Learning to play bass guitar is a lot like learning to write fiction or poetry. We don’t learn the rules of grammar and good writing just to know the rules. There’s something a lot more important behind it. We learn the rules of language so that we can communicate more effectively. In other words, we don’t learn the rules for the sake of learning the rules. Learning how to play bass guitar is exactly the same.
While learning the rules of music might be boring and confusing sometimes, it’s almost always worth the effort. In the long run, structured learning will actually speed up your learning process.
Hopefully, over time we also learn those rules so that we can develop our own style. For instance, we don’t learn how to use punctuation correctly just so we can say, “I can use a comma correctly!” Although, that is a great thing to know and will make you a better writer and communicator…that’s for another blog post.
Learn the rules of bass guitar, then break them (if you want to)
There’s a saying that many people already know that goes something like, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
Great musicians are really, really good at knowing the rules of music and how they can bend or break them effectively. When Stevie Wonder decides to use chromaticism in his writing of “Sir Duke,” he’s making a decision based on his knowledge of musical rules, his own musical tastes and preferences, and his musical genius based on years of experience and some other mythical substance he was blessed with.
For most musicians of Stevie Wonder’s caliber (if there are any), those decisions are basically muscle memory. This is why understanding the “rules” of music, including music theory, as deeply as you can will make the biggest difference for you as a musician.
How to learn bass guitar: The overview
Use this post as a map. I’ll show you what I think is a good plan for beginning to learn bass guitar, and then I will link out to other articles and resources where I can.
Also, let me say at the outset that I do think finding a great one-on-one instructor that you can afford for a year or two is probably one of the best ways to learn bass guitar. This isn’t always possible for everyone out there. So, do what you can. Stick with it and have fun! If you can get some lessons along the way, do it.
Let’s start with the bird’s eye view of learning bass guitar. It’s actually not that complicated.
After failing a few times and then finding a much more successful, and less frustrating way to learn bass guitar, here’s what I would suggest for a beginner. This list is in order for the most part:
- Learn the notes on the bass fretboard
- Practice basic scales, arpeggios, and other patterns
- Practice with a metronome. There are some super cool metronome exercises on YouTube.
- Learn some (very) basic music theory for bass guitar
- Learn some songs
- Learn basic walking bass lines
- Learn to read bass guitar music, not just tabs
- Play along with songs and backing tracks…a lot.
- Play with other people if you have access to that.
This list is not exhaustive, but these things made a huge difference for me. And, this is just a starting point. Some of these things will overlap, but starting at the beginning of this list can make the journey easier.
Let’s take a look at some of the steps a bit more in-depth.
Start with the very basics of bass guitar: The notes on the fretboard
You can’t write a novel, story, or poem without knowing the letters and words that you’ll be using. Jumping into scales and patterns on bass without knowing at least some of the notes on the fretboard is equally fruitless.
Learning the notes on the neck of your bass won’t take too long, but it will make an enormous difference going forward as you learn. So, learn the notes as quickly as you can.
This exercise from Scott’s Bass Lessons is the best one I’ve come across for learning the notes on the bass fretboard. It will also help you learn some basic music theory and become more comfortable moving around the bass guitar neck in general.
Practicing bass guitar drills for muscle memory
Doing “drills” like scales, arpeggios, and chord practice might not be all that fun, but it’s super necessary. And, there are ways to make it a lot more enjoyable.
I always relate this to coaching sports. After coaching lacrosse for several years, I started to understand how drills fit into a player’s development. If a player couldn’t hold a ball in their stick or cradle it easily, they couldn’t run down the field, throw a pass, or catch. If they couldn’t run down the field, throw a pass, or catch, they couldn’t begin to understand how to run a play.
You get the idea. Learning to run plays is a lot like learning to play a song. Once you’re so good at it that you don’t have to think about it while you’re playing, you’re free to be creative and make changes. You can start to improvise.
This all starts with drills. The idea is to become so comfortable with finding and playing the notes on the bass guitar and the important scales and arpeggios that you don’t have to think about it. The best way to accomplish this is through repetition.
What bass guitar drills should I start with?
Bass guitar shapes and scales
At the beginning of your bass journey, you don’t have to worry about every single scale and mode out there. Focus on the most important and useful ones first. Then you can branch out and learn more.
A really cool thing about the bass guitar is that patterns are very moveable. Once you learn the major scale pattern, you can find a root note somewhere and play the major scale for that note in more than one spot on the neck. Same goes for the minor scale!
If you try to get the following patterns in your fingers as muscle memory, you can then start to do interesting things with them. Remember to play them forwards and backward, and practice them with a metronome and in different rhythmic patterns too.
- The major and minor scales
- The Pentatonic scale
- The Blues scale
How to avoid bad habits and ruts when learning scales
I started to learn guitar when I was a young teen, and I just wanted to play metal and make noise. I had no idea how to start, but I had a great friend who knew how to play really well. He tried to teach me a few things, but I didn’t practice the way I should have. So, I developed some really bad habits that were very hard to retrain.
