You might not always pay attention to bass lines in music, but you’d certainly notice if they weren’t there. It is often said that you don’t just hear the bass—you feel it. If you’ve ever been curious about learning how to play bass guitar, now’s your chance. It’s a relatively simple instrument to pick up, especially if you already play standard guitar

Let’s take a look at what the bass guitar is, its history, and its different types, before diving into the steps you can take to learn how to play it. 

What Is a Bass Guitar?

A bass guitar is a stringed instrument that resembles a standard guitar but produces lower frequencies. It typically has four strings and is played by picking the strings while pressing fingers along the fretboard.

Bass Guitar Origin

The bass guitar was invented as a smaller, more portable alternative to the double bass (or upright bass), which has been around for centuries. The first models of the bass guitar were created in the 1930s, around the same time that guitar manufacturers first started to produce electrically amplified instruments.

playing guitar
Skillshare instructor Todd Porter demonstrates the basics of playing bass guitar.  

Types of Bass Guitar

Bass guitars come in different shapes and sizes. Here are a few things to consider when choosing your instrument:

Electric vs. Acoustic

The most common type of bass guitar is the electric bass guitar. It has a solid body and a couple of pickups, which convert the vibrations of the strings into electrical signals. Electric bass guitars produce very little sound on their own and need to be plugged into an amplifier. 

Another option is the acoustic bass guitar. It doesn’t need an amplifier and is great for playing on the go, but it’s often too quiet to be played with a band or on stage. 

Finally, there’s the acoustic eclectic bass guitar, which can be played with or without an amplifier. 

Number of Strings

Most bass guitars have four strings, but there are also 5-string and 6-string options. The latter offer more variety but are also harder to play, so most beginners choose to stick with four strings. 

Scale Length

Scale length is the length of the actively vibrating portion of the string. Some bass guitars have a longer scale length than others, which not only affects how comfortable they are to hold and play, but also the bass guitar sound they produce. 

Fretted vs. Fretless

Most bass guitars are fretted, which means they have vertical metal bars on the fretboard, helping to guide finger placement. Fretless guitars don’t have these bars, so bass players have to rely on muscle memory to determine where the strings should be pressed down. 

playing guitar
Source: instagram
Fretless bass via @progenydeath.

How to Play a Bass Guitar

Step 1: Tune the Bass

A four string bass guitar should be tuned to the same notes as the lowest four notes of a standard guitar: E-A-D-G, with E being the lowest (top string) and G being the highest (bottom string). 

Step 2: Practice Picking Strings 

If you’re right handed, your right hand will be the picking hand and your left hand will be the fretting hand. 

Rest the thumb of your right hand on the leftmost pickup and practice picking the E string, alternating your index and middle fingers. 

With your left hand, practice pressing your fingers on the E string in different places along the fretboard to change pitch. 

Try the same with the other three strings. 

Step 3: Practice Muting Strings

One of the most important things to learn is how to play one string without accidentally touching the adjacent strings and creating interference. Bass players do this by muting the strings they don’t want to play. 

  • If you’re playing the E string, the chances of you accidentally touching the below strings are fairly low. 
  • If you’re playing the A string, rest your thumb on the E string to mute it. 
  • If you’re playing the D string, rest your thumb on the A string and tilt it so that it also touches the E string. 
  • If you’re playing the G string, rest your thumb on A and E, while also resting your ring finger on the D string. 

You’ll also need to mute the same string you just picked if you don’t want the note to be sustained. 

Step 4: Learn Theory

Learning music theory is not an absolute requirement—you can still learn to play bass using tabs or even just your ear. However, knowing a bit of theory, or at the very least where the notes are on the fretboard, will help you learn music faster, play along with other musicians, and even improvise or compose your own music. 

Start by getting familiar with where the notes are on the fretboard. For example, pick the E string without pressing anything on the fretboard to play an E. Press your finger on the first fret to play an F, second fret to play and F#, and so on. 

Step 5: Practice Scales

Once you know which note corresponds to every fret-string combination, you can play scales. This will train your fingers to move up and down the scale, while also helping them remember which notes belong to which key. 

If you’re ever improvising with other musicians, your knowledge of scales will help you quickly find the perfect notes to complement what they’re playing. 

Step 6: Learn Additional Techniques 

In addition to simply pressing on strings with your left hand, you’ll want to learn techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. There are plenty of online classes that will teach you these and many other advanced techniques. 

Step 7: Learn to Read Tabs

When you’re ready to play real songs, you can read tabs. Tabs are simple diagrams that include the four strings and illustrate where each of them should be pressed on the fretboard. You can find them in books or online. Tabs won’t indicate the length of each note, so you need to be familiar with the rhythm of the song before you try to play it. 

Step 8: Try Learning by Ear

You won’t always have access to tabs or sheet music for every song you want to learn, so learning to play by ear is a great skill to have. Simply listen to the bass lines of your favorite songs and try to imitate them. 

Practice As Much As You Can 

The key to becoming a great bass player is to practice as much as possible. Take online classes to learn the basics and then play along with your favorite songs to practice. You can start small and simply play the root notes of each chord, then eventually come up with your own elaborate basslines. 

Learn to Play the Bass Guitar

Bass Guitar Lessons For Beginners