If you want to learn how to play bass or you play guitar and want to give the bass a try, a good starting point is to work on some simple finger exercises.
The exercises in this lesson will help you develop finger dexterity and control over the fingerboard.
Guitar TAB is provided for each exercise. Find out how to read Guitar TAB here. While that guide was written for guitar, it’s the same when you want to read TAB for bass.
Bass Guitar Exercise 1: Finger Stretching
One of the hardest aspects of learning bass as a beginner is the wide stretches you need to make between the frets. When compared to a guitar, bass has wide gaps between each fret, which can be difficult when you have small hands (find out about playing guitar with small hands here).
This basic exercise will not only help you get used to playing notes on bass, but it will help you stretch your fingers out over time.
The basic idea behind this exercise is that you use one finger per fret and try to hold each finger in position as you continue to play through the four notes per string.
Use your index finger (first finger) to play the 3rd fret, your middle finger (second finger) to play the 4th fret, ring finger (third finger) to play the 5th fret, and pinky (fourth finger) to play the 6th fret.
Here is how we number fretting hand fingers when playing bass or guitar (use the same numbering if you are left-handed):
Don’t worry if you have trouble applying pressure with your pinky in the beginning, your finger will get stronger over time if you continue to practice this exercise.
Once you play the first note (with your index finger), continue to hold that finger in position while you press your middle finger down to play the 4th fret note. By the end of the first bar, you should have all four fingers pressing down on the string.
Move across to the next string and repeat the pattern. Do this for all four strings.
What if this exercise is too hard?
If you can’t manage to stretch your fingers out to play this exercise properly, shift the entire exercise higher up the fingerboard. So instead of playing 3-4-5-6, play 5-6-7-8 or 7-8-9-10.
Moving the exercise higher up the fretboard will make this exercise easier because you will notice the gap between each fret decreases the higher up you move.
Your goal is to be able to connect all of the notes together without any gaps or pauses. Once you feel comfortable in a position (eg: 5-6-7-8), gradually move down one fret at a time (eg: 4-5-6-7) until you can play at the lowest possible position (1-2-3-4).
While the above exercise is a fantastic way to develop your finger control, it’s also a good idea to practice the exercise in the opposite direction.
The below TAB shows how to play this exercise if we reverse the direction:
This time, start with all four fingers in position across the four frets. Play the 6th fret note, then remove that finger from the string to play the 5th fret note.
Once you get through all four notes, place all four fingers back into position on the next string and continue to play.
Once you feel comfortable with both of the above exercises, you can combine them to form one long exercise that moves up and down the strings.
Extra tip: once you feel comfortable playing this exercise, practice it along with a metronome to work on your timing skills. Make sure each note rings out for the full beat and there are no gaps as you move between strings.
Bass Guitar Exercise 2: Finger Combinations
The first exercise helps you stretch your fingers out, but you won’t always play notes in a 1-2-3-4 style pattern. The below exercise gets you used to every possible finger combination:
The idea behind this exercise is to get you used to moving back and forth between any two fingers so when it shows up in a song, you will be able to do it with confidence.
Use your first finger on the 5th fret, your second finger on the 6th fret, third finger on the 7th fret, and fourth finger on the 8th fret. This one-finger-per-fret approach is the same for all of the exercises in this lesson to get you used to stretching your fingers out.
Some of the finger combinations will feel easy (eg: first finger to third finger), while others may feel awkward at first (eg: fourth finger to second finger).
Take note of which combinations feel the hardest and focus on practicing them more often. With enough practice, these finger combinations will feel comfortable and you won’t stress out when you see them used in songs.
Bass Guitar Exercise 3: Position Shifting
Being able to smoothly shift positions up or down the fingerboard is a crucial skill to develop.
This exercise will help you get comfortable with short shifts in position:
In the first bar, your first finger rests on the first fret. When you get to the second bar, shift your hand position up one fret so your first finger now rests on the second fret. Continue shifting up one fret per bar until you reach the highest frets on your bass (the above TAB only shows the first four bars, but continue the pattern).
