Bass Guitar Chords are a really important part of bass playing. Having a good understanding of how they work will allow you to know which notes you have available to you when playing and creating your own unique bass lines.
So if you currently get stuck when trying to come up with something to play, bass chords will open up a lot of options.
You can also play bass guitar chords the same way a regular guitarist would. By pressing down multiple notes at the same time and then strumming the chord with either your finger or a pick.
What is a Bass Guitar Chord?
The definition of a chord is a group of notes played together at the same time. As I mentioned a moment ago, bass players tend to outline the notes of a chord rather than playing them. Playing the notes individually instead of simultaneously is called an Arpeggio. Bass Arpeggios are often played from the lowest note to the highest.
How To Read Chords With Bass Tab
Here is a quick and easy guide to show you how to read bass tab. The examples in this lesson are going to be in bass tab format, so it’s important you know how to make sense of them.
Below is an example of a blank bass tab diagram. Each of the lines represents a string on your bass guitar.
The bottom line is the E string, which is the thickest string on your bass.
The top string is the G string, the thinnest string.
In bass tab the notes are shown as fret numbers. The fret number is written on the string that you play.
In the above example you would play the 2nd fret on the E string followed by the 1st fret on the A-string, then the 4th fret on the A string, and finally the 4th fret on the D string.
Now for chords the fret numbers are simply stack on top of each other. This means that you then play them all at the same time.
Example of a Chord in Tab
The 7 Common Bass Chords
Ok so you now hopefully have an understanding of how to read bass chord charts in Tab format. And you know how a major and minor chord is written (A = A Major & Am = A minor).
Lets now jump straight into looking at the 7 most common bass chords and how to play them on your bass guitar. These are what I like to call the ‘core’ chords as these 7 are used in more songs and more often then any others. That’s why knowing these gives you the keys and unlocks the majority of chords you’ll come across in music.
Here they are: (Print these out if you can)
A5 (fifth) chord
A4 (fourth) chord
A3 (third) chord
Ok now we move onto the 3 note chords.
If You Know 1 Bass Guitar Chord… You Instantly Know 11 Others
So now you’re going to discover how by knowing just one chord on your bass, how you automatically know 11 more…
Now this might sound a bit crazy but please trust me on this it’s 100% true.
Let me explain…
If you know say how to play an A5 chord on your bass that identical chord ‘shape’ can be moved anywhere on the fretboard to give you another chord.
So just as a reminder here is our A5 chord again:
So at this point you know how to play one type of fifth chord. Now if you move the chord shape down a fret you have another chord. In this case a A#5 or Bb5
A#5 or Bb5
All we have done is moved the ‘root note’ from A on the 7th fret of the D string to fret 8, which is the note A# or Bb (A# and Bb are the same note) and maintained the 5 chord shape.
If you then take the same pattern and move it down again you have a B5 chord:
And you can move the same pattern up and down to any fret as long as you maintain the chord shape.
So congratulation if you can play an A5 chord you can now play all of the following chords.
A5, A#5, Bb5, B5, C5, C#5, Db5, D5, D#5, Eb5, E5, F5, F#5, Gb5,
G5, G#5 and Ab5.
So in fact that’s 17 chords! Now because sharps (#) and flats (b) share the same fret it’s actually 12 different sounding chords. Therefore if you know 1 chord you instantly know 11 more. See how powerful this?
And the same goes for all of the 7 chords you will learn in this lessons. Learn how to play the A major chord and boom! You can now play every major chord on bass. Master the A minor chord…
BOOM you’ve now added another 12 chords to your playing and can play every minor chord.
See how easy bass chords can be when you finally figure all this stuff out?
When And How To Use Bass Guitar Chords
Knowing when and how to use chords is a vital to your bass playing. Unlike many chord-based instruments like a Piano, as bassist we don’t play chords all the time. So when should you use them?
Well if you’re playing a certain song you obviously use them when the song tells you to, either in the Tab or Sheet music.
If however you want to create your own bass lines or spice up an existing song you can add chords wherever you like.
In most pop, rock and blues music chords on bass are not played constantly. They are often mixed in with bass line to help strengthen the music being played. Sometimes you will find you play a chord, followed by a bass lick.
You can also end a song on a chord. This works well for almost any song. As long as you know what the ending chord is you can play it on the last beat. Sometimes with double stops (2 note chords) you can slide into them and this can have a nice sounding effect.
You could also play an entire piece with just bass chords, all though this is not typically common.
Like all music, it’s a creative thing and up to you to experiment incorporating chords into your playing. There are no hard and fast rules of when to play a bass chord if your creating your own bass line.
So have fun with them, mix them in songs when you’re practicing and then use them when you play. By knowing bass chords you can stand out as a bass player as you have an extra tool to use in your playing.
