Learning a musical instrument can be a lifelong pursuit. The same goes for learning bass guitar; you will never stop learning new things about it.
However, to be competent in playing bass guitar, there are some basic skills that you must have. With these skills, you will be able to play bass guitar for personal enjoyment and also to play with other instruments in a band. What are these skills?
The 5 essential bass guitar skills every bassist needs to master are:
- Finger Technique
- Rhythm & Timing
- Groove & Feel
- Scales & Chords
- Playing To Ear & Improvising
This post explores the 5 essential skills every musician needs to master. We also look at how you can practice and develop these skills.
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5 Essential Bass Guitar Skills Every Bassist Must Master
To be able to play bass guitar well, there are many skills and sub-skills that you need to master. However, before you go ahead and try to play the fanciest sliding bass lines, focus on the following five basic skills – they are the foundation of a good bassist.
In fact, many professional bassists continue practicing these skills to maintain a strong base.
You play your bass guitar with your fingers, which means your finger technique needs to be solid to produce the best sounds. Without a strong foundation on fingering, you can play the best bass guitar in the world and still sound bad.
There are two major fingering techniques on the right hand with bass guitar. One technique uses only the thumb, while the other uses the index and middle finger. The latter technique is called alternate fingering.
Both fingering techniques work well for different styles of music. Still, alternate fingering is generally used to play faster since you can use two fingers. To practice both techniques:
Thumb Picking: When picking with your thumb, remember to use the fat part of your thumb to pluck the strings. Focus on general plucking and develop a consistent sound before adding slaps or mutes.
Alternate Picking: Practice plucking each string individually while resting your thumb on the pickup. When you pluck a string, move your fingers across it towards your thumb, not up and away from the bass.
This style helps you to have a rich, full tone. If you pluck the A, D, or G strings, let your fingers graze the next lower string after plucking. If you’re plucking the E string, allow your fingers to brush against your thumb.
Rhythm & Timing
A bass guitar’s job is to provide a solid background sound to accompany other instruments. In most cases, this means you will be playing your bass guitar with other instruments.
You must have a good sense of rhythm and timing to play well with other instruments. Without this, you will disrupt the music flow and even make other musicians lose their timing.
To practice rhythm and timing, here are some ideas for you:
Play With A Metronome: When you practice, use a metronome to check if you are keeping up with the beat. You should be able to play to the rhythm but keep to the timing of your metronome.
Play With Track: Suppose you are practicing a certain song. If you can find ways to isolate the bass lines from the music, do that. Then, play the song out and play your bass along. This helps you to check if you are playing to the rhythm and timing of the song.
Groove & Feel
There are many bassists out there. However, what makes a bassist unique and different from the others? Their groove and feel. Your groove and feel usually showcase your personal style as a bassist.
Some bassists can produce such groovy bass lines they literally carry their band. Some are even hired to create bass lines for songs and are paid handsomely for doing that.
To develop your groove and feel, consider these:
Active Listening: One of the best ways to develop your groove and feel is to listen to other bassists. You may start by copying how they play. Still, over time, you may eventually combine the styles of these bassists together and form your own.
Experiment: As you develop your style, remember to explore and add new rhythm and groove lines to your playing. Constant experimentation is the key to refining and developing your own style.
Scales & Chords
Scales and chords are the foundation for playing many instruments, including bass guitar. Scales help you understand how notes progress and play, while chords guide you in playing along with other instruments.
A strong foundation in scales and chords helps you play impromptu with other instruments, making you a very versatile and accomplished bassist.
To improve your understanding of scales and chords:
Study: To pick up knowledge of scales and chords, you must sit down and study. As the most basic, you need to understand pentatonic, major, minor, or more scales. There are major, minor, augmented, diminished chords for chords and more.
Actively Listen: Now that you have a theoretical understanding of chords and scales, you can not listen to actual music performances and try to see how the musicians build up the chord progression. You can also try to guess the scale they are using.
Get this right: you will be surprised how often you can guess the next note from the musician when they play.
Play Along: Now that you can listen and pick up chords and scales fast, it’s time to play alone with your bass guitar. If you can do this well, do not be surprised how easy it is to jam with other instruments!
Playing To Ear & Improvising
Have you ever wondered how some musicians can simply listen to some music they have never listened to before, only to then pick up their instrument and play along to it immediately?
Welcome to the world of playing to ear. This is usually doable if you have a strong knowledge of scales, chords, and grooves.
Often, you will see these players listen to something new, play along, and improvise what they initially played repeatedly. They finally end up with incredible bass lines.
If you wish to develop your ability to play to ear and improvise:
Develop A Strong Knowledge In Scales And Chords: Most players learn to play by ear because they can listen and pick the scale and chords used in the song. If you wish to do the same, study scales and chords and listen to songs.
Experiment: As you improvise your bass lines, be willing to experiment with beats, grooves, and styles that are less common in your musical genre. In most cases, you will be surprised by the kind of bass lines you can produce!
Bonus: Maintaining Your Bass Guitar
However, on top of these five basic skills, one more skill is perhaps even more essential. If you wish to be a great, competent bassist, you need to be able to maintain your bass guitar well.
This is because even if you are the best bassist in the world, you will still sound bad if your guitar is poorly maintained. Caring for your bass guitar goes beyond the appearance of the performance.
Here are some areas you want to look at to ensure you maintain your bass guitar well:
Strings: At the most basic, you should be able to keep your strings in good condition. Always wipe your strings with a piece of dry close after playing to remove moisture and grime from the strings. This prevents the strings from deteriorating fast.
You should also have some knowledge in selecting strings for your bass guitar. If possible, also pick up the skills to change your own guitar strings.
Tuning: Another major basic skill a bassist should have to maintain a bass guitar is tuning. Tuning ensures your strings sound at the right tone and pitch, preventing odd sounds.
Make sure you are capable of tuning your bass strings yourself. You can mostly do so by using an electronic tuner. Some advanced players can tune their bass guitar by ear, so they do not need a tuner. This is, however, not too important.
Protection: You should also learn to protect your bass guitar. At the most basic, you should be able to protect your guitar from moisture and impact damage.
For moisture damage, always wipe your bass guitar down with a dry cloth before and after playing to remove as much moisture as possible. Moisture can rust and weaken the metal parts of your bass guitar, damaging it badly.
For impact damage, you should handle your bass guitars gently and also have a way to keep them so they do not fall. Using a guitar stand or bag usually helps here. However, a case will protect your bass guitar from moisture and impact damage.
Send Your Bass Guitar In For Major Maintenance Work: You may be able to maintain your bass guitar well, but there will come a time when it needs more specialized maintenance work.
Just like a car, you can change the oil or fix some dents, but mechanical work will be beyond your ability, e.g., rebuilding the engine. The same can be said about your bass guitar.
Understand that a luthier should check your bass guitar periodically to ensure it operates in its best condition. A luthier repairs and maintains stringed instruments, including bass guitars.
At the most basic, your luthier can help deep clean your fretboard or adjust your truss rod. A luthier can also perform more complicated work, such as replacing your pickup or guitar neck.