Learning Bass Guitar Chords

Jim Josselyn
Bass chords are rarely used, but they can make a great impact on your sound.

The bass guitar offers sonic possibilities far beyond laying down bass lines, locking up with a drummer, and grooving a band. Bass guitarists can also play or "comp" chords and incorporate them in solos and bass lines. It helps to learn some basic harmonic concepts for further understanding and ideas on how to use the bass as a chordal instrument.

Printable Bass Guitar Chord Chart

The five examples in this printable will serve as the basis for this lesson. To print, click on the image. If you need help, consult this Guide To Adobe Printables.

"Bass"ic Harmony

Chords, whether played on the bass or any instrument, are constructed of intervals and in most cases, stacked in thirds. For example, a C major chord consists of the notes C, E and G. The E is the interval of a major third away from the C, and the G is a minor third away from the E. Western harmony is based on this concept. Chords can remain triads, or three note chords, including major, minor, augmented, and diminished or expand into sixth, seventh, ninth, eleventh and thirteenth chords. For the purpose of learning bass chords, the steps shown here will focus on triads. The steps below are recommended ideas for starting to learn and implement chords on the bass.

  1. Practice, learn and listen to basic triads of example one. These sounds are the cornerstone of basic harmony and are essential for musicians.
  2. The chords in example one are also "movable shapes." Even though the G note on the C major and C minor triad is an open string, that shape can be maintained by adjusting the fingering.
  3. Play these shapes in different spots on the bass. There are four blank bass grids in example one for notes and ideas.

Breaking It Up

Many bass lines in popular music come from an arpeggio. When you strum or play the notes in a chord simultaneously you have a chord, and when you play the notes in a chord one at a time, you have an arpeggio. Here are a few ideas on how to start playing and using arpeggios.

  1. Play the basic triads in example one as chords, all strummed together, and then articulate each note separately as arpeggios. Listen for familiar sounds.
  2. Play them in inversions, or different orders. For example, play the C major arpeggio C E G, the E G C then G C E. Follow that pattern with every triad.
  3. Experiment with strumming and arpeggiating every chord in the examples and syncopate the rhythm by making some notes long and some notes short.

Getting Funky

Example two is a progression similar to those in The Thrill Is Gone by B.B. King, Smooth by Carlos Santana, and Jammin' by Bob Marley. Listen to these examples and others by blues, reggae, and funk musicians and try to imitate the feel. Use these chords as the basis for jams and improvisations in the rhythmic style of these master musicians.

The Blues

Two of the chords in the C blues progression, F7 and G7, extend the range of the beginner or intermediate bassist as they fall on the eighth and tenth frets. To make this progression sing and swing, play it in "Freddie Green" style. Mr. Green was the guitarist in the Count Basie orchestra and focused on rhythm and grooving the band. The Freddie Green style is executed by strumming straight quarter notes on the beat and slightly emphasizing the second and fourth beats. This is a common trait in swing or jazz styles and suits the following progression well.

12 Bar Blues In C:

| C7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

| G7 | F7 | C7 | G7 ||

Something Like Jimi

One of Jimi Hendrix biggest hits was Hey Joe, which was written by folk singer and songwriter Billy Roberts. It's included in this lesson because well, Jimi, and the progression C - G - D - A - E, is the first five chords in the circle of fifths, one of the harmonic patterns musicians use to learn all twelve keys. In addition, the rhythm is a steady quarter note beat and is simply terrific for creating walking quarter note bass lines. Play this progression at different tempos and play it with the feeling of the iconic Hendrix version; learn that bass line and play it as a double time jazz thing incorporating the bass chords with that walking line and with an original one.

The Chords in a Key

This lesson is about learning and implementing chords on the electric bass guitar. When learning harmony, there are many concepts to understand and one very important one is that there are chords for every key whether major or minor. In other words, by harmonizing every note in a particular scale and stacking the notes in thirds, the chords in that key are produced. The notes in the C major scale are C - D - E - F - G - A - B and C. Example five depicts the chords in the key of C and the positions on the bass guitar where they fall. Play them and hear the chord motion as the chords go higher. Listen for the different qualities, major, minor and diminished.

Mastery and Beyond

Once this material is mastered, learn it in other keys. Create unique and original bass chord progressions with these sounds. For further study enjoy this comprehensive Free Bass Guitar Chord Chart.

Learning Bass Guitar Chords