Playing chords on the bass guitar is a fun thing to do. And it’s becoming a standard skillset for a lot of modern bass guitar players.
Oteil Burbridge, Robert “Bubby” Lewis, Gary Willis, Jaco Pastorious, Janek Gwizdala, and Victor Wooten use chords in their vocabulary.
You may have dabbled in playing a few chords on the bass and found that there can be physical challenges.
In this bass lesson, I’m going to show you my favorite chord voicing that feels natural on the hands and sounds great.
- what a chord voicing is
- why drop-2 is my chord voicing shape of choice
- what is a drop-2 chord and how do you play them
- drop-2 applications over different chord types
Let’s dive in.
If you’re short on time, watch my video that breaks down exactly how to play drop 2 chord on the bass guitar. I’ll also demonstrate applying these chord voicings to the tune “Danny Boy” (also known as Londonderry Air). I’ll also show you some tips for moving these chords with ease along your fretboard.
What are chord voicings?
When musicians talk about chords, you’ll often hear the term “voicing” used.
A voicing refers to the stacking of intervals to create a chord. Each note of the chord being a “voice.”
You can stack notes any way you want, with any intervals you want.
On a piano, it’s easy to play chord voicings where the notes are a close interval apart. So, for instance, an E Major 6 chord voiced E, G♯, B, C♯ (numeric formula: 1, 3, 5, 6) is fairly easy to play. By the way, when you stack notes as closely as possible, you get what is called a closed-voicing (also known as a close voicing or close harmony).
On the bass guitar, and even jazz guitar, playing chords with close intervals can be challenging. This is because of the way a guitar fretboard is laid out. As a result, whenever your playing closed voicings, your fingers have to stretch a great deal in order to reach each note.
Try playing an E Major 6 chord as a closed voicing on the bass. Play E (on your E-string), G♯ (on your A-string), B (on your D-string), C♯ (on your G-string) on the bass in standard tuning. It’s nearly impossible.
So, on the bass guitar, you need a different approach for voicing your chords. You need to stack your chord tones in a different order to make things physically easier to play. And when things are physically easier to play, you can do cool things, like play chord melody on the bass.
Why drop 2 chord voicings are my chord shapes of choice on bass?
Drop-2 chord voicings are a specific way to stack the notes of a chord. And this approach happens to make playing certain chords on the bass much easier.
Depending on how you voice a chord, you’ll face certain limitations on the bass guitar. This is because the spacing of the frets and strings are wide. And the fretboard and strings are thick.
The instrument itself is demanding on the hands, especially if you’re playing a 6-string bass, like Oteil Burbridge!
You’ll find that drop-2 chords make playing chords on the bass easy. They are very user friendly on the bass guitar, easy on the fingers, and sound good.
Also, a lot of jazz guitarists, like Wes Montgomery, and pianists, like Barry Harris, use this type of chord voicing. So, you’ll be using a sound that’s familiar to other musicians. I actually use drop-2 chords on all of my bass arrangements.
Here are some key takeaways as to why the drop-2 chord voicing is my go-to chord voicing:
- the shapes and their inversions are very natural on your fretting hand
- the sound of the drop-2 is part of common vocabulary
- it’s really easy to manipulate and invert the original shape
What are drop 2 voicings and how do you play them?
A drop-2 voicing takes the voicing that is 2nd from the top and drops it down an octave. Hence the name drop-2.
So, for the previous E Major 6 chord, voiced E, G♯, B, C♯, you would take the B and drop it down an octave.
You end up with the chord voicing B, E, G♯, C♯ (numeric formula: 5, 1, 3, 6).
Side note: When you drop the top voicing down an octave, you’ll need to adjust your fingerings. Take a look at music notation and tabs below. You’ll see that the notes are exactly the same, but the fingerings change in order to make this shape playable on the bass guitar.
The shape (5, 1, 3, 6), shown above, is really easy to play and has a modern sound to it. Now, let’s take this same approach for all E Major 6 chord inversions.
Apply this concept to all inversions
Let’s apply this concept to all the inversions of your E Major 6 chord.
First, write out all the inversions for this chord in closed position.
This is what you’ll have:
- E, G♯, B, C♯ (numeric formula: 1, 3, 5, 6)
- G♯, B, C♯, E (numeric formula: 3, 5, 6, 1)
- B, C♯, E, G♯ (numeric formula: 5, 6, 1, 3)
- C♯, E, G♯, B (numeric formula: 6, 1, 3, 5)
Now, let’s drop the second highest note from the top, to become the lowest note, for each of these chord inversions. Hence the name “drop 2 voicing”.
