Ready to start rocking the bass? By the end of this article and video series, you’ll know everything you need to know about strap height, the parts of the bass, how to tune, and basic left and right hand techniques. We’ll even play some music together as we’re learning.
Let’s Strap it On
Although it’s technically not part of the bass, let’s start by talking about the strap.
Having your strap on at the right height is essential, and I recommend always playing with a strap on.
There are a few different ways that straps can attach to the bass. The most common way on inexpensive straps is that there will be an opening in the ends of the strap where the strap button of the bass fits through.
A more secure way is to use strap locks, which actually lock the strap onto the bass. In my opinion, this is essential for live performance, otherwise your bass might fall off while you’re moving around.
There are a handful of different strap lock designs for bass – I’ve been using Dunlop strap locks for years and have never had a failure.
Whatever kind of strap you use, the most important thing is to set your strap height so that your bass is somewhere between your rib cage and your waist. If your bass is hanging too low (as is fashionable in some rock bands), it will change the angle at which your hands approach the bass and cause technique problems.
Parts of the Bass
The bass can be broken into three basic segments:
Body: This is where your right hand plucks the strings, and where all the electronics of the bass are housed.
Neck: This is where your left hand will be pressing down on the frets to get different notes out of the bass.
Headstock: This is where the tuners are, which you’ll turn to get your strings in tune.
The Musical Alphabet
Before we get your bass in tune, you need to understand how the musical alphabet works.
There are only 12 notes in “Western” music (meaning almost everything you listen to), which repeat over and over in different registers. We use the English letters A through G, plus some symbols called sharps and flats to name those notes.
The easiest way to visualize this is on a piano keyboard.
Let’s zoom in on just one octave of the keyboard, which means the span from one note to its next repetition.
Notice there are 13 keys in the above image? There are 12 unique notes, and the 13th key is a repetition of the A we started on.
The white keys on the piano are given all the plain letter names, which are called naturals. To name the black keys, we start with a nearby white key and then use sharp to raise it or flat to lower it. So, the black key between A and B could be called A# (A raised one note) or Bb (B lowered one note).
The only complication with this system is that there are two asymmetrical spots on the keyboard where there is no black key – between E and F, and between B and C.
This might feel like a lot of theory if you’re just starting with music, but you’ll have this stuff memorized within a couple weeks if you keep reviewing it, and it’ll be with you the rest of your life. Just remember:
- There are 12 notes
- We use the letters A through G, plus sharps and flats, to name them
- There is a sharp or flat between all the letters except E to F, and B to C.
How To Tune Your Bass
The strings of the bass should be tuned to the notes E, A, D, and G. The E string is the thickest string closest to your face as you’re holding the bass. There are two methods you can use to tune a bass guitar:
1. TUNE WITH A TUNER
This is what I’ll teach you in this lesson; it’s the easiest and most reliable method for beginners to learn.
2. TUNE BY EAR
There are a few different ways to do this, from using external reference pitches to tuning with bass harmonics, but I don’t recommend doing this if you’re new to music. After you’ve been playing music for longer and are used to tuning with a tuner, it will be easier to learn to tune by ear.
There are three different types of tuner you can use:
- Plug-in Tuner: This is my top recommendation; you’ll get the most accuracy, especially on your low E string. You just plug an instrument cable from your bass into the tuner’s input.
- Clip-on Tuner: These have gotten better and better in recent years, and they have the advantage of being really easy to carry around and use. They clip onto your bass’s headstock and read the vibration of the wood.
- Tuner Apps: These won’t be as accurate as the above options since they rely on a microphone rather than connecting to your bass directly, but if you don’t have a physical tuner you can use an app for free in the meantime
Now that you’ve got your tuner hooked up, all you need to do is pluck a string with your right hand (make sure it’s the only string ringing), look at the tuner display, and then turn the tuning knob that corresponds to that string to make the pitch higher or lower.
Here are a few tuning scenarios so you get a feel for how this works:
- I play my G string and the tuner says G, but it’s off to the left. I tighten the string slightly by turning the tuning knob, until the tuner display is dead center.
- I play my G string and the tuner says G#. My string is so out of tune that it’s on a G# instead of a G, so I need to loosen the string until it reads G, and then get it dead center.
- I play my G string and the tuner says F. I’m two notes too low, so I need to tighten the string until I get to a G, and get it dead center.
BASS TUNER TROUBLESHOOTING
Make sure your bass’s volume knob is up if you’re using a plug-in tuner, otherwise the tuner won’t get a good signal.
Only read your tuner while a string is actively ringing. Try to keep your string actively ringing with your right hand while you turn the tuning knob with your left hand, so you get up-to-the-second updated feedback from the tuner. This will help avoid under- or over-turning your tuning knob.
If you’re plucking your D string and it reads Eb, and you’re not sure whether to tune down to D, or up to the next D, always err on the side of going down. If you loosen your string too much, nothing bad will happen, but if you overtighten it you may break a string, which is a bummer.
You should now be in tune and ready to play some bass…
How To Pluck
BASIC RIGHT HAND TECHNIQUE
On bass, your right hand is used for plucking the strings. Traditional “moveable anchor” plucking technique has your right thumb resting on a pickup or a low string you aren’t using, while you pluck with your right index and middle fingers, alternating back and forth. The most important thing to remember about this technique is to pull across, not up and away from the bass.
If you’re plucking the E string, that means your plucking finger will hit your anchored thumb after the pluck. If you’re plucking your higher strings, your finger should collide with the next lowest pitched string after the pluck (i.e. after plucking the A string, your finger rests on the E string). This is crucial for getting a good solid sound out of your bass.
To dial in your right-hand technique more check out our more detailed lesson right here
How To Fret
BASIC LEFT HAND TECHNIQUE
By pressing down on the different frets, your left hand is what changes the pitch of the strings and allows you to play a bunch of different notes with only four strings.
You use all four of your fingers to fret notes, while your thumb stays in relaxed contact with the back of the neck (not pressing, just resting).
Fretting fingers should be slightly curved and relatively perpendicular to the strings – avoid slanting your fingers towards your body.
Keep your palm off the neck, and use your elbow, wrist, and finger angle to reach the frets you need to reach. The amount of stretching you need to do to play bass will feel like a lot at first (often students are convinced their hands are “too small”), but over time you’ll train your hands and it will feel more and more comfortable.
Aim for the middle to the end of the fret with your fingers. This helps avoid rattling by giving you a strong angle of contact on the fret wire, and reduces the amount of pressure you need with your left hand to get clean-sounding notes.
It’s a long road on the quest for perfect left hand technique, so don’t expect perfection. Just do your best to stay relaxed, get a good sound, and have fun.
We use the words “up” and “down” in a particular way on bass and guitar. “Up” always means “higher in pitch,” and “down” always means “lower in pitch.” This can be confusing for beginners since it’s the opposite of our sense of gravitational up and down. So if you’re on the E string’s 3rd fret, to get to the A string’s 5th fret you would go up a string and up 2 frets.
Beginner Basics Wrap-Up
Now that you know the parts of your bass, have it in tune, and have played some music while learning basic right and left hand technique, you’re a certified bass player!
If you want to learn lots more and play more music with me, check out my full beginners lessons, where I take you through hours and hours of beginner-focused lessons designed to have you kicking ass and taking names. Taking names optional.
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