Music Theory for the Bass Player and Where to Begin

How much theory do you need to learn for bass guitar?

As with most deep and thoughtful questions, the answer to this one is, “It all depends.” It really depends on what you want to do with music. Where do you want to end up on your music journey? If you pay attention to what most musicians will say about this topic, one thing becomes crystal clear. While some people debate exactly how much music theory for the bass player is actually necessary, almost everyone agrees that more musical knowledge is never a bad thing.

This article isn’t going to be a tutorial on music theory for bass. What it is, however, is some suggestions for beginners that might clarify some concepts and help in deciding where to start. Sometimes just knowing where to start is the most important piece of the puzzle. Each step leads into the next one depending on your situation. Some people will need more theory to make life easier and more enjoyable, while only the very basics will be just fine for others.

Let’s take a look at some scenarios and what level of study might be appropriate for getting what you need. And most importantly, where you should begin. One thing to note, you can always pay attention to the walls you start to hit musically. If something becomes difficult from a conceptual standpoint, you probably need to dig a bit deeper into music theory. Until then, just have fun playing and creating.

Music theory for the cover band bass player

If you’re looking to just play a bit at home or with friends, you probably won’t need much music theory, to be honest. You’ll most likely do just fine learning to read bass tablature, or tabs, and following YouTube tutorials to learn baselines to songs that you want to play.

This can be a really good first step on a longer music journey as well. Learning where to put your fingers and how to do it takes a good while when you first start. And playing something that you really love to listen to as soon as possible is really powerful. If you can find some tutorials for a few of your favorite songs and just play to your heart’s content, eventually you’ll know if you want to go deeper into the rabbit hole. Check out songsterr for a huge range of bass tabs.

At this stage, definitely learn the notes on the neck and learn how to read tablature. Those two steps will open up a world of opportunity for you in terms of songs you can learn. Keep reading for suggestions on studying the notes on the bass guitar fretboard.

Music theory for the home music producer

Taking out the guesswork

If your goal is to be able to create and play your own music either by yourself or with other musicians, you’ll definitely want to learn some basic music theory. Knowing how keys work and how chord progressions fit together is a huge benefit when you’re trying to make music. When you understand how people create songs, you’re able to put together song structures and chord progressions on your own with much less guesswork.

Also, the time that you’ll put in learning some basic music theory will come back to you many times over as you’ll be able to write songs a lot more quickly, at least in relative terms. Songwriting is not a “quick” process for most people. However, when you’re aware of common chord progressions and which ones you really love, you can access them much faster than if you just guess at it over and over until you find what you’re looking for.

Writing music on a bass guitar though?

Yeah, this sounds kinda strange to some people. There are musicians who are looking at the bass more and more as an instrument for composition, similar to the piano. Mike Watt, for instance, said the following in an interview with Jedd Beaudoin of KMUW:

“The bass is a composition tool. It can outline the starts and the stops and the dynamics. Rhythms. Tempos. Harmonically, it leaves a lot out. It’s kind of a launch pad. The people I’m playing with will add more to it.”

However, if you’re writing and recording music as a small producer, there’s a good chance that you’re also playing piano or keyboards as well. So, it is helpful to consider not only what kind of music you’ll be creating and where you’ll be creating it but also how. Your need for music theory can often be informed by what instruments you’ll be using to write your music.

The great thing is that the concepts of any of this basic music theory translate perfectly to both bass guitar and piano. You just have to get your brain and your fingers to do something different for each instrument. Again, easy, right?

Music theory for the gigging pro bass player

If you know that you want to do this for a living, commit to learning as much about music theory as you can. If you get to a point where you’ve reached your goal, and you’re playing gigs and getting jobs as much as you’d like, you’ll certainly be able to assess whether you need more theory past that point or not. However, making a plan to learn everything that you can about your instrument and about music, in general, will set you up for success.

You’ll want to have deep knowledge of the circle of fifths and how it translates to live performance. Knowing how notes and keys are related to each other with a “muscle memory” type of confidence will make you super valuable in the studio. It will also help you to pick up new music a lot quicker than if you had no knowledge of it at all.

Combining everything, mastery of the bass fretboard, bass guitar scales and patterns, the circle of fifths, along with some other more esoteric aspects of theory that you’ll encounter further along the way, will give you the skills to create bass lines on the fly and improvise in almost any situation.

How to structure your music theory learning on bass guitar

Simply knowing about the circle of fifths and how it translates to the fretboard can be mind blowing for some bass players. I know it was for me. The key to learning it without going crazy is to take it in small chunks.