You want the exercise to sound like a constant flow of notes without any jumps or breaks. This might feel awkward at first, so practice at a slow tempo.
As you feel comfortable with shifting between positions, you will notice that your transitions start to sound smoother as well.
The below exercise has a wider shift between positions, so only attempt it after you feel comfortable with the above exercise.
Here you need to make a wide jump with your first finger to reach the fourth fret after the first bar. You will be jumping four frets at a time, so make sure each shift in position sounds smooth.
Practice these exercises across all four strings so you feel comfortable shifting positions anywhere on the fingerboard.
Bass Guitar Exercise 4: Simple Rhythm Practice
All of the above exercises focus on developing your fretting hand control. But that’s only half of the equation of becoming a great bassist. The other half (and the more important half) is your timing and rhythm.
This simple exercise will get you used to thinking about your timing and playing a tight rhythm.
Think of each of the above bars as a separate exercise to work on. Use a metronome to properly practice this exercise.
One beat notes: The first bar simply asks you to play one note in time with the beat. These notes are called quarter notes. Read this guide to understand the naming of different rhythm notes.
Set the metronome at a comfortable tempo and simply play the fifth fret in perfect time with the click of the metronome.
If this is the first time you have tried to do this, you might notice that it isn’t easy to consistently play exactly at the right time.
Continue to practice the first bar over and over until you can comfortably play in time with the metronome. Practice this every day as you can always improve your timing skills.
Half-beat notes: The second bar splits each beat up into halves. You now need to evenly space two notes with each beat. These notes are called ‘eighth’ notes.
The first note is to be played perfectly in time with the metronome and the second note to be spaced in the middle of the gap between each click.
While playing this exercise, count “one and two and three and four and” in your head. The number matches the beat and the “and” matches when you will play the in-between notes.
Quarter-beat notes: The last bar in the above exercise splits each beat up into four notes. These notes are called ‘sixteenth’ notes.
Make sure you set your metronome to a slow tempo to give yourself time to play all four notes without mistakes.
Count “one e and a two e and a three e and a four e and a” out loud or in your head to figure out when to play each note. Try counting out loud with the metronome before you start playing to feel comfortable with sixteenth notes.
Continue to practice these exercises every day as they form a crucial part of your rhythm and timing skills.
Bass Guitar Exercise 5: Bouncing Between Strings
All of the above exercises focus on playing a few notes on a string at a time before moving to another string. While a lot of music will play like this, quite often you will need to jump around strings.
The below exercise will get you used to jumping back and forth between two strings.
This is good practice for your fretting hand as it will improve your accuracy at landing on the right position on the fingerboard.
More importantly, this is great practice for your plucking hand as you will be able to practice moving back and forth between two strings. Think about which fingers you will use to play the two strings and how you will move back and forth between the strings as you play.
Start off at a slow tempo and make sure there aren’t any big breaks or gaps between notes. Aim to have a consistent sound across the entire exercise.
Bass Guitar Exercise 6: String Skipping
The above exercise gets you used to bouncing back and forth between two adjacent strings. But sometimes you will need to make a wider jump and skip a string.
The below exercise will get you used to skipping a string and help you improve your plucking accuracy.
Focus on your plucking hand and think about which fingers you will use to play every note. Are there better options than your first choices? What other finger combinations could you use to pluck these notes that might make it easier to play? Think about the way you play and you’ll often discover better ways of doing things.
The below exercise takes the simple one-note-at-a-time exercise from earlier and adds string skipping.
Once this feels easy, try skipping two strings or randomly jumping between any of the four strings. The goal here is to get used to any jumps so when they show up in songs, you will be prepared to play them.
There are plenty of other exercises you could work on to improve your bass skills, but if you practice the above six exercises every day, you’ll be surprised by how much of a difference they will make to your playing.
Once you’re ready to try some simple riffs or learn some songs, check out this guide on the Best Guitar TAB websites. The guide explains what to look for to find Bass TABs and which sites offer the best TABs.