You get these voicings:
- E, G♯, B, C♯ -> B, E, G♯, C♯ (numeric formula: 5, 1, 3 ,6)
- G♯, B, C♯, E -> C♯, G♯, B, E (numeric formula: 6, 3, 5, 1)
- B, C♯, E, G♯ -> E, B, C♯, G♯ (numeric formula: 1, 5, 6, 3)
- C♯, E, G♯, B -> G♯, C♯, E, B (numeric formula: 3, 6, 1, 5)
Now, you have some cool ways to voice an E Major 6 chord and they’re easy on the hands too.
Drop 2 Applications Over Different Chord Types
The Drop-2 Major 6 chord shape is the perfect foundational shape for creating different chord types, especially if you want to construct drop chords. Its numeric formula is 1, 5, 6, 3. Any of these numbers can be raised or lowered to create a new chord type.
Major 7 Chord Shapes
If you want to play a Major 7th chord, simply raise the 6 by a whole-step. Raising the 6 by a whole-step will give you the Major 7.
These are the drop-2 voicings that you’ll get:
- 5, 1, 3, 7
- 7, 3, 5, 1
- 1, 5, 7, 3
- 3, 7, 1, 5
These shapes have a modern sound, especially the 3, 7, 1, 5 voicing. A stretch is needed for this one. You’ll see bass players, like Robert “Bubby” Lewis play shapes like these often.
Minor 7 Chord Shapes
The Minor 7 chord shape is interesting, in that you’ll see that the shapes are actually look just like the inversions of Major 6 shapes you learned earlier.
For a Minor 7 chord, lower the 3 by a half-step and raise the 6 by a half-step.
These Minor 7 chord voicings look just like inversions of a Major 6 chord:
- 5, 1, ♭3, ♭7
- ♭7, ♭3, 5, 1
- 1, 5, ♭7, ♭3
- ♭3, ♭7, 1, 5
Dominant 7 Chord Shapes
To make a Dominant 7 chord shape, raise the 6 by a half-step. Raising the 6 by a half-step will give you the ♭7.
Here are drop-2 shapes for a Dominant 7 chord:
- 5, 1, 3, ♭7
- ♭7, 3, 5, 1
- 1, 5, ♭7 ,3 (you’ve probably played this shape many times, or even seen many jazz guitar chords look like this, and never knew that this was a drop-2 shape.)
- 3, ♭7, 1, 5
Diminished Chord Shapes
For Diminished chord shapes, the same drop-2 shape will repeat itself for every inversion. This is because of the symmetrical nature of the Diminished Scale. Knowing this will make learning your Diminished chord shapes easier.
To make the shape of a Diminished chord from your original Major 6 chord shape, lower both the 3 and 5 by a half-step.
Drop-2 shapes for Diminished chords:
- ♭5 , 1, ♭3, ♭♭7
- ♭♭7, ♭3, ♭5, 1
- 1, ♭5, ♭♭7, ♭3
- ♭3, ♭♭7, 1, ♭5
Minor 6 Chord Shapes
This is one of my favorite chord shapes. The numeric formula for the Minor 6 chord shape is 1, ♭3, 5, 6.
It’s just like the Major 6 chord shape, only that the 3 is lowered by a half-step.
These are the drop-2 voicings that you’ll get for a Minor 6 chord shape:
- 5, 1, ♭3, 7
- 7, ♭3, 5, 1
- 1, 5, 7, ♭3
- ♭3, 7, 1, 5
The sound of these chords is very modern and widely used in jazz.
Half-Diminished Chord Shapes
Remember how Minor 7 drop-2 chord voicings look just like inversions of Major 6 chords? The same goes for Half-Diminished drop-2 chord voicings. Half-Diminished drop-2 chord voicings look just like inversions of Minor 6 chords!
These Half-Diminished chord voicings look just like inversions of a Major 6 chord:
- ♭5, 1, ♭3, ♭7
- ♭7, ♭3, ♭5, 1
- 1, ♭5, ♭7, ♭3
- ♭3, ♭7, 1, ♭5
You now know how to play drop 2 chords for Major 6 chords, Minor 6 chords, Major 7 chords, Dominant chords, Diminished chords, and Half-Diminished chords. That’s a lot of chord voicings that you can use immediately and add to your vocabulary on the bass.
If you ever come across a chord that you you’re having trouble fretting on the bass, try making it a drop-2 voicing. If you ever come across a chord that you’re not sure how to invert, also try making it a drop-2.
The drop-2 is one of the most versatile chord voicings that guitarists and pianists use. Bass players should use them too!
Click here for more helpful resources on the bass guitar.