It’s not your job to play chords on the bass. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use bass chords in the songs that you write and play. And, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn how to do it.
Chords have become an essential vocabulary for a lot of modern bass players, like Robert “Bubby” Lewis, Thundercat, Oteil Burbridge, Victor Wooten, Matthew Garrison, and John Patitucci.
Knowing different chord voicings on the bass guitar also has its benefits:
- You’ll speed up the process in learning your fretboard notes.
- You’ll develop an ear to hear chord changes and chord tones.
- Your hands and fingers will get more physical strength and flexibility.
Being that you’re here and reading this article, I’m guessing you want to learn all there is to know about bass chords.
So, grab your bass guitar. Let’s dive in!
If you’re short on time and always wanted to play chords on bass, then watch my video on How To Play Bass Chords. I’ll show you to figure out the notes of a chord, even seventh chords, and create your own unique bass guitar chords.
Things To Know Before Playing Chords On Bass Guitar
Bass is not your typical instrument to play chords like a regular guitar. There’s a few things that will speed up the learning process for playing chords on the bass guitar.
- You should have familiarity with a few scales. If I were to pick one scale to make sure to learn, that would be the Major scale. You can get very far with this one scale.
- You should know where the notes are on your fretboard. This will make things less confusing for you as you are finding your chord tones.
- Keep an open mind. Theory is just theory. So, if your fingers end up playing something you didn’t intend (and the notes are theoretically wrong), but it sounds cool to you, that’s totally fine. Your ears should always have the final say.
- There’s two types of ways to play bass chords. The first way I’m going to show you implies chords, and that’s with Double Stops. While a double stop is not theoretically a chord, it’s used so much that we cannot ignore it. The second way I’ll show you is how to expand on double stops to make them into bass chords.
Ok, are you excited to learn how to play chords on the bass? Let’s get started!
What are Double Stops on the Bass?
A double stop is when two notes are played together at the same time.
While two notes is not enough to be considered a chord, many bass players use this technique to imply chords and chord progressions.
This is very important to learn and will be helpful in your journey to playing chords on the bass.
The bass guitar is a physically demanding instrument. The strings are spaced farther apart than a guitar, and they have more tension. And, sometimes a double stop is all you need to communicate an idea.
Here’s a few more benefits to learning to play double stops:
- Two note chords are easier to play than three note chords. So, double stops are a great place to start if you’re a beginner.
- The bass guitar has very low frequencies. So, depending on the tone of your instrument, playing two notes will often sound more clear than three or more notes.
- Playing only a couple notes also frees up your other fingers to embellish the sound or play a melody.
Since this is a very important technique that is related to chordal playing on the bass, I’ve included it in this guide.
You’ll typically play the notes of the double stop on the E-string and G-string on a 4 string bass guitar. The bass note will usually be on the E-string, and the highest note (often a melody note) will be on the G-string. The interval between the lowest note and the highest note will also usually form a 3rd up an octave.
In my own experience, a lot great bass players will play a bassline and melody at the same time with this approach.
What are Chords on the Bass?
A chord is different than the previously mentioned double stop, in that it requires 3 or more notes played in harmony (at the same time).
Bass guitars typically have at least 4 strings. So, this provides a lot of options for chord voicings.
A chord voicing is basically how you stack your notes to create a chord.
- A single bass note could be played on your lower E string, while two more notes could be played on your higher D and G string.
- You could play all 3 notes on adjacent strings.
- And you could play two notes on your lower E and A strings, and a single note on your high G string.
The important thing to remember is that a chord needs 3 or more notes to be called a chord.
How To Play Bass Chords and Different Chord Types (Step-By-Step for Beginners)
Chords are created from scales. Scales and chords go hand-in-hand. So, in order to understand chords on a deep level, you need to learn scales.
A chord is simply created by simultaneously playing at least 3 notes from a scale. Learning chord patterns and figuring out the notes in a chord is much easier when you know that the group of notes came from a certain scale.
I’ll describe the basic concept. Then, I’ll break it down into simple steps for you to understand chords in the easiest way on the bass.
These chord shapes are movable chords. So, once you learn chords on bass you can play those same shapes on other locations of the fretboard. That’s the beauty of movable chord shapes.
I recommend that you first learn to play a basic chord on a 4 string bass guitar. Once you understand the chord theory on how notes are arranged try it out on a 5 string or 6 string bass.
Playing the 1, 3, and 5 of a Major scale, creates a Major chord. 1, 3, and 5 is the numeric formula for a Major chord.
