An Introduction to the Bass Guitar
Tools for Success
Tuner Shop Now >
It’s very handy for students to have a tuner to help keep the bass guitar in tune. Many standard guitar tuners have a bass-tuning mode as well. It’s common to tune multiple times throughout a performance or practice session.
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Bass guitars use heavy strings and it’s not common for them to break, but it’s always a good idea to have an extra set or two of strings on hand. Strings will start to sound dull with use and the buildup of oils and dirt over time. As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to change strings at least every 3-4 months.
Bass Amplifier Shop Now >
An electric bass guitar will only make sound if it is amplified. It’s best to start off with a smaller bass amplifier that can be used for practice or small performances. Some amplifiers will also feature a headphone jack so that students can listen through headphones.
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Use a standard guitar cable to plug the bass into the amplifier. A 10-12 foot length cable should do the trick.
Music Stand Shop Now >
All students should use a music stand to hold their worksheets or lessons. A music stand helps students maintain good posture while practicing and can be adjusted to any height.
Guitar Strap Shop Now >
When performing while standing up, it is necessary to use a bass strap that clips onto the strap pegs on the bottom and bass of the neck of the guitar. Bass straps are typically a bit wider than guitar straps and are adjustable so that the player can determine the best height to hold the guitar while playing.
Case or Gig Bag Shop Now >
A hard case is the best protection for the bass guitar. Typically there will be a case available that fits the guitar snugly and securely so that it doesn’t move around in the case. Padding and soft fabric add additional security. A soft-sided gig bag can also be handy for bringing the bass to lessons or gigs. Many gig bags also have padding and a variety of pockets which can be used to store accessories.
Bass Picks Shop Now >
Depending on the style of music being played or the player’s preference, a pick can be used for playing bass. Many players like to use larger picks for bass. It is recommended that players try a variety of picks and see what feels right for them. Picks also come in a variety of thicknesses, weights and materials (plastic, felt, wood). Heavier picks seem to work better for a bass’ thicker strings.
Basic Bass Guitar Maintenance
It’s a good idea to keep the bass guitar in the case when not practicing. Make sure to close the latches each time so it doesn’t accidentally fall out. A good case should fit snugly and support the neck. Padding and soft fabrics keep the finish from getting damaged.
Never leave the bass in the car during extreme temperatures. Heat and cold can cause serious damage to an instrument. It’s best to avoid the attic or a musty basement as well. Keep the bass in an area that experiences fairly constant temperatures if possible.
Cleaning the Bass
Cleaning the bass after each use can go a long way in keeping it in good repair. Wipe the body, neck and strings with a soft cloth and occasionally use guitar polish to remove all the fingerprints. Do not use furniture polish or anything abrasive.
Wipe down the strings every day after playing. This will remove the oils from fingertips and help the strings to last longer.
If the strings are wiped down after each use, they’ll keep their excellent tone and will last longer. Wiping the strings helps to remove dirt and oils from the fingertips.
After several weeks or months, the strings may start to sound dull and lifeless. It is recommended that bass strings are changed at least once every 3-4 months or more often if they are played very frequently. When changing strings, make sure to remove and replace one string at a time to keep the tension on the neck as constant as possible. New strings add a brilliance and punch that can make playing fun!
A new bass guitar should be brought to a local service shop to be “set up.” A technician will go over the instrument and make sure that several features are in optimal condition, including the neck, pickups, frets, action and more. Then, an annual trip to have the bass checked over is advised to keep it in excellent working condition. Sometimes there may be issues with the bass that a professional should help repair or adjust.
- Truss rod adjustments keep the neck straight and even.
- The smoothing of frets that feel uneven or rough.
- If it is very difficult to press the strings against the fretboard, the action may need to be adjusted. The bridge or saddle may be adjusted to improve the distance between the strings and neck. Conversely, if the action is too low, it may cause buzzing against the frets and adjustments may be required to raise it up.
- Pickups may need adjustments as well.
How much should a guitar student practice?
Regular practice can bring swift progress when learning bass! Daily practice sessions are far more effective than trying to cram a long session into one day. Students should set time aside each day to review lessons and to also have some fun!
Daily practice sessions that last at least 20 minutes long are great to start. In the beginning, students shouldn’t engage in long practice sessions because these can lead to sore fingers than can cause painful practice for several days. Allow callouses to build up gradually. If a bass student wants to play or practice for longer periods of time, it’s best to take a break between 30-40 minute practice intervals.
Forming Good Habits
Playing bass standing up
Many bass players perform standing up. To do this, a bass student needs to attach a bass strap with its wide end at the bottom of the guitar and the narrower end at the top. Position the guitar with the neck angled slightly upward. It should hang at a height that centers around belly button height, but see what is most comfortable. The left hand should not strain to reach around and fret the strings. Do not use the your hand to hold up the bass.
Sitting with the bass
Use a chair without armrests or a stool for practicing. Sit with the strap on and across the body. Sit on the edge of the seat and place both feet on the floor. Try to sit with the thighs slightly above the knees. The bass should be in a position that is the same or very similar to that when standing. The strap should hold up the guitar so your hands should not be necessary to hold up the neck.
Fretting hand position
Assuming that the bass is played in the more common right-handed method, the left hand is the fretting hand. Keep the hand and wrist loose and relaxed. Curve fingers and knuckles, and use the fingertips to push down the strings right next to the frets. Position the pad of the thumb against the back of the neck and keep the elbow close to the body. Fingernails should be cut short so they do not interfere.
Right hand fingerstyle technique
Many bass players use the index and middle fingers on the right hand to pluck the strings. The thumb should rest on the top of the pickup and the fingers stretch across and pluck the strings. Plucking higher up on the neck typically creates a fat, warm tone. Plucking further down near the bridge can produce a more bright and percussive tone. Keep the hand and shoulder relaxed.
Right hand picking technique
It is also common to use a pick to pluck the bass strings. Hold the pick between the thumb and the side of the index finger so that a corner of the pick sticks out. This is what is used to pluck the strings. Use a heavier weight pick. Either curl the remaining fingers along with the index finger or hold them open in a relaxed position. The pick can be used to pluck the strings in both the up and down stroke movements.
Bass guitars can have very long necks that are much longer than their guitar brethren. Make sure to choose a bass that isn’t too large and hard to reach for the student. A shorter scale neck or a 3/4-sized model can be a better choice for younger bass students.
The fingertips on both the left and right hand can suffer when students start learning the bass. The fretting hand experiences pain from pressing on the strings. The plucking hand can experience pain or blisters from plucking the strings. Make sure to start with shorter practice periods until callouses build up. Encourage students to push the strings only hard enough to connect with the frets so that notes ring true.
Arm and hand pain
It’s necessary to maintain proper posture and hand placement so that students are not building bad habits that can lead to painful experiences later on.
In the beginning, it can be difficult to press each string individually without touching any surrounding strings. This is needed to enable each note to ring true. Students can get discouraged at first but should try to press with the tips of the fingers. Also check that the guitars action is adjusted properly to prevent buzz against the frets.
It may be discouraging to practice bass lines without the rest of the song. Make sure students have recordings or other parts to practice along with to make practicing more fun and engaging.