Back to Bassics: A Guide to the Low End
In this beginner’s guide to bass, we’ll walk you through finding your dream bass and how to start your learning journey.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably thought about picking up the good ol’ four-string bass guitar—good choice! I’m sure you’ve heard all the misconceptions about bass players (always the ones stuck in the background, watered down guitarists, if you can’t play guitar then play bass, etc.) and I’m here to debunk these myths. If you’ve been thinking about playing bass, this is a sign to pick up your instrument and get started!
The best part about playing bass is being the bridge between the rhythm and the melody, and our job is arguably the most foundational in a musical setting. It may seem easy from afar, playing one note at a time as opposed to chords; however, there’s more responsibility than meets the eye. As a bassist, you get the perks of having rhythmic drum-like parts while also providing stability to the chord progression. In doing this, you actually end up helping out the vocalists a great deal because they can follow you for both rhythmic and pitch support.
Table of Contents
Finding the Right Gear
If you’re new to playing bass, or even to playing music, I’ve got you covered. The first step is, of course, getting a bass!
I started playing bass with a Laguna LB224 I got on Craigslist for $150. It was lightweight, with longer frets and a skinny neck. If you have smaller hands, this is definitely a good place to start. Since the neck is so small, it grants you more mobility, making it perfect for somebody trying to get to know the fretboard.
I also highly recommend the Fender Squire Basses for beginners as well. They play really well, sound pretty good, and aren’t too hard on the pocket.
Things to consider:
- Long vs. Short-Scale Bass – The scale of the bass refers to the length of the bass from the nut (the part of the bass between the tuning head and the neck) to the bridge (where the strings end on the body of the instrument). Short-scale basses are great because the distance between frets are shorter and they have a really punchy, meaty sound; however, to get that sound, you’ll need a thicker string gauge which is a bit tougher on the fingers. Long-scale basses do have more distance between the frets, so there’s plenty of room to explore the higher end if you choose. I love using short-scale basses for rock and punk music, and long-scale for jazz so I have more room to solo on the high end as well as the low end.
- Neck Shape – One of the qualities I look for when finding a new instrument is the shape of the neck. There are two main neck shapes that I come across most often: the C shape and the U shape. The C-shaped neck is what I have: flat, thin, and great for smaller hands. The U-shaped neck, on the other hand, is thicker and probably more comfortable for players with bigger hands.
- Neck Finish – Neck finishes typically come in either glossy or matte: glossy being a more “wet” look and matte looking more “dry.” Some people really enjoy the smoothness of a glossy finish, but I prefer matte; after playing for long periods of time my hands tend to get sweaty and sticky, so matte grants me more mobility. This is definitely a personal preference, and players of all levels have differing opinions on which finish is more comfortable.
- Action – The action is how high the strings are in relation to the neck. When I first started playing, my bass came with what I realize now was a very high action. If the action on your instrument is high, you may have a bit more difficulty pressing down notes, creating a buzzing sound when you play. When I bought my five-string Peavey Foundation bass, it came with a lower action and I realized my mobility around my instrument was much more efficient. Luckily, this is a pretty easy fix: no matter what instrument you have, you can take it to your local guitar/bass shop and they can modify the action for you.
Amps are definitely a must if you’re picking up the bass. Unlike guitar, you’ll need an amp to practice. I started with a Line 6 amp, and luckily there’s tons of package deals online that include both a bass and amp for one price. Any of the Fender Rumble amps are great places to start, and you can find a range of prices and sizes online. They are adaptable and work great for both practice and gigs. If you’re really looking to step up your amp game for gigs and sessions, I really love my Mark Bass combo amp. It’s super loud, great quality, lightweight, and just what I needed when I had multiple gigs in one night.
Things to consider:
- Size – For me, size was very important when it came to an amp. When I was gigging frequently, I really appreciated something that wasn’t extremely heavy. Bouncing from gig to gig can be quite chaotic, and there are nights when venues have literally no parking, so having an amp that I could carry quick enough inside before my car got towed was really nice! Some people really enjoy their large cabinets, but my amp is still capable of being heard in a crowded room and it’s convenient to carry.
- Does the amp have DI? – At gigs, the sound person will probably ask if you want to go DI, which stands for Direct Input. If your amp has DI, that means it allows the sound to go through the mixing board, therefore making it easier for the sound person to adjust levels. If your amp doesn’t have DI, it isn’t the end of the world—you can still use it for practice, and if you do ever play live the sound person can just mic it. You can also purchase a DI Box.
For people just starting out, I’d highly recommend considering string gauge, which can be found on the front of a pack of strings. Gauge is essentially how thick the strings are: strings with a heavier gauge have a fuller low end, but they require a bit more finger muscle; strings with a lighter gauge are definitely easier on uncalloused fingers, but their sound rests more on the high end. You can still get a great sound no matter the gauge, it just depends on your preference. For heavy metal or punk rock, I’d recommend using heavy gauge strings (anything higher than 50/70/85/105) like these Ernie Ball Slinky Nickel Wound strings. For funk or slap bass, these Ernie Ball Extra Slinky Nickel Wound strings are going to be a better option.consider
Personally, I like to use D’Addario XL Nickel Wound strings. Nickel wound strings tend to have a brighter tone to them and are great for punchier, aggressive sounds. I love using them for both slap bass technique and for playing lines that require a faster tempo and more dexterity. Flat wound strings, on the other hand, are better if you’re seeking the lowest, warmest tone out of your instrument. I like to use flat wound strings when I’m playing more straightforward jazz on my fretless bass. It’s harder to get higher frequencies (like harmonics) out of these strings; however, many people find flat wounds to be more finger-friendly. (For more information on string types, check out “String Selects: Knowing Your Perfect String Type.”)