There are many different chord types and they each have their own numeric formula. These numbers represent the chord tones.
Because you’re just learning how to play chords on the bass, we will keep things simple and learn how to build chords from a C Major scale.
The notes of a C Major scale, are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
If I were to assign a numeric degree to each note of the scale, I would get 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.
The 1 (also known as the root note) is the note C. The 3 is the note E, and the 5 is the note G. These three notes are also known as a Major Triad, and they form a C Major chord.
This is the basic concept.
Now, let’s break this down into simple steps, so that you can can start playing some bass chords!
Step 1: Decide a scale that you want to harmonize and map out all the notes on your fretboard
Every scale has its own vibe to it. So, pick one that you like.
To keep things simple, we will use a C Major scale for all of the examples.
Now that I’ve decided what scale I want to use, I need to map out all the notes on my fretboard.
So, find where all the notes of that scale are on your neck.
Step 2: Find your double stops (10th) shapes
One of the most common shapes bass players use to imply chords, is to play double stops using 10th intervals. You’ll find that open voicing double stops sound good on the bass and don’t muddy sound.
To keep things simple, a 10th is the same note as a 3rd (an octave higher).
The 3rd can be either major or minor.
This interval is really popular to use in harmony because it is very pleasant to the ear.
Here are your thirds for a C Major scale:
- C, E
- D, F
- E, G
- F, A
- G, B
- A, C
- B, D
Now to make these 3rds into 10th intervals, play the 3rd an octave higher.
Step3: Move the double stops along the scale
You can already start to play some nice sounding music with basic knowledge of double stops.
Also, every double stop you play is also implying a chord.
So you can get very far and make some intricate compositions using just double stops.
For this step, practice moving your double stops along the scale.
You’ll notice that the 10th interval will be either major or minor depending on the notes of the scale that you’re playing.
Step 4: Make it a chord
Here’s where a little more physical strength is involved and a little more knowledge of the fretboard is needed.
We going to add a note to our double stop, making it a chord.
Remember, a chord requires 3 or more notes.
For the first chord shape that we will learn, we will simply add the 5th.
Previously, your double stop voicing, was 1, 10.
Now you will play 1, 5, 10.
This will create the sound of either a Major or Minor chord, depending on the notes you are playing in the scale.
Step 5: Move your bass guitar chords along the scale
Similar to step 3, you’re now going to move the chord along your scale.
This is super important and will help you get acquainted where all your major and minor chord shapes are on your fretboard.
This step will also develop the muscles of your fingers.
Step 6: Explore different ways to voice chords
You’ve learned 1, 5, 10 chord voicings.
Now, explore changing one of those notes.
For this example, I’ll lower the 10.
So, instead of playing 1, 5, 10, my new chord voicing will be 1, 5, 9.
This has a modern sound to it and is a popular chord shape.
Continue exploring changing one note at a time and pay close attention to the new sound that is created.
Another thing that a lot of bass players do to change up the voicing is use an open string while playing notes from chords. This frees up one of your fingers from having to hold down a fret.
Step 7: Practice embellishing your double stops and chords with whatever finger you have available
One benefit to playing only 2 or 3 note voicings, is that your other fingers are free to play melodies.
This is how a lot of solo bass players play melody and bass notes at the same time.
To do this, simply borrow a note from either above or below a chord tone. Then, immediately return back to the chord tone.
22 Bassists That Use Chords In Their Playing
A lot of bass guitarists, use chords in their playing.
While the instrument is intended to play single note lines, many bass players have found ways to incorporate chords into their playing. And, It’s become common among modern players.
As long as you’re not stepping on any toes, and it sounds musical, playing chords on the bass is fair game.
So, if you want to know some bassists that use chords when they play, check out this list:
- Robert Bubby Lewis
- Oteil Burbridge
- Victor Wooten
- Matthew Garrison
- Damian Erskine
- Janek Gwizdala
- Jaco Pastorius
- Bobby Vega
- Yuki Atori
- Frescia Belmar
- Rich Brown
- Riyan Malelak
- E’Lon JD
- Taylor Lee
- Gary Willis
- Anthony Jackson
- Evan Marien
- Daric Bennett
- Saya Gray
- Michael Manring
- Dominique Di Piazza
Now It’s Your Turn
You now have a foundation for building chord voicings on your bass guitar.
it’s important to start applying your bass chords in as many contexts as possible. Compose a few songs with the new shapes you learned. Combine your bass lines with chords.
The more you apply, the sooner playing chords on the bass becomes a part of your vocabulary.