. The Minor Pentatonic scale, however, has its own unique formula that can be applied to construct this type of scale. Like the regular Minor scale, the Minor Pentatonic scale has a sadder, more dramatic tone to it than its Major Pentatonic counterpart. You’ll hear the Minor Pentatonic scale in jazz, blues, and hard rock / heavy metal genres, lending that mysterious, downtrodden tone to a song or musical composition.

The formula for constructing a Minor Pentatonic scale involves a few different steps. In addition to omitting the 2nd and 6th notes of a given standard scale, the Minor Pentatonic scale flattens both the 3rd and 7th notes of that scale.

Let’s compare and contrast the C Minor scale vs. the C Minor Pentatonic scale for bass:

C Minor Scale:

Root (1st) note: C
• 2nd note: D
• 3rd note: Eb
• 4th note: F
• 5th note: G
• 6th note: A
• 7th note: Bb
• 8th note: C

C Minor Pentatonic Scale:

Root (1st) note: C
• 2nd note: omitted
• 3rd note: Eb
• 4th note: F
• 5th note: G
• 6th note: omitted
• 7th note: Bb

Understanding the musical theory behind constructing a Minor Pentatonic scale makes it easier to play. Here’s how you would apply that formula and translate it to tablature format, playing the C Minor Pentatonic scale on bass:

C Minor Pentatonic scale (enlarged)

Ready to put that theory into practice? Listen and learn how to play the C Minor Pentatonic scale on bass with Fender Play!

Bonus Genre Scales

While the formulas behind playing both major and minor scales, as well as their pentatonic scale counterparts are universal and can be applied using any root note, there are a few other types of bass scales that are more commonly associated with different genres of music.

Once you’ve mastered some of the Major, Minor, and Pentatonic scales we’ve mentioned here, you can branch out and practice a few more bass scales that give flair to your playing. As you learn more different types of bass guitar scales, you’ll deepen your knowledge of your instrument, as well as learn to identify which ones appear in your favorite genres and songs.

Here are a few genre-based bass guitar scales that you might want to incorporate into your toolkit.

Blues Bass Scale

If low-end grit is your thing, you might find yourself gravitating toward learning to play the blues as your genre of choice. Whether you play it on a six-string guitar or a four-string bass guitar, the blues scale formula is actually a variation on the pentatonic major or minor scale.

What makes the blues scale different is that it adds a sixth note to a pentatonic major or minor scale, which is often called “the blue note.” It’s this extra, chromatic note that gives this essential scale its unmistakably soulful tone.

To construct a blues bass scale, you’d use the following formula:

• Whole step and a half step
• Whole step
• Half step
• Half step
• Whole step and a half-step
• Whole step

Let’s take that formula and apply it to create an A Minor Blues scale:

A Minor Blues Scale:

Root (1st) note: A
• 2nd note: C
• 3rd note: D
• 4th note: D#
• 5th note: E
• 6th note: G

The A Minor Blues scale is just one of many different scales you’ll hear within the blues genre. You can take this formula and apply it to any scale to give it a distinctive, bluesy tone. And while musical theory is certainly important in understanding what gives a specific genre its own style, ultimately, it’s the application and emotion behind a song that plants it firmly in one genre versus another. Knowing the notes that correspond to a specific blues scale can help you to create basslines that have a bluesy feel to them.

Expand your knowledge of playing the blues on bass and explore Fender Play’s Blues Form Basics to learn essential techniques and skills associated with the genre. From there, put those skills into practice and learn to play some blues songs on bass for beginners. From “Killing Floor” by blues pioneer Howlin’ Wolf, to the legendary John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” to blues virtuoso Robert Cray’s “Phone Booth,” you’ll get to try your hand at some walking blues basslines and listen to the impact each note makes as you work toward improving your skill and style.

Funk Bass Scale

Funk is more than just a musical genre, it’s a way of life that brings a shoulder-shaking feel to a song. More than any other musical genre, the bass plays a key role in driving the beat-heavy sound of funk. While epic, shred-heavy guitar solos may be the backbone of heavy metal, a thumping bass groove is what gives funk its character.

With that in mind, there isn’t a specific funk bass scale that’s used to construct many a funk song. However, the E Minor Pentatonic scale is one that pops up frequently within the genre.

Using the Minor Pentatonic scale formula we talked about earlier, here’s how you’d construct the E Minor Pentatonic scale. Check it out and then listen for these notes in some of your funk favorites:

E Minor Pentatonic Scale:

Root (1st) note: E
• 2nd note: omitted
• 3rd note: G
• 4th note: A
• 5th note: B
• 6th note: omitted
• 7th note: D

Learning how to apply certain types of scales to your playing can only enhance your knowledge. Everyone knows you can’t fake the funk. With that in mind, expand your horizons and listen to some of the most influential bassists in the genre. The bass stylings of Parliament Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins is a fundamental part of a funk music education, as is the work of the late, great Rick James. Learn to play Rick James’ iconic funk bassline from “Give It To Me Baby” and explore some of the other great funk songs on bass for beginners in Fender Play’s library.

Jazz Bass Scale

Like its younger cousin Funk, and its big brother the Blues, Jazz is another genre that relies heavily on improvisation and creating a mood. However, the genre knows the rules of musical theory before it breaks them.

Some of the most common scales you’ll hear in jazz are the major and minor pentatonic scales, as well as the Ionian scale. (Pro tip: “Ionian” is just another name for the Major scale and uses the exact same order of whole and half-steps as the Major scale.)

While the blues genre often leans toward moodier minor scales in song construction, jazz often has a brighter, more zingy sound that’s more at home with the major scales. (Not to say that there aren’t jazz songs that use minor scales in their construction. Again the cardinal rule of learning to play bass or any other instrument is to know the rules before you break them!)

Learning more about jazz scales on bass and the genre itself can help you see its influence on other genres and where they are similar. For instance, take a look at jazz bass devotee Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While RHCP were early pioneers of the alternative rock movement, the band incorporated a diverse range of elements in their sound, including funk and jazz. Flea’s bass playing is one example of jazz’s influence on rock and funk. Bootsy Collins, one of the forefathers of funk also favored the Fender Jazz bass, as did studio legend Jaco Pastorius and Rush’s Geddy Lee. While prog-rock legends like Rush might not necessarily be the first band you’d associate with jazz, one listen to Geddy Lee’s bass playing and the sonic structure of many of Rush’s songs and you’ll hear that knack for improvisation that’s a hallmark of jazz.

Check out Fender Play Bass Lessons

Learning to play scales is a major part of mastering bass guitar. They can help you develop your ear and deepen your appreciation for the aspects that give each genre its own unique character. Learning to play bass scales can also help you build up finger speed and dexterity in your practice. Eventually, that can translate to playing and crafting basslines in songs and enhancing your knowledge of your instrument.

Fender Play makes learning to play bass easy. Get started on your musical journey today and sign up for a free trial of Fender Play today.