Can You Play Chords on Bass? Everything You Need to Know

There are many misconceptions about bassists and our beloved instrument. It’s often assumed that most of us are failed guitarists who tremble at the proposition of playing chords and therefore choose to play an instrument that predominantly consists of single notes. Time to dispel this myth once and for all!

Playing chords on bass guitar is not only possible – it’s also straightforward. Bassists can play various chord types on their instrument, from basic major and minor triads to seventh chords, diminished chords, and many more. Bass guitars with more strings can be used to play more complex chords.

Learning to use chords when playing bass opens up a whole new world of possibilities, and is a great way to expand your knowledge of the fretboard and music theory.

In this guide, we’ll explore the topic of playing chords on bass guitar in great detail. You’ll find out how to form chord shapes on your bass, the theory you need to be aware of, the best ways to integrate bass chords into your music, and more!

Can You Play Chords on Bass?

When the word “chord” is used in a musical context, most people instantly think of a piano or guitar. A chord, by definition, is when two or more notes are played simultaneously and therefore can technically be performed on any polyphonic instrument – so why is there often confusion around whether they can be played on bass guitar?

The most common type of bass guitar has four strings, which, in standard tuning, are tuned to the following notes: E, A, D, and G. Five-string and six-string bass guitars are also available, with additional lower or higher notes added to the standard tuning.

Why is this important? Well, the number of strings a bass guitar has determines the number of notes it can play together – so a standard four-string bass will allow you to make a chord with a maximum of four notes.

When you play two, three, or four notes at the same time on your bass, either by pressing down on the frets or playing the open string note, you are playing it chord. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

Things get more complicated when you try to understand which type of chord you are playing on bass, what the different chord shapes are, and how they interact with other notes through the study of music theory.

Before we get into the more complex stuff, if you have a bass guitar nearby, pick it up and try to play any combinations of two, three, or four notes together. No matter how dissonant they may sound – congratulations, you’re playing bass chords!

The Different Types of Bass Chords

To use chords effectively when playing bass guitar, it’s essential to understand some basic music theory.

For many musicians, including myself in the past, “music theory” is a two-word phrase that leaves us feeling underqualified, insecure about our lack of knowledge, or simply uninterested. It took me a long time to get over the misconceptions I had about learning theory, and once I dug deeper into it, the impact on my bass playing and every other aspect of my musicianship was undeniable.

To understand how chords work on bass, you don’t need a Ph.D. in music theory – you simply need to learn a few fundamental principles that will lead you to explore further at your own pace, unlocking new parts of the puzzle.

For now, I’ll assume that you’re using a four-string bass for the sake of keeping things simple. As I mentioned, this will allow you to play chords consisting of two, three, or four notes.

If you’re still in the early stages of playing bass, you might experience some soreness and discomfort in your fingers when attempting these chord shapes. This is to be expected, and you can find out more about how to manage and prevent finger pain while playing bass in our detailed post on the topic.

Let’s look at the individual chord types you can play on bass.

Dyad (2-Note Chords)

The simplest way to play a chord on bass is by playing two notes simultaneously, which creates a dyad. Two-note chords are also commonly called “power chords” or “partial chords,” They’re often the first type of chord that a string musician learns.

A dyad can technically consist of any two notes on the bass guitar, but if you want to play an ear-friendly chord, it’s a good idea to use a root note and its fifth. This will create a bass chord that is neither major nor minor, as the third note which determines this has yet to be added.

Dyads are a great starting point for bassists who want to develop their chord-playing skills. They allow you to get used to strumming or plucking two strings at the same time and are also great for helping you to train your musical ear.

If you’ve never played a dyad on bass before, start by pressing down on the 5th fret of the E string with your forefinger, then use your ring finger to press down on the 7th fret of the A string below. This will result in you playing an A, and an E, which form two notes used in both the A minor and A major chords.

When playing in standard tuning, you can use this chord shape anywhere on the bass guitar fretboard to form a two-note power chord.

Triad (3-Note Chords)

If you’ve learned to play the piano, you’ve probably been introduced to the triad. These three-note chords are the most commonly used on pianos and keyboards and can also be played on bass.

There are three main variations of the triad that bassists should learn. The first one is a simple development of the dyad – an extended version of the power chord.

To play this triad, which is neither major nor minor, you simply add the same not as the root of the chord but one octave higher. This can be achieved by pressing the note directly underneath the fret you were playing with your ring finger when playing a two-note chord.

So, using the previous example, you’ll now be playing the 5th fret on the E string with your forefinger, the fifth fret on the A string with your ring finger, and the 5th fret on the D string with your pinky. The notes you are playing are A, E, and A again, but one octave higher.

Major and Minor Triads

One of the first things a musician learns when exploring music theory is the difference between major and minor chords. We’re often told that major chords sound happy and minor chords sound sad, which, while basic, is a pretty good starting point.

When you start to play major and minor triad chords on bass, this is where things start to get really interesting. A bass guitar’s thick, smooth low-end adds a whole new dimension to these types of chords compared to acoustic or electric guitars.

Creating a significant triad chord on bass requires us to play the following notes simultaneously:

  • The 1st in the major scale (root)
  • The 3rd note in the major scale
  • The fifth note in the major scale

There are a few ways that this can be done. Sticking with our earlier example of using A as the root note, press down on the 5th fret with your pinky. Then, play the 4th fret on the A string with your ring finger before completing the chord by pressing on the second fret of the D string with your forefinger, forming the notes A, C#, and E.

If you’re not used to using your pinky, this chord shape may feel uncomfortable at first, but you can practice playing it at different positions on the neck to build the required strength and dexterity.

Another way to play the major triad is by using the following inversion: place your ring finger on the 7th fret of the A string, your middle finger on the 7th fret of the D string, and finally, your forefinger on the 6th fret of the G string. You will play the notes E, A, and C#, forming an A major chord.

