Playing a bass guitar by ear may be challenging, but it is essential to becoming a better bassist. When playing by ear, you can play faster, more fluid riffs, with great improvisation. The question is, how can you play bass guitar by ear?
To learn how to play bass guitar by ear, follow these 8 steps:
- Hear the Music in Your Head
- Find the First Key of the Track
- Know the Notes
- Write Down the Notes
- Continue Finding All the Notes
- Learn Your Intervals
- Listen, Remember, and Reproduce
- Practice, Practice, and Practice
Being able to listen to and understand the music track in your mind will create a blueprint of how it should be played. You can listen to it on your way to work or while doing your daily exercises, or before going to bed. You can hum the melody as you go about your daily activities.
Do this until you can automatically recall the music sound at any given time. Doing this will allow you to memorize and master the music, as well as the bass guitar notes.
Continue reading to learn about the specific steps on how to play bass guitar by ear, as well as the essential requirements.
Also, for an excellent book on how to play bass guitar, take a look at our top pick, the Total Scales Techniques And Application, by Mark John Sternal:
Steps on How to Play Bass Guitar by Ear
To help you in achieving your goal of playing the bass guitar by ear, here are effective steps you can follow. I assume you already have some basic experience with the bass guitar; specifically, that you have somewhat of a grasp on the different keys, scales, and intervals.
Step #1 – Hear the Music in Your Head
Put down your guitar and hear the music in your head first. Let your mind absorb the music’s melody, pitch, tempo, and notes. Listen to the music on repeat as you accomplish your daily chores. This will allow your mind to learn the music by heart. As you do this, you’re drawing an outline in your head of how the music should be played.
Hum or sing to the music to find out if you grasp the proper melody or pitch. Keep doing this while listening to the track, to determine if you have correctly captured the bass sounds in your memory.
Pay attention particularly to the bass sounds. Can you identify the specific key that it’s played with? You can refer to the keys used for the regular guitar. Your bass sound would be a pitch lower.
Step #2 – Find the First Key of the Track
After mastering the music, you can now attempt to find the first key of the music track in your bass guitar. Use your memory from what you have heard to find the right key. You can also play alongside the track to determine if you have found the correct key.
Step #3 – Know the Notes
What is the progression of the notes and the sequence of the notes? You must learn this before you can truly play your bass guitar. For the bass guitar, each of the notes is 1/2 step away from the next note. This is equivalent to one fret. The pattern or the notes and scales typically don’t change, so you can master them in no time at all.
Learning scales is key to playing any instrument by ear, including the bass guitar. Play different scales over and over again until you have it memorized.
The book Bass Guitar: Total Scales Techniques And Application, by Mark John Sternal will speed up the time it takes to learn bass scales and technique properly.
This was one of the books I started out with years ago when first learning bass. Mark John Sternal is an expert guitar teacher. He goes into detail on basic notation, TAB explanation, tuning, the musical alphabet, picking technique, as well as finger and hand position.
Step #4 – Write Down the Notes
Find out the corresponding notes of the music track and play it on your bass guitar. You can guess until such time that you find the correct note. For professional bass guitar players, this can be an easy task, as they are familiar with the notes beforehand.
If you’re an amateur, who is still learning the ropes, these can prove to be a tedious task. But, in the process, you would acquire new musical skills that you could use for a lifetime. You can use the tabular notation – if it’s easier for you.
Step #5 – Continue Finding All the Notes
After you have found the correct key, it would be easier for you to find all the notes on your bass guitar. You may want to jot them all down, so you could simply play them later. Make sure that you have written down the correct notes.
Learning all the notes on your bass guitar is important to learning to play by ear. It will take you to the next level of your musical journey. As you learn this skill, it will be quicker to identify the notes without any problems.
Step #6 – Learn Your Intervals
You must learn and practice your intervals. You should learn the relationship of one note to another and the difference between the notes. What comes after each note progression? There can be an established interval that you should take note of. This would provide a clue of what notes would come next.
Step #7 – Listen, Remember, and Reproduce
The ultimate process of learning to play bass guitar by ear involves listening intently to the sound you would want to play, and then remembering the music and mastering it. Lastly, you can then reproduce it. That means you must also have mastery of the sounds of your bass guitar. If you’re not familiar with the sounds that your bass guitar makes, then you would have a tough time playing by ear.
Step #8 – Practice, Practice, and Practice
As the cliché goes; “Practice makes perfect.” You have to practice, practice, and practice every chance you get. You have to do this to perfect your skills of listening, remembering and reproducing sounds – in this case – bass guitar sounds. Through practice, you can learn how to remember interval sounds and note structures.
Bryan Beller gives some other great tips on learning bass by ear:
Mastering Your Bass Guitar
Before you can play your bass guitar by ear, you should have mastery of it. If you do, you can quickly find the note you want even without a fretboard. If you haven’t mastered the bass guitar yet, and only know the basics, you would have a difficult time playing by ear.
