The importance of the four strings of a bass guitar in adding texture and character to any song is universally accepted and the role of the bass guitarist in many style of music is unquestioned. However, to play bass lines correctly one must ensure that their musical foundation is strong. Beginner bass players can start with knowing the natural notes on the neck of the bass.
Before a bass guitarist can “slap and pop”, or lay down “funky bass tracks”, they need to know the names of the notes up and down the guitar neck. You should learn slowly but steadily and enjoy the learning process every step of the way because once you master the bass, your fingers will be the outlet to the creative maestro within.
This guide applies to both the 4 string acoustic and electric bass guitar, but not an regular guitar or any variations of the bass.
5 Steps to learning Bass Guitar Notes
Just like the traditional electric guitar, while learning to play the bass, one must pay attention to learning the notes on the fretboard. Without learning and memorizing the locations of the notes on the bass neck, you will not be able to master the art of speed playing or improvization.
This is not one of the funnest bass guitar lessons, but learning the notes on the four strings need not be a frustrating process. Here is a training outline that you can follow to ensure that you are learning the notes effectively and fast. The routine itself is flexible and thus you can tweak it according to your personal pace.
Recognizing the location of the notes on the guitar neck might seem like a fairly simple task, and (somewhat) simple memorization. Making your fingers learn their locations so that you can recall them instinctively is not so easy. This will require committed practice and time. Be honest with your practice routine and you will be play bass guitar like a pro in no time.
Step One: Start By Learning the Open String Notes
The first step is to learn the name of the four strings on your bass guitar. This is the frame of reference that you will be working with when you progress further to complex bass lines. We shall start with playing the four strings without placing a finger on the fretboard, otherwise known as the open position.
We shall strum each string starting from the lowest string (thickest) to the highest (thinnest). As we progress along the strings, we shall say their names out aloud. (From low to high, this will be E-A-D-G).
Bass guitars tuned this way are said to be in standard tuning and unless the song calls for it otherwise, bassist play with their instrument strung this way.
In case you are just starting out with the guitar, it might be good idea to repeat this exercise in the beginning for a few minutes every day- once from low to high and then from high to low.
The notes on 6 String Basses are slightly different, so check out this article from 114Notes for those details.
Step Two: Equip yourself with a Notation Chart
For the next lessons on playing the bass guitar, it is best to be well-equipped. Many learners choose to keep a notation chart handy for reference. As you refer to this chart for notes locations while you play, your accuracy will increase.
On any such chart you will come across the following symbols- ‘#’ indicating sharp notes (like F#) and ‘b’ indicating flat notes (like Gb).
Many players follow a horizontal notation chart and many follow a vertical one. However, there is not much difference between the two and the sequence of notes does not change. It is just that instead of four columns on a vertical chart, you will have to work with four rows on a horizontal one.
Once you have recognized the open-string E-A-D-G sequence explained above, you just have to move up and down the fretboard one fret at a time. Thus, you can stick to any particular style that you are comfortable with. In this tutorial, we’ll be sticking with the vertical chart.
Step Three: Time to get Started with Notes
Now that we have a notation chart for the notes on each fret of the bass guitar, we shall start learning each. Just like all music instruments, the bass guitar has a building block of twelve notes. These are; A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#.
One thing to note is that any #(sharp) notes can be replaced with a b(flat) note of the next note. For example, the A# note is the same as a Bb note.
As we explained in detail in our article on standard guitar notes, each successive note on the scale from A to G# is half a step higher than the previous note. Moreover, one fret on a bass guitar corresponds to half a step. Thus, every time you move up a fret on the neck, you are increasing the note you are playing by half a step.
As you can see from the notation chart, the fifth note up the guitar neck on the lowest string corresponds to the first note on the next highest string. As you keep progressing up the neck one fret at a time, the only exception is the G string, which does not follow this pattern.
When you are playing the notes on the fretboard as a beginner, you should keep saying their names aloud. As you keep practicing every day in straight as well as reverse sequences, your fingers will slowly start remembering the location of the notes. Later they will be able to recall the location of notes on the fretboard instinctively.
Step Four: Learning and Recognizing Octaves
Once you have mastered the first twelve notes of the guitar, you should move on to the next key concept associated with the art of guitar playing – and that is to learn how to play octaves. The first 12 notes form the first octave on the bass guitar. After the first G#, the 12 notes will be repeating themselves on a higher octave.
There are tricks to learning to quickly locate Octaves. Our favorite is to play any note on the E string. Its next instance will be occurring two frets up (on the D string) and two frets down the neck. This is known as the two strings + two frets rule. Try playing all instances of a particular note at a time on the fretboard.
Refer the notation chart while you practice the octaves since this will help in increasing your accuracy. We advise starting off slow and building up speed slowly as you become increasingly familiar with the location of the notes on your bass guitar neck. You can find an even more detailed article on Octaves at StudyBass.
Step Five: Learning the Play Bass Scales
Similar to when you are playing a 6-string guitar, scales are a good way not only to practice moving your fingers quickly and precisely, but they can help you learn the fretboard as well.
In this post, we won’t cover much on scales, as there will be a dedicated post to that topic on StringVibe coming shortly. We do recommend you check out the video below if you’d like to get a jumpstart on a great scale. Also, if you like the video the rest of Scott’s lessons can be found at ScottsBassLessons.
The process of learning the notes on the four strings of a bass guitar might seem like a slow and painstaking one. Once you master the fretboard, and it’s notes, an endless channel of opportunities open up. You will now be easily able to participate in jams because you will not have any difficulty in picking up complex patterns of notes and playing along.
The Final Note
Before Victor Wooten, Jaco Pastorius, Chuck Rainey, or Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers every became famous we bet they spent a lot of time learning each set of notes, how to move an octive lower, and where to put their middle finger for a “G note” long before they were playing walking baselines or major arpeggios.
Spend the time to learn the notes, octaves, and scales now and it will pay off for years to come!
While you’re here, check out more information about bass guitars!