Bass & guitar. What’s the real difference? The strings are basically the same – how hard can it be? Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple.

Many guitar players fall into the trap of “playing bass like a guitarist”. Learning how to think and play like a bassist is key to avoiding this pitfall.

The good news is: plenty of your guitar skills will translate over to the bass, so you don’t have to learn everything from scratch.

We’ve put together 15 tips to help get your fingers walking down the long road of bass!

#1 – Playing a short-scale bass is not cheating

Paul McCartney played a short-scale bass. Case closed.

If you have a music store nearby, check out some basses. If you’ve never played one, a regular-sized bass feels like it’s built for people with giant hands because the frets seem miles apart.

Consider this:

  • Large frets are easier to navigate when you learn actual bass-playing techniques.
  • It takes a bit of time for your hands to get used to the size of the instrument.

Why struggle when you can have fun from day one? Short scale basses save wrists, shoulders, backs, and egos.

Try one out and if you like it, go for it! Nobody’s going to point and laugh, especially if you sound awesome.

#2 – You can use a pick to play bass

In the beginning, don’t hesitate to stick to what’s familiar. Eventually, you’ll want to learn how to play fingerstyle bass so you can access different sounds.

If you want to play rock, punk, metal, grunge, etc – a picked bass might be exactly the sound you’re looking for.

  • Playing with a pick gives you a bright tone.
  • If you use alternate picking, playing fast lines might be easier than playing fingerstyle.
  • Rock legend and Motorhead frontman Lemmy only ever used a pick to play bass.

#3 – You can use your thumb to pluck

If you know how to play fingerstyle guitar, you’ve used your thumb to play the lowest three strings of the guitar already.

You can easily apply this technique to the bass.

  • Use rest strokes where your thumb moves through a string and then rests on the next one.
  • Using the thumb in this way is commonly heard in motown, neo soul, and jazz.
  • Combining palm muting and thumb picking on the lower strings will give you a warm, full tone.

#4 – Embrace the 1-2-4 fingering

If finger-per-fret playing feels like too much of a stretch, you can use the 1-2-4 fingering.

  • Many bass players use this fingering when possible.
  • It’s much easier on the fretting hand.
  • Simply pair your pinky and ring finger to hold down the string.

#5 – Mimic the drummer

When you come up with a bassline to an already existing beat, listen to the kick drum, the snare, and the hi-hat/cymbals. There’s a lot more to a solid rhythm section than just this, but following the drummer is a great way to instantly sound tight.

  • The easiest route is to play a note on every kick drum hit.
  • If you want to get busier, choose some snare hits to play along to as well.
  • The hi-hat and cymbals usually play subdivisions – let them be your metronome.

#6 – Get fluent in rhythm basics

Having some way of notating rhythm or visually displaying rhythms, can be very helpful when you’re exploring your options.

Understanding note lengths, rests, the shuffle feel, triplets and dotted rhythms will help you find the right groove for a song.

#7 – Listen on low-end friendly speakers

Listening to songs and transcribing basslines or playing along with recordings is a great way to become a better player.

  • Phone and laptop speakers do not have a lot of low end.
  • It can be really hard to hear basslines.
  • Even budget earbuds will give you a big leg up when it comes to hearing those lower frequencies.

If you’re new to transcribing, check out our article about ear training.

#8 – Learn arpeggios

Your job is to outline the chord and create a foundation for other instruments. If someone hands you a chord chart – play arpeggios and you’ll be golden.

Just break the chord down into individual notes and choose a rhythm that fits the vibe.

  • Triads are the simplest way to highlight a chord
  • If it’s a major chord, play the Root, 3rd, and 5th.
  • If it’s a minor chord, play the Root, flat 3rd, and 5th.
  • If you’re not quite sure you can just arpeggiate a power chord – Root, 5th, Octave.

Take a look at our post on triad shapes to learn more.

#9 – Get good at utilizing open strings

When you are able to play scales and arpeggios utilizing open strings, you’ll be able to play more lines on the lowest strings and the first four frets of the bass. That’s where the bass sounds most… well, bassy!

#10 – Spend time on learning muting techniques

Your fretting hand is crucial in controlling the length of notes, especially if you opt out of learning the classic fingerstyle technique where you alternate your plucking fingers.

  • Once you play a note, you can stop it from ringing out by resting your fretting hand flat on the strings.
  • That’s why you always want them close to the strings.
  • If you’re fretting a note, you can simply lift that finger ever so slightly.

#11 – Practice in small chunks

The layout of the bass is familiar, but your hands won’t be used to dealing with thicker strings, wider frets, and new picking-hand techniques.

  • Make sure you don’t practice for too long in the beginning.
  • Your hands have to get used to the new dimensions of the instrument.

#12 – Find a band or jam buddies

As soon as possible, find some people to jam with so you can practice playing the role of bassist.

  • Practice keeping the rhythm steady and the harmony grounded.
  • Practice becoming a unit with the drummer.
  • Learn what it’s like to lay the foundation of the groove for the rest of the band.

#13 – Record yourself

Things are going well and you’re having a great time learning to play the bass. Everything feels rather easy because it’s so similar to playing the guitar. Is it really, though?

Record yourself playing along to a drum track or a band recording to find out if your time feel and your muting techniques are really on point.

#14 – Adopt a beginner’s mindset

Enjoy knowing nothing! Or very little at least. Even if some of the knowledge about the strings, notes, scales, fretting, and playing techniques overlap. Be curious, and have fun in this new world.

  • When we get better at playing an instrument, we tend to start criticizing ourselves and measuring ourselves against others.
  • But this is a fresh journey so try to keep any pressure to excel right away out of it for as long as possible.
  • Don’t assume you know how to play the bass. You might miss out on learning fundamental techniques.

#15 – Sign up for the Pickup Music Bass for Guitarists Learning Pathway

We’ve created a bass course, especially for guitar players! It’s a unique starting point and so needs a unique approach.

Everything’s been carefully planned out to get you jamming as smoothly, and quickly as possible.

  • Lesson plans – so you’ll know what to practice each day.
  • Jam time – play along with tailor-made live band performance videos.
  • Personalized feedback – you can upload yourself playing bass and our team will let you know how you’re doing and give helpful tips to improve.

We offer a 14-day trial so you can check out Bass for Guitarists Learning Pathway for free.

Author: Julia Mahncke