You see it at just about every jam, whether in the living room or the festival parking lot: the wall of guitars. Almost everyone holds a flattop guitar, and when someone kicks off a song, the air fills with six-strings ringing out the same chords. Best-case scenario, people listen to each other, hold down a solid rhythm, and don’t drown out the singing or instrumental solos. Worst case—the cumulative sound is like a slow-motion train wreck with a familiar song playing in the background.
But, you play guitar, and that’s the instrument you have at the jam. What to do? One approach is to figure out a part in a different register. If everyone’s strumming open chords in G, for instance, you could put a capo at the fifth fret and use shapes in the key of D instead. A better idea might be to skip the chords entirely and simply play bass lines on your guitar. Even if there’s an actual bass player at the session, you can add a lot to the groove and feel of songs by working the low end on guitar. And when you’re playing with just one other guitarist, focusing on bass lines can enhance the sound without overlapping the other person’s part.
In this Weekly Workout, you’ll practice some techniques for playing bass on guitar, from alternating roots/fifths and bass runs to octaves and the walking bass, using the chord progressions from some perennial jam-session favorites.
If you use the classic boom-chuck style on the guitar, you’re already playing bass while covering chords as well—the boom is the bass and the chuck is the strummed chord. So how about just taking out the chords and spotlighting the bass? That’s what you’ll do this week in a common chord progression similar to the one used in a song that’s been at the top of the jam-session charts for a while now: “Wagon Wheel,” by Old Crow Medicine Show and Bob Dylan. It’s nothing fancy: I–V–vi–IV and then I–V–IV in the key of A (often played on guitar in G shapes with a capo at the second fret).
In Ex. 1, simply alternate between the root and the fifth for each chord. On the A chord, play A (root) and E (fifth); on the E chord, play E (root) and B (fifth), and so on. You can use a flatpick or your thumb, or alternate your index and middle fingers, as many bass players do. Although the notation mostly shows half notes, if you listen closely to bass players you’ll notice they often leave spaces between notes to create more rhythmic bounce. To get that sound, cut the notes short by muting them (see Basics in the August 2016 issue). It’s easier to mute fretted strings than open strings, so when playing bass you might opt for fretted notes, as in measures 7–8, where you grab D and A at the fifth fret even though you could use open strings.
Take another pass through the progression (Ex. 2), this time adding some short, quarter-note bass runs for a little more movement. In “Wagon Wheel,” you could play a part like this on the chorus and then go back to the straight alternating bass for the verses, to add contrast between sections.
Beginners’ Tip #1
If you play with a pick, try muting the bass strings on Week One’s examples by resting your palm on the bridge to get a little more thump.
In addition to roots and fifths, bass players use lots of octaves, so that’s the focus this week. The progression here is similar to “The Weight,” by the Band, played in the key of G..
In Ex. 3 and Ex. 4, patterned after the verse and chorus, play the octaves sequentially—the low note and then an octave up. But in the second-to-last bar of Ex. 4, lay the octaves together; you can pick the individual strings fingerstyle or, if you’re using a flatpick, mute the string in between.
The octaves continue in Ex. 5, inspired by the interlude of “The Weight,” where they sound particularly good with the descending line from G to C.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Notice the staccato marks (dots) in the notation for Week Two—play these notes shorter than written.
This week, practice a common bass pattern that uses roots, thirds, and fifths. To dial in the rhythm, count the eighth notes as 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, and play a bass note on each 1. It’s an easygoing, relaxed feel—perfect for a song like Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” which is similar to this week’s workout.
First, tune to drop D. Since the progression is in D, you’ll be able to make good use of that low D on the sixth string. I also use drop D to play bass lines in other keys, like G or A—that extra bit of range makes a big difference.
The verse of “Margaritaville” sits on the same chords for a long time, similar to Ex. 6, so this moving bass line really helps to liven up the sound of static strumming. For most of the example, play a root–third–fifth pattern, with a few variations and some connecting bass runs, as in Ex. 7, which nods to the chorus.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Stay in position throughout for Week Three, with your first, second, third, and fourth fingers covering the notes on frets 2, 3, 4, and 5, respectively.
Finally, practice the walking bass—moving on nearly every beat. Put on your shades and think upright bass for this week’s cool patterns, which are similar to what you hear in Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”
In the first seven measures of the verse, the chords bounce back and forth between Am7 and Bm7. Play Ex. 8, depicting a bunch of variations that you can mix and match to create your own line. Then, in measure 8, walk up to the Dm and keep on going through measure 14.
Ex. 9 takes its cue from the chorus, in which the chord changes between Am and Dm go twice as fast. Anticipate both chords by playing the roots an eighth note before beats 1 and 3. Also, in the last bar of both Ex. 8 and Ex. 9, add a little heft to your E bass notes by doubling them at the octave.
Playing bass lines on guitar has benefits beyond the public service of making jam sessions sound better. It’ll make you more conscious of your guitar’s low end, which is healthy even when you’re playing chords, too. And, when there’s a call for an actual bass player for a jam, concert, or recording session, you’re primed for the gig. Just carry your bass lines right over from your guitar. After all, those big fat basses are tuned the same as the bottom four strings on your flattop.
Beginners’ Tip #4
In Week Four, for the eighth rests in the chords, you’ll need to mute the open fourth string by touching it with your fretting fingers.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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