Introduction to Guitar Bass

This is the first in a series of lessons whose focus is on constructing bass lines. The main series of lessons presumes a small but nonzero amount of musical knowledge on the part of the listener; mostly some things about notes and time. It also presumes you know how to read TAB. This pre-lesson is designed to teach that knowledge to anyone who doesn't already have it. If you know how to find a C# on your bass, know what a quarter note rest is, and can read TAB, then you can skip the rest of this and move on to Lesson 1. If not, or if the review will do you good, then read on! A piece of music is composed of a series of notes. These notes are organized into sets of 12 notes called octaves, and each of these 12 notes has a name.
If you sit down at a piano, you'll see that it has 88 keys, 52 white and 36 black, and that each of these keys produces a different note. The white keys all have one-letter names; the first one on the left (lowest note) is called A, the next one up is B, and so on. The seventh white key is called G, and the next white key, the eighth, is also called A; it begins the second octave. The ninth white key is B, the tenth C, and so on, until the 52nd and ast white note, which is a C. The black keys are named by their relation to the nearest two white keys, so each one has two names. First, they may be called "sharp", with the name of the white key below them: eg, the lowest black key is called A sharp, as it's immediately above A. There is no black key immediately above B; the second black note is C#, and so on up the keyboard. Second, black keys may also be called "flat", with the name of the white key above them: thus, the lowest black note can also be thought of as B flat, since it's immediately below the B. Similarly, the black key between D and E can be called either D sharp or E flat. For now, you can treat the two names as interchangable. An octave runs from A to G#, 12 notes (7 white keys and 5 black keys) and then the names repeat for the next octave. Actually, the starting point doesn't matter: any 12 notes in a row (which will always contain 7 white keys and 5 black keys) are called an octave. The strings of a bass are tuned to produce the4 notes E, A, D, and G (from thickest string to thinnest). Thus, if you play an E on the piano,and the open E string on your bass, you'll get the same note (if you choosethe right octave on the piano, that is). Moving up one fret on the stringproduces the next highest note. That is, the open A string produces an Anote (hence the name). Fingered at the first fret, it produces an A sharp, or B flat. Second fret produces a B. Third fret produces C (since there is no black key above B), fourth fret C sharp, and fifth fret produces D, the same note as the open D-string. And so on up the fingerboard. With this knowledge, you should be able to find two or three versions of each note on your bass. For example, you can get an F at the 1st fret of the E string,at the 3rd fret of the D string, at the 8th fret of the A string, and at the 10th fret of the G string. (The 3rd-D note and the 8th-A note are in the same octave: the 1st-E note is one octave below and the 10th-G note is one octave above.) Make sure you can find any given note somewhere on your bass without too much effort, and that you know the names of the notes produced by playing a given string at a given fret, at least up to the 12th fret. The next thing to mention is the way songs are arranged in time. Songs are divided into measures: a common song length is about 100 measures. Each measure is a certain number of beats long: in almost all modern music there are four beats to each measure, although other length measures are also used. Each note in the song has a given duration, and a note that lasts for four beats is called a whole note. A note that lasts for two beats is called a half note, and two half notes are the same length as one whole note. Similarly, there are quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. (In England these notes have different names. I'll be sticking to American usage throughout this lesson series.) Each quarter note receives one beat, and the quarter note is the basic building block of time and of rhythm. Eight eighth notes make up a four-beat measure, as you can see, as do four quarter notes and 16 sixteenth notes. Measures can contain notes of different lengths, so that a quarter note, a half note,and two eighth notes also make up one measure. Other time durations can be written by "dotting" a note: in standard notation, one literally writes a dot next to the note. Dotting a note makes it last half again as long as it normally would. Thus, a quarter note lasts as long as two 8th notes: a dotted quarter note is 50% longer, so it lasts as long as three eighth notes. Thus, two quarter notes have the same length as a dotted quarter note and an eighth note. Similarly, a dotted half note lasts for the same amount of time as three quarter notes: a dotted half note and a quarter note together make up one measure. The last thing to know is that rests, or times when the bass is not playing, are named the same way: thus, a whole rest means that the bass does not play for one measure. A quarter rest means that the bass does not play for one beat, and there are eighth rests and dotted half rests and so on. One last note: in some jazz and classical music, a note other than the quarter note is given the one-beat length. Since almost all music is written with the quarter note getting one beat, I've assumed it is so throughout the lesson series. However, if you get into more difficult music, you may run into music where the half-note or the eighth-note is one "beat" long. My advice is not to worry about this until it comes up. The last thing you need to know is how to read TAB. Bass tabulature, or TAB for short, is a simple method for writing bass music. There are several different versions of tabulature, but the following features are common to almost all of them. Bass tab is written on four-line staves. In text interfaces these are usually written using dashed characters. Each space corresponds to one string on the bass: the lowest space corresponds to the E string, the next lowest to the A string, the next to the D string, and the highest to the G string. A number on a given space represents a note played at the given fret on the corresponding string; thus, to indicate playing a G at the third fret on the E string, one would write: G------------------------------------ D------------------------------------ A------------------------------------ E----3------------------------------- Notes are played from the left of the staff to the right; thus, an ascending G major scale might be written: G------------------------------------ D-------------------2--4--5---------- A----------2--3--5------------------- E----3--5---------------------------- Or, using open strings, it might be written like this: G-------------------------0---------- D----------------0--2--4------------- A-------0--2--3---------------------- E----3------------------------------- Chords can be written by writing two numbers in the same vertical bar. Thus one might write a simple A major chord as: G-----9------------------------------ D-----11----------------------------- A-----0------------------------------ E------------------------------------ which means to play an open note on the A string, to play a C# at the 11th fret on the D string, and an E at the 9th fret on the G string. Various fingering techniques can be noted in TAB as well. This is done by writing a single character after the note being fingered. The most common of these are: h - hammer-on from previous note p - pull off from previous note \ - slide up to note b - bend note S - slap the note with the right-hand thumb (left hand if left-handed) P - pop the note with the right hand (ditto) t - tap the note with the right hand (ditto) H - harmonic Thus a funky bass line might be written like this: G---------5P-7h-5p------------------- D------------------------3b---------- A---0S\5-----------3S-5S----5S-5H--- E------------------------------------ A muted note (one that is not fingered cleanly and makes a percussive sound rather than a clear tone) is written by placing an x on a line instead of a number: G------------5--7-------------------- D------------------------------------ A---5--x--x--------5--x--5----------- E------------------------------------ Similarly, a rest is indicated by writing an r on a line (any line will do): G------------5--7-------------------- D------------------------------------ A---5--r--r--------5--r--5----------- E------------------------------------ When it is not obvious which left-hand (right-hand to lefties) finger should be used to to fret a particular note, this may be indicated by writing a number under the note, with 1=index finger, 2=middle finger, 3=ring finger, 4=pinkie finger, and rarely, 5-thumb: G---------5--7--5-------------------- D------------------------------------ A---0--5----------------------------- E------------------------------------ 1 1 3 It is becoming popular to indicate time in TAB by writing over each note a letter indicating the time value of the note: s=sixteenth note, e=eighth note, q=quarter note, h=half note, w=whole note. It is possible to add dots to this system as is done with normal notes. In addition, vertical bars are usually used to indicate measure breaks. TAB noted this way might look like this: w q s s e q h q. e e e s s e h G-----|----5--7--5-------|-------------5--7--7-|---- D-----|------------------|-3--3--5--7----------|---- A---0-|-5-----------8--5-|---------------------|-5-- E-----|------------------|---------------------|----