When playing a minor triad, you need to flatten the 3rd note, which in the case of A major means the C# becomes a C. The easiest way to do this is to take the second major chord shape we discussed, and move your forefinger down a half step.

This means you’ll be playing the 7th fret on the A string with your ring finger, the 7th fret on the D string with your middle finger, and the 5th fret of the G string with your forefinger, which in results in E, A, and C – the A minor triad.

These triad chord shapes can be moved anywhere on your bass’ fretboard, so experiment with different combinations to build up your knowledge of how to use them.

Tetrad (4-Note Chords)

Once you’ve got to grips with two and three-note bass chords, you can add one more note to create what is technically known as a “tetrad.” Four-note chords have a fuller, richer sound as they utilize all of ther strings and are played across two octaves.

To play this type of chord on bass, go back to the first triad shape that we discussed in the previous section, which is neither major nor minor. Then, we will add the 3rd note in the scale to create the tetrad.

So, for an A major chord, you would put your forefinger on the 5th fret of the E string, your ring finger on the 7th fret of the A string, your pinky on the 7th fret of the D string, and then add your middle finger on the 6th fret of the G string. This means you’ll be playing A, E, A, and C#.

For a minor tetrad, keep the same shape but move your middle finger to the 5th fret on the G string so that you play a C rather than a C#.

Popular Bass Chord Progressions and How to Use Them

It’s all well and good being able to make the bass chord shapes with your fingers, but if you don’t know how to use them together, this will limit your ability to compose on your instrument. Chord progressions, also commonly known as “chord sequences” or “chord pattern,” are a series of chords played one after the other, often to form a repeating loop.

When I first started learning to play bass many moons ago, I made the mistake of focusing too heavily on improving my physical attributes, such as my finger speed, power, and stamina. Indeed, these are all necessary qualities to develop as a bassist, but they are interdependent on developing a mental understanding of how the instrument works.

Here are some of the most common chord progressions you can incorporate into your bass practice routine, whatever your current skill level is.

3-Chord Progressions

If you’re a total newcomer to bass chords, I would recommend initially sticking to simple, three-chord progressions. You can choose whichever scale you like, but for this example I’ll continue using A as the root note.

The most basic chord pattern you can play, arguably the most ear-friendly, is the 1,4 5 in a major key. So, in A Major, we will be playing the root (A major), the major 4th (D major), and the major 5th (E major).

If you’re not confident using the full major triad or tetrad shapes discussed earlier, you can stick to the more simple power chords until you get comfortable adding other notes.

It’s ideal to put a metronome on at a tempo that you can comfortably play along to and try to figure out different ways to play the three chords I just mentioned while staying in time. Again, you can move the pattern anywhere on your bass fretboard to play it in a different key.

4-Chord Progressions

You may have heard of the famous “four chord song,” which refers to the common method used by many pop songwriters today, and throughout music history. Thousands of compositions have used the same four-chord progression, making it a great one to learn as a bassist.

This chord pattern consists of the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 4th chords in a major key. So, in our chosen key of A major, you would play:

  • A Major (root)
  • E major (major 5th)
  • F# minor (minor 6th)
  • D major (major 4th)

You can transpose this progression to any key – the intervals between the chords will remain the same; you’ll just be playing them in a different position on the fretboard. So many songs have used this progression that you’ll probably find yourself singing over the top of it as you play!

Fingerstyle vs. Picks for Bass Chords

When I first started playing the bass, I’d already learned the basics of playing electric guitar with a plectrum, and therefore I used this technique for my first year or so. Eventually, I realized that most of my favorite bassists used their fingers, so I spent hours developing the technique.

For single-note bass riffs, many bassists (myself included) prefer to use fingerstyle, as it produces a warmer tone with less attack on each note, and it’s easier to get into the groove of a song using this technique.

However, when I began to learn about playing chords on the bass, I had the idea to go back to using a pick to see whether it was better suited to this purpose. My suspicions were correct – using a pick is a great option when playing chords on bass guitar, as it allows you to play all the notes with a single strum.

Picks are also unrivaled when it comes to playing chords with synopation, or fast-paced rhythms. You can use upstrokes and downstrokes and really loosen up your wrist to play funky, rhythmic chord patterns, much like a rhythm guitarist would.

Despite the benefits of using a plectrum when playing bass chords, there’s no denying that using your fingers can also be of great value, particularly for more intricate styles.

Playing with your fingers allows you to be more deliberate with the dynamics and velocity of each bass chord you play, and therefore can be great for locking in with a drummer. It also makes adding accents, runs, or connecting notes between the chords easier without the clicky sound of a plectrum hitting the string.

Related Questions

Are Bass and Guitar Chords the Same?

Chords played on bass and a guitar are basically the same in terms of the intervals between the notes, but their sound differs significantly. Bass is generally tuned an octave lower than a guitar, so the sound of the chord is much deeper in tone.

Standard guitars have six strings, while most basses only have four. This means the harmonics of a bass chord are less complex than those played on a guitar.

What are 7th Chords on Bass?

A 7th chord on a bass guitar consists of the following notes: the root, the 3rd, the 5th and finally, the seventh. For example, if you played an A minor 7th chord on bass, you would play an A, C, E, and G in any position on the fretboard.

Why Do My Bass Chords Sound Bad?

The most common reason chords can sound bad on a bass guitar is due to the natural lower tone of the instrument. The sound can become muddy and unclear when two or more low notes are played together.

To make your bass chords sound better, try adjusting the tone controls on your instrument and the settings on your amplifier. Also, ensure you’re pressing down hard enough on the frets to prevent the strings from buzzing due to a lack of pressure.

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