How Chords Are Constructed
In this last section we are going to take a look at how chords are constructed. This does involve music theory and you can play bass chords without knowing this. Feel free to come back to this later if you’re just starting out.
To construct chords on bass we need a few piece of information. We need to know the chord we want to build, the notes of the corresponding major scale and the chord formula. Now don’t panic because I’m about to give you all of those and show you how to use them.
Ok so first we need to know how to take a written chord and break it apart. The first part of a chord when written down is the root note of the chord. This is simply the note(letter) at the beginning.
A5 has a root of A
Am has a root of A
Am7 has a root of A
Cm has a root of C
F#m has a root of F#
So next we need to take that note and figure out the major scale for it.
I’m just going to go ahead and give you the notes in every major scale. Scale theory is another whole matter that would need a lesson of its own to explain. So here is all the hard work done for you:
Major Scales In All 12 Keys
C major scale Key signature : no sharp or flat
C – D – E – F – G – A – B
G major scale Key signature : 1 sharp
G – A – B – C – D – E – F#
D major scale Key signature : 2 sharps
D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#
A major scale Key signature : 3 sharps
A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#
E major scale Key signature : 4 sharps
E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D#
B major scale Key signature : 5 sharps
B – C# – D# – E – F# – G# – A#
F# and Gb major scales Key signature : 6 sharps , 6 flats
F# – G# – A# – B – C# – D# – F
Gb – Ab – Bb – B – Db – Eb – F
Db and C# major scales Key signature : 5 flats , 7 sharps
Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C -
C# – D# – E# – F – F# – G# – A# – C
Ab major scale Key signature : 4 flats
Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F – G
Eb major scale Key signature : 3 flats
Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D
Bb major scale Key signature : 2 flats
Bb – C – D – Eb – F – G – A
F major scale Key signature : 1 flat
F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E
Okay so now using those scales we can figure out the notes that construct any chord.
For that we now need to know the different chord formulas. So here they are for you to use:
5th Chord = 1, 5
4th Chord = 1, 4
3rd Chord = 1, 3
Major Chord = 1, 3, 5
Minor Chord = 1, b3, 5
7th Chord = 1, 3, 5, b7
Major 7th Chord = 1, 3, 5, 7
Ok before we can use these we need to know what the numbers mean. All they are is simply which notes in the scale we need to use.
Here’s an example.
Lets say we want to know how an A chord is constructed (Remember a chord that is just a letter is a Major chord – C = C major, A = A Major).
1. We look at the chords note quality which in this case is A
2. We take the A major scale which is A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# and we number them from 1-7 in order. So A is 1, B is 2 and so on.
3. Now we look at the chord formula for Major chords – 1, 3, 5 We can now work out that an A major chord is constructed of the notes A, C# and E. (The first, third and fifth notes of the A major scale.)
Lets look at another example.
This time lets take a C#7 chord.
We know the root note is C# and so the scale we need is C# major.
C# – D# – F – F# – G# – A# – C
Next we need the formula for a 7th chord. 7th Chord = 1, 3, 5, b7 So now we can apply the formula to the scale.
1 = C#
3 = F
5 = G#
b7 = B
Now you might be wondering how we got B as it’s not in the C# major scale. Well if you look at the formula it has a b7. What this means is we take the 7th note in the scale and we flatten it. To flatten a note we simply go back one note/fret. So the C back one note in the musical alphabet is B.
Some of the chord formulas have a b3 and this is exactly the same. You take the 3rd note in the scale and flatten it (Back one note/fret).
I hope this makes sense and isn’t overly confusing for you. Here is chord construction broken down step-by-step.
1. Look at the chord note quality. This is the letter of the alphabet and any sharp (#) or flat (b).
2. Use the major scale of that root note and number them from 1 to 7. 1 being the root note (so an A5 has a root note of A) and then numbering the notes of the scale that follow with 2-7.
3. Next look at the chord formulas and work out what notes are used in that type of chord.
Just to clarify this one more time I’d like to show you another example.
Lets say we want to know how an A7 chord is constructed.
1. We look at the chords note quality which in this case is A
2. We take the A major scale which is A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# and we know that each of those has a number from 1-7 in order.
3. Now look at the chord formula for 7th chords. (7th Chord = 1, 3, 5, b7). So we can now work out that an A7 chord is constructed of the notes A, C#, E and G – remember the 7 is flattened so the G# gets lowered by half a step (which is one note/fret back) to a G.
So that’s it…
That is how chords are constructed. I hope that has blown away some of the confusion for you.
Make sure you read through this section a few times to make sure you really know it. Have a go at also picking a chord that you come across and using your newfound knowledge, apply the step-by-step process to work out for yourself how the chord is constructed.