Like the saying goes, “the easiest way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” Find a good bass tutorial or learning system and stick with it. Learn how to find root notes on the bass. And learn how to find fourths, fifths, and octaves from those root notes. If you do just that, it will make an enormous difference to your bass playing.

Learn the bass guitar notes

Of course, if you don’t know the fretboard well, knowing root notes, fourths, fifths, and octaves will be pointless. So, start there. Do this before anything else. Learn the names of every note on the bass fretboard. Start with all of the notes between the first and fifth frets. Include the open notes as well, obviously. 

Once you know these notes well, move on to the rest of the neck up to the twelfth fret. You can divide up the rest of the neck how you’d like, but make it manageable for yourself. Since the twelfth fret is the octave and notes just repeat again, everything above that you will already know.

To be honest, once you’ve got the first five frets down really well, you’re ready to start learning a few important bass guitar scales and arpeggios. Learn the basic major scale pattern, and then learn the minor scale pattern. Some people like to learn the note names and the basic scale patterns at the same time. This is up to you. 

If you’re brand new with the bass, here’s a pretty decent video to get you started thinking about the note names.

And here is a slightly more complicated and complete version from Scott of Scott’s Bass Lessons.

Patterns are your friend

Focusing on some common patterns across the neck is extremely important. It makes memorizing notes and structures a whole lot easier. You should focus on bass patterns that will show you where to find octaves, fourths, and fifths. You can do that while you’re memorizing the rest of the neck if you haven’t already.

As you go forward in your study of music theory for the bass player, you’ll come to understand just how important patterns are in many musical situations. This is especially true when you’re playing live. Knowing how to use common patterns on the neck of the bass makes things like walking basslines manageable. It also helps in soloing situations.

Scale degrees and the number system on bass guitar

As you learn the basic major and minor scales on your bass guitar, make sure to pay close attention to the scale degrees and what they mean. For instance, each note in a scale is assigned a number. Knowing how to follow those numbers is critical in learning new bass lines.

Also, learning some vocabulary early on is crucial. Know what root means. Know what dominant and subdominant mean. Understanding what intervals are and how to hear them easily can be massively helpful when learning new music as well. 

With this knowledge in place, you’ll be able to follow along when people talk about chord progressions. You’ll hear about common progressions like 1, 4, 5 (usually written I, IV, V), and you’ll know how to play them on the bass. 

Let’s take a quick look at the C scale as an example. With this scale, the root, or the I, is C. The II is D. The III is E, and this goes on until you come back around to C again. This works easily in the C major scale because there are no sharps or flats. However, the steps (intervals) are always the same, and with some effort they can be learned.

Admittedly, this is one of those bigger steps in the learning process, and it can be hard to cover in a shorter blog post. Moving from memorizing some common patterns to learning why those patterns exist is a big step in understanding deeper music theory. It also sets you up for some serious study of the circle of fifths and keys.

The circle of fifths

Everyone should know the circle of fifths at least a bit. Understanding how notes and keys fit together is very eye (and ear) opening. It can also help a ton in learning how to play new songs. How deeply you get into this topic, however, depends on your goals. 

If you’re making your own music or shooting to become a pro, you’ll need to mostly memorize this. And you’ll want to know it forwards and backward. You’ll want to know how you can use this information to find relative minors and all kinds of nerdy musical stuff. It can be very daunting when you first come across it. I know it was for me. Again, think of the elephant…one bite at a time.

I haven’t come across a video that explains what you need to know in an “easy” way, as much as they all say that they do. Here’s one to check out to get the basics down though.

Even more music theory

Yep, there’s a ton more to dive into. And, like I mentioned, you’ll know you need this when you hit a wall. When you get to this point, however, you won’t need a guide like this anymore. You’ll be well past that point…and I say congratulations to you!

Music theory doesn’t have to be stuffy and boring and scary. It can actually be really fun. If you find the right teacher, it can make a world of difference to your playing. Understanding where you want to go with a song and having the tools to get there is amazing. 

If you’re not sure about diving into music theory for the bass player, I say do it. You’ll know when to quit and when to go deeper. You may just surprise yourself and enjoy it!

2 thoughts on “Music Theory for the Bass Player and Where to Begin”

  1. Loved bass since I was 12 or 13, Dad a professional Pedal Steel, bass, keyboard. I chose life in a steel mill but now semi-retired, learning there is learning to read music, being able to look at sheet music and play it

    • Hey Mike,

      Learning to read music (even on a basic level) can be so much fun and can open up a lot in terms of finding stuff to play. Hope the learning goes well!!


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