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Bass Chords - Learn How to Play Chords for Bass

Using bass chords is a pretty unusual technique, even among virtuoso bassists.  While there are plenty of cases where single note bass lines simply are the best way to go, full chords for bass can also be used quite effectively by a bassist in the right situation.  Learning to use chords can lead to much more effective playing and interesting playing.  It can also create new ideas for a bassist, even in their non-chord playing.


What Is A Chord?


The simplest explanation of a chord in music is any three notes played at the same time.  There are exceptions to this which are two notes played together, can functionally be considered to be chords.  In addition, bassists can still play single note lines in some cases and still be considered to be playing chords.

Learning music theory can vastly make this clearer, but using chords can still be done without an understanding of theory.


Single Note Chord Bass Lines


As mentioned before, a bassist can still play a single note line and still be considered to be playing a chord rather than a bass scales.  In those situations, the bassist is limiting themselves to only playing the notes of the chord currently played rather than using any note in the scale.  While they are only playing single note lines, it is still considered to be a bass chord because the bass line is only implying the underlying chord rather than a scale groove.


For a simple example, let’s say a chord progression for a song is C G F C, and that a rhythm guitarist is switching chords in every bar.  For bar 1, on the C chord, the bassist will only use the notes in the C chord (C E G), and no other notes in the C major scale it is based off of.


When bar 2 comes and the guitarist swaps to the G chord, the bassist will only use the note in the G chord (G B D) and will no longer use C or E which are not in that chord.  At bar 3, when the F chord is being played, the bassist will use F, A, and C, and will not use E, G, B, or D.  Then at bar 4, when the C chord returns, the bassist swaps back to just using C, E, and G.


Playing these kinds of lines really is very impractical without knowing theory, more so than using actual chords.  A bassist needs to know what notes are in a chord and what chord is being implied by the song, and that is very difficult to pick out without understanding the underlying mechanics of a song, especially when more complex chords are involved.


Playing Full Chords


Using full chords with at least three notes ringing can be somewhat difficult for a bassist because of the sheer amount of brute force it takes to hold down 3 or 4 bass strings.  While any three different notes can make up a bass chord, generally the most common chords are major or minor.


Using part of the moveable guitar bar chords is the most straightforward way to play the largest number of chords quickly.  It also only requires that the bassist know the notes on the E string, which is quite easy to learn from other bass guitar lessons, for people not familiar with it.


The basic shape for A and Am are:

A: 5-7-7-6 or 5-7-x-6
Am: 5-7-7-5 or 5-7-x-5

While it can take some time to develop the finger strength to play these, these shapes can be used to make any major or minor chord.  Whatever note is being fretted on the E string indicates what the chord root is, so if it is the 7th fret, it is a B or Bm chord and the 3rd fret is G or Gm.  Try playing chord progressions just using these shapes and eventually it will become second nature.