I still love playing guitar. However, the fact that I never learned properly is probably one of the reasons why I never got anywhere near actually “good” at it. I spent many years playing the blues scale over and over and over. I know this is actually quite common for people learning to play guitar, but now I know why it happened to me and how I could have avoided it.
Once I applied this knowledge to the bass, my progress was so much better.
Learn lots of scales and patterns on bass
One of the ways I could have avoided the blues scale rut is simply by learning more patterns and playing them all. This seems ridiculously obvious. But, when I was learning, the internet wasn’t out there to show me all of the thousand ways to play a pentatonic scale or how to learn every mode.
The access to great information that we have today is an enormous benefit for people learning to play a musical instrument like the bass guitar.
Play bass scales and arpeggios in different ways
The other important change I could have made was to play the same scales in different ways. We can always play the notes in different patterns, rhythms, and arrangements. Don’t play the same scale, in the same spot, at the same speed and rhythm. Just don’t do that.
Remember that you’re learning music. Music is sometimes repetitive, but your practice doesn’t have to be. You’ll keep yourself more engaged by changing things up too.
Here are some ideas to keep your practice sessions from getting stale and boring. Some of these will be more obvious than others, but they’re all equally important. These tips can help you to avoid falling into ruts and slowing your development.
Tips for playing scales, arpeggios, modes, and other patterns on bass
- Play scales and patterns forward AND backward from the very beginning.
- Start scales and arpeggios on different notes. Don’t always start on the root note, and don’t always play the C major scale. Learn how to find the whole pattern from any note in the scale.
- As soon as you can play the scale or pattern without looking at a reference, start messing around with the rhythm. Make it musical. Even a little bit.
- Play your bass scales and arpeggios all over the fretboard. Don’t just stick to the lowest five frets.
- Say, or at least think, each note as you play them. This was one of the most significant changes I made that helped my understanding of music theory on the bass.
- Don’t worry too much about the “why,” “when,” and “where” of the scales or patterns while you’re learning them. This is for the next step. Get the feel of the notes in your fingers first. Then you can start thinking about “where would I use this pattern and why?” If you’re the kind of person who really needs to know this kind of info right at the start, that’s fine. Just don’t stress over it while you’re getting the scale or arpeggio into your fingers.
- When you’re getting frustrated or bored with a pattern, move on to something else and come back to it later. Just make sure to put in a solid effort. Some scales, modes, or arpeggios WILL be more difficult. And, that’s fine.
Practice bass with a metronome
I realized how important practicing with a metronome can be when I was learning to play drums. Even if you’re regularly playing with other musicians, practicing with a metronome is an absolute must.
A metronome is really the best way to get that pulse into your body. The goal isn’t to make you a musical robot. The intention is to train you to hear and feel divisions in time. It also helps to train you off of the habit of speeding up or slowing down when you shouldn’t be doing either.
There are some really cool metronome exercises all over YouTube. Just do a search and find a few that you really enjoy. When you’re just starting out, avoid the exercises that have to do with intricate patterns or finding crazy subdivisions. You can come back to those later on. Some of them are really fun!
Here’s what to look for in a beginning bass metronome exercise and how to practice them:
- Start slow and basic. Make sure the tutorial doesn’t start out at a speed or a complexity that’s way past your comfort level. It’ll just make you frustrated. Although, slow metronome exercises can be really tough too.
- Find exercises that can be sped up or slowed down easily. This is most of them, to be honest. But, some will be easier than others.
- Find something fun! There are plenty of funky bass metronome exercises out there if that’s what you’re into. And, why wouldn’t you be?
- Try to practice at several different speeds and for a decent amount of time. One minute at 80 BPM won’t do much for you. Spend time really feeling the exercise as much as you can.
Learn some music theory for bass guitar
We’ve written a whole article on music theory for the bass guitar, so definitely check that out. But, let me sum up why I think this is so important.
I honestly think that learning to play bass guitar without learning a little bit about the theory behind it is a bit like playing in a vacuum. You’ll have some knowledge of the fretboard, and you’ll probably be able to play some songs, but you’ll have a big hole in your knowledge when it comes to why certain things happen.
Some argue that this is totally irrelevant. You can play bass just fine without knowing anything about music theory. For some, this is very true. But, for most people, eventually, this will lead to a brick wall. You’re going to have to come back and learn some theory because you want to create your own music, or you want to play with other people on a more serious level.
Whatever the reason, it’s just far better to learn the little bits of theory you might need now while you’re learning the basics of bass guitar.
Here’s what I think a beginner might benefit from learning in terms of music theory:
- Notes, intervals, and scales (Yep, that’s all theory!)