Learning How to Play
For a lot of people, their first step into playing bass is using tabs to learn basslines of their favorite songs. Tabs are a form of notating music that indicates where the notes physically are on your fretboard. People like using tabs because they’re great for visual learning, and there aren’t as many new terms to pick up on like there would be in standard sheet music. When I first started, I used Ultimate Guitar, but if the song you’re learning is more popular, there are tons of play-along videos on YouTube with the tabs on the bottom of the screen.
As useful as tabs are when starting out, the ones available online aren’t always correct—sometimes they have the song in the wrong key, or don’t have the version of the song you’re looking for. There may even be songs you want to learn that don’t have tabs made for them quite yet. This is where I’d recommend learning music by ear.
Learning By Ear
If I could go back and give any advice to my beginner self, I’d say to learn songs by ear. As a child, I actually started learning music by being taught how to read sheet music, and for years that was the only way I learned—it wasn’t until college when I realized the benefits of learning by ear. Some people naturally have really sharp ears, but I’m not one of those people. Luckily, you don’t need to be a natural to become proficient at learning music by ear.
One of the most beneficial ways to practice is to start off slow. If you’re having trouble catching on to songs, slowing them down can really help build your ear (Google Chrome has a Video Speed Controller plug-in you can download for free.) What I like to do is search whatever song I want to learn on YouTube and incrementally slow down the song until I can finally catch on to the changes. When I’m learning songs that have really busy basslines, I’ll slow the song down to as low as 10% so I can fully pick apart what’s going on. I really like using this resource because I can learn at my own speed and slowly work my way up to tempo.
If you’re still having a hard time hearing the bassline even when it’s really slow, try singing the bassline, then try to play it. An old teacher of mine once said, “If you can sing it, you can play it,” and I find this tip to be really useful. I’m not a singer by nature, so I used to feel really self conscious about singing my basslines; however, it really does wonders to your ear training! Something about internalizing the notes with multiple parts of your body truly helps learning the music on another level.
Carrying the Groove
Arguably, the most important role of bass is carrying the groove. Groove requires being at one with the rhythm. Most people will tell you the best way to get better at rhythm is to rigorously practice with a metronome, to focus as hard as you can on the timing, making sure you’re so in sync with the metronome that you can’t even hear it anymore. While that’s a way that works and is healthy to put practice time into, it’s not the only way to get better at rhythm.
The best way to get better at rhythm is to follow the drums. In most popular songs, there tends to be a relatively consistent structure present in the music. For guitar and piano, they’re called the chord progression: a group of changing chords that repeat over and over as the lyrics change. For drums, it’s the drum pattern: the same beat that occurs typically over four to eight counts of a song. If you’re new to picking up an instrument, that definition might sound a bit weird, but if you listen to almost any mainstream song you’ll notice drum patterns tend to stay the same throughout the verses of a song and sometimes change during the chorus and the bridge.
With that being said, the best thing you can do as a bassist is follow what the drummer is doing. As somebody who is, again, the bridge between the melody and the rhythm, it’s your job to hold the peace between the two. Instead of practicing with a metronome, which can get a bit boring and tired, try practicing with drum tracks on YouTube:
- Start off by following the kick drum (the lowest sounding drum) for 16 counts.
- Then try following the hi-hats for 16 counts.
- Keep going through this process with every drum sound you hear on your preferred drum track.
- Repeat the process again, but this time try mixing up the placements. For example: follow the kick drum for three beats, then on the fourth beat follow the hi-hat.
It might sound confusing, but this will really help lock in your timing with the drums while simultaneously creating a natural yet unique groove. What’s great about the bass is that it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, the simpler the better. Learning how to be at one with the drums will make both creating your own basslines and learning other basslines easier and more fun.
The melody is arguably the most recognizable part in music. It’s the part that is known for getting stuck in everybody’s head, and it’s what most music is centered around. As a bassist, you probably won’t play the melody most of the time, but you definitely play a critical role in supporting it. The most common way to do this is to follow the chord progression. Most of the time, the bassist tends to play the root notes; however, playing other notes within the chord can also create unique textures that give a whole new vibe to the song.
As I said earlier, if you can sing something, you can definitely play it. Another way to create a good bassline is to first learn the melody on bass:
- Sing the melody to yourself.
- Find the notes by ear on your bass.
- Create a bassline using some of the notes in the melody.
There are a couple of tricks I like to use when creating the bassline while taking the melody into consideration. For example, maybe in the verses you play the root notes of the chord progression and on a hook you play along with the melody.
As time goes on, you will learn when it’s your time to shine and when it’s your time to serve the greater purpose of the song. Despite not always being the “busiest” instrument, bass can be one of the most foundationally important instruments in a musical setting. With that responsibility also comes plenty of fun too! When practicing, always remember to serve the music and enjoy the groove.
About the Author
Kinseli Jazz Baricuatro is a session bass player hailing from Austin, Texas. She began playing piano at the age of seven and spent her middle school and high school years playing drums in her school marching band. In college, she joined her college jazz band and slowly began to pick up the bass guitar. She has now played and recorded with a range of artists and has begun delving deeper into the producer world. Follow her musical endeavors on instagram @kinseli.