To explain this more clearly, I’ll give you an example. When you want to memorize a song by ear, you listen to a few notes, and then you can quickly duplicate the note with your voice. This is because you have mastery of your voice. You know exactly what pitch and tone you could use to sing the notes.
The same is true in playing the bass guitar; you should have mastery of the sounds of your bass guitar to be able to play by ear. If you still haven’t, then make it a point to get to know your bass guitar sounds by playing with it. Normally, there are 4 common notes: E, A, D, and G. Try practicing these notes by referring to a music notebook.
Practice with songs that you’re familiar with. Practice these familiar songs by playing along with your bass guitar. As you do this, you would acquire the skill of knowing what notes would correspond to the sound you’re listening to.
After conducting this activity and knowing your bass guitar sounds, you can then proceed in learning how to play your bass guitar by ear.
A book like Bass Playing Techniques: The Complete Guide, by Alexis Sklarevski will greatly speed up the time it takes to learn bass by ear. Alexis Sklarevski performs and records with many artists in the U.S.
He has worked with Manhattan Transfer, Jackson Browne, Albert Lee, Chuck Berry, Carole King, and has performed on Jay Leno, Letterman, and numerous film and TV shows.
His bass playing technique book gives great step-by-step tutorials on improving your fingering and right-hand technique. This was the book I used years ago to help give me a leg up in my bass playing and it helped tremendously.
4 Essential Requirements for Playing Bass Guitar by Ear
1. Absolute Pitch
Acquiring the rare skill of absolute pitch is a gift that not all musicians can accomplish. It’s the skill to identify and copy a musical note without using reference tones. Some experts claim that some people are simply born with absolute pitch and some are not. However, many have reported that they have acquired their perfect pitch through practice. So there’s a divided concept about this topic.
In my belief and from what I’ve seen and heard from others, you can achieve absolute pitch through practice. When you are able to acquire absolute pitch and hear the tone perfectly, you would know instinctively the bass guitar sound that corresponds to it.
2. Major Key of the Music Piece
What’s the major key of the music track/piece? When you can identify the major key, you can identify the progression and intervals of that particular music without any problems. You can then know beforehand the progression of the notes and what guitar bass string to play next.
The key is the scale or group of pitches that make up the basis of a musical piece. It features the group of notes that can be played in that specific music composition.
Generally, for bass guitars, the keys are E, A, D, G — and each note can either be minor or major. For example, if the key of the song is D, the notes you could be playing: D, Dm (D minor) and F.
3. Note Progression
Playing your bass guitar requires knowledge about note progression as well. Also called harmonic progression, this is a group of notes that established the tonality of a musical piece. Once you get to know which notes are grouped together, you could facilitate your learning process. You could speedily reproduce the notes that you have heard from the bass guitar.
For six-stringed bass guitars, an example is this: when the major key is C, the note progression would most likely be Am, G, F and C. Each of these have specific strings that when pressed together, would produce a corresponding melodic sound.
Intervals denote the differences of the pitches between each other. Intervals also indicate the difference in the semitones of the lower note from the upper note. This is a cue for the progression of the notes.
You have to train your ears to listen to the complexities that may occur in the music that you want to play – especially the guitar bass portion.
With guitar bass playing, you can refer to the tone of each note. Eventually, you could play by patterns. This would make it easier for you to play by ear.
After you have learned to distinguish these essential aspects in a musical piece, it will take less time to learn how to play the bass guitar by ear.
Luke from Luke Become’s a Bassist gives some other great tips on how to play bass guitar by ear:
Playing Bass Guitar by Ear vs. Playing Regular Guitar by Ear
Is there a difference when you play a bass guitar or a regular guitar by ear? Since they’re both guitars, they utilize the same steps in learning how to play them by ear.
The bass guitar is typically an octave lower than your regular guitar. It has four strings, and uses the keys, E, A, D, G, while the regular guitar has six strings and the keys; E, A, D, G, B, E.
For professional musicians, the regular guitar is generally easier to play by ear as the regular guitar plays the melody. The melody is easier to remember and therefore play by ear; compared to the bass guitar which can be hard to pick out, and doesn’t follow but rather supports the melody.
The bass guitar is easier to start playing if you are completely brand new because bass music involves single notes, compared to chords required by regular guitars. The bass guitar also typically has fewer strings, 4 strings, instead of the regular guitar’s 6 strings. The progression is also systematic with your bass guitar and you can learn the mechanics within a shorter period of time.
When you learn how to play the bass guitar by ear, you will have an easier time playing the regular guitar by ear.
Learning how to play the bass guitar by ear is a worthwhile endeavor that musical artists must undergo if they want to improve. To grow as a bassist, you must be able to easily identify notes and have them memorized. Follow the tips and steps I laid out, and you will be playing bass by ear in no time!