- Chords and common chord progressions
- The circle of fifths
- How to read some music (more on that shortly)
There’s not a ton there. But, this little bit of theory will make a big difference down the road.
Learn some songs on bass guitar
This is super obvious, but here’s why it’s a good idea…
Focusing on learning some songs that you already know and love is a great way to keep morale up and help to get you through frustrating times. When you’re listening to something you love, practice just feels effortless at times. Unless you’re learning a Joe Dart bass line or some Thundercat chords that is.
Learning another player’s music can show you a lot about how they go about constructing their bass lines. How do they outline a chord progression? How do they handle time changes? There’s a lot to learn about musical decision-making from learning a great bass player’s work.
One suggestion is to also branch out and learn some songs that are outside of your favorite or preferred genre. You can learn a lot about why bassists play one way or another depending on the style of music they play too.
Learn basic walking bass lines on bass
Learning to play walking bass lines was, and still is, one of my favorite challenges to take on. Once you’re comfortable with the notes on the fretboard, this is a challenge that you can take on as well.
Walking bass lines will force you to really know the notes on the fretboard well. They will also solidify how important and applicable bass theory is. You’ll come to understand how notes outline chords and chord changes, and you’ll develop some serious chops if you keep it up.
Also, learning walking bass lines is a great way to start learning how to solo on bass guitar. When you learn to walk your bass lines up and down the neck, you’ll be pretty much building solo patterns as you play.
Learn to read bass guitar music, not just tabs
Taking the time to learn to read music for the bass will pay off in huge ways. I think people often view learning to read music, rather than just sticking with bass tabs, as either completely unnecessary or just way too hard to bother with.
Here are some reasons why you might want to consider learning to read music for bass:
- It’s not nearly as hard as you might think. Just start very slow and very basic. Take as much time as you need and try not to rush it.
- There is an absolute plethora of high-quality music to find or buy for the bass guitar.
- Often, bass tabs are much lower in quality than music notation. And, they’re sometimes just plain wrong.
- It will help you in your music theory journey tremendously.
- The knowledge you gain learning to read music is transferable to other instruments as well.
- Just like with learning a new language, you might build some new neural connections and become super smart!
After saying all of this, I don’t want you to think that I’m knocking bass tabs at all. They are super important and have their place in almost every bass player’s tool bag. Just try not to use them as a crutch and avoid learning to read music notation if at all possible.
Play along with songs and backing tracks
This is another one of those activities that has been much more valuable than I thought it would be. It’s also a lot easier to do now that YouTube features so much great content for the bass player. When you’re done working with your metronome, hop on over to YouTube and play with a virtual band.
You can easily find everything from funk and rock to the blues and even neo-soul. Some content is better than others, obviously. These are the things I look for in a good backing track for bass:
- A song that I like to listen to. Goes without saying…you’ll want to practice more if you dig the song.
- Good production quality. Having the other instruments mixed well does a lot for the sound of the bass when you plug into your computer.
- Clearly displayed chords and chord changes. This makes a huge difference for me. It also helped me a lot when I was learning the notes on the fretboard and the arpeggios to go along with them.
- Suggested scales and patterns for the song. I like to see what they suggest, even if I choose to ignore it completely.
I have some of my favorite channels, and you will too. Here are a few that I really like:
Quist. I like this channel a lot. I have a few here that I’ve played many, many times.
Music Jam Tracks. One thing I like about this channel is that they feature so many different genres. Just about anyone will be able to find something they like here.
Jam’In Backing Tracks. A solid list of songs to play along with, but no on-screen chord changes are displayed.
Definitely let us know in the comments if you have your favorites so we can include them here too.
Play with other musicians if you can
Just wanted to mention how important playing with other musicians is for getting better…at any instrument.
Playing along with backing tracks like the ones above is a fantastic way to get better, but there is a significant difference between that and playing live with other human musicians. When you’re playing with other musicians, there’s a give and take that you have to learn.
You learn to make decisions and changes based on what the other players are doing at any moment. This includes everything from timing and dynamics to throwing in different chord changes and solo sections.
Obviously, if you don’t have access to playing live with other players, keep going with the backing tracks. But, if you do find yourself in the position of being able to play in a band setting, jump at it. No matter where you are in your journey.
How to learn bass guitar: Final thoughts
I wish I had some tips like this when I started playing music. Whether it’s guitar, bass, or something else entirely, starting at the right place and following the right steps can make all the difference. It can determine whether you stick with the instrument or not.
Learning to play bass guitar is such a fun and rewarding experience. And if you’re curious about my thoughts on whether bass or guitar is easier to learn, I’ve written about that too.
Every bass player’s learning path will be unique. You have to realize that there will always be struggle and frustration. But, if you stick with it and learn the right things at the right time, you’ll have a much greater chance of realizing your dream of being the next James Jamerson, Flea, or Willie Weeks.
Let us know in the comments below if you have any insights into the bass player’s journey.