Learning to play arpeggios and understanding how they work is an essential skill if you want to write some solid bass lines. Basically, arpeggios are what happen when you play the single notes of a specific chord in succession. They’re well worth learning, since an arpeggio will always match perfectly with the chord that the guitarist or key-player is hitting. So, for a bassist, practising and nailing a small library of arpeggios is actually a better first step than memorising scales, because it immediately sets you up with a full kit bag to work with when it comes to writing your own bass lines. So grab your bass and start drilling.
- Why Bass Arpeggios?
- Bass notes & root notes
- More than just the bass notes
- The bass note remains the base
- More than arpeggios
- Bass note conflict
- The Notes of the Bass Guitar
- Example: Major Arpeggio
- A Major Arpeggio starting on the E-string
- A Major Arpeggio starting on the E-string
- Starting arpeggios on other notes
- Using Arpeggios to Play Along to Chord Progressions
- Example: from A to D
- An Overview of Bass Arpeggios
- Learn More About Chords
- See also…
Why Bass Arpeggios?
As you’ve just read, arpeggios are the individual notes of a specific chord – they’re just split into single notes rather than the stacked notes of a chord – and are generally referred to as broken chords. Take the G-chord as an example, which is a stack of the notes G, B, and D. When the guitarist or keyboard player hits a G-chord, these three notes are sounded at the same time, but playing a multi-note chord on the bass doesn’t necessarily work or sound all that good – it also doesn’t really play the musical role that the bass needs to. So it’s the notes that make up the stack of a chord that the bassist needs to pay attention to.
Bass notes & root notes
If nothing else, the most important notes to remember for any bassist is the bass note of a chord. The bass note is the lowest pitched note that’s being played and is really decisive when it comes to the timbre of that chord. A lot of the time the bass note will also be the root note of the chord. What’s a root note? Put simply: the root note of the G-Chord is G (and the root note of a C-chord is C… and so on), so if you’re playing bass alongside a chord progression that includes the G-chord, you need to be able to play a G note. Sometimes, you might come across a G/B chord, which means that the G-chord is played with B as the bass note. In that case, you can skip the G and head for the B. Of course, you can also play a note that isn’t even included in the ‘original’ chord, as with G/F♯ – where the G-chord is played with F♯ as the bass note.
More than just the bass notes
Just droning out the bass notes of a chord progression can – depending on the style of music – get pretty boring pretty quickly. So it’s worth knowing that you’re always ‘allowed’ to play notes other than the bass note no matter the genre, just as long as it doesn’t cause any conflict or sound out of tune with the rest of the music. This is where arpeggios come in. If you already have the G-major arpeggio under your fingers, for example, then you’ll immediately know which notes to grab whenever a G-chord pops up in a chord progression. Because – and we’ll say it again – an arpeggio is made up of the notes of the chord and will always sound good.
The bass note remains the base
However, the bass note will always provide your base, or pivot point. When that G-chord pops up in the progression, it’s often best to start on the G. If the G-chord is held for a few bars one after the other, then it’s worth returning to the G at the right moment to add important accents (for example, on the first beat of the measure). Anywhere in between, you’re free to experiment with the other notes from the chord, so in the case of the G-chord, you can play around with B and D, as well as G. While it might not seem like much, by simply repeating certain notes and applying rhythmic variation, you’d be amazed at how many completely different bass lines can be built with just three notes. But beware: if the chord progression states G/B, then the B becomes your bass note and the focus for those all-important accents. Of course, these are just general rules of thumb – there are always exceptions!
More than arpeggios
Bear in mind that arpeggios are a great tool but they’re not a bass-playing rule. When a G-chord pops up, you’re definitely not limited to playing just G, B, or D. The point of learning arpeggios is to set yourself up with a strong knowledge base that you can always call on and know will always work, and that base can be endlessly built-on and expanded later.
Bass note conflict
If you play in a band, then you’ll know that to learn to play as a unit, you need to learn to stay out of each other’s way – musically, that is. For instance, the keyboard player might already have their own bass notes worked out within their chords which, unless you happen to be playing the same bass notes, can conflict with the notes you’re playing on bass. Playing different bass notes at the same time usually doesn’t sound all that good, unless they’re neatly divided by an octave. This also goes for the guitar, albeit to a lesser degree, because the guitar can’t actually reach the lower pitch range of a bass or piano. Another partial solution is to remove the bass frequencies from the sound of the conflicting instruments using the equaliser of an amp or mixer. But, to be honest, it’s best to tackle the problem at the root and just make sure that all of the instruments avoid one another’s frequency range, which usually results in an immediately transparent mix and a more balanced band-sound.
The Notes of the Bass Guitar
Below, you can see every note you can play on a bass (that fifth string shows the range of 5-string basses). Click on the image to enlarge and see the entire fretboard. Note: We have simplified some of the notes to make it easier to read. All flat notes with a ‘♭’ symbol actually have two names. So the D♭, for example, can also be called a C♯, depending on the context. For more information about why and how this can happen, see our introductory blog on reading music: Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale. While reading music isn’t necessarily essential for playing the bass, it’s definitely useful.
Example: Major Arpeggio
A Major Arpeggio starting on the E-string
- We’ll start with an example of a major arpeggio. You can always use this when playing the bass alongside a major chord in a chord progression.
- We’re using the first major arpeggio listed in the arpeggio overview included at the end of this blog. This overview is by no means a complete list, but includes two easy-to-play arpeggios for each of the most-used and well known kinds of chords. The red line you can see in the image below shows the order in which the notes should be played for this exercise, starting with the lowest note, going up to the highest note and then back again. The circle in bold indicates the root note of the chord. Here you can see that the root note actually appears twice, in the lower pitch range and again in the higher pitch range.
- This major arpeggio exercise starts on the G note (the third fret) of the E-string, and by following circled notes and red line, you can play the complete G-major arpeggio. We’ve also laid the notes out over the fretboard on the left so you can see the shape of the arpeggio, but you’ll soon find out that this shape can be played anywhere along the fretboard, starting from any note.
- Exercise: start with the low G then play each note, one after the other, in the order described above. Play the lowest note to the highest note, then the highest note to the lowest note.
- As you no doubt learned in our blog, Bass Technique for Beginners, every finger of your fret hand has its own position as you hold it over the fretboard. So that first G is played with your middle finger, then the second note – the B – is played with your index finger, the D with your little finger, and so on.
- Keep repeating the arpeggio on a loop without stopping when you get to the highest note and choose a speed at which you can play it flawlessly! You basically need to get to a point where you can play the arpeggio automatically without having to think about it any more. At that point, try playing it at a faster tempo. Remember: this is just an exercise. We’re not saying that you should play these notes in this specific order when playing the bass line for a song. What this does is firmly wedge these notes and where you can find them in your head. This way, you can quickly grab the notes you want to play and apply your own rhythm. The idea is to just set you up with a note library that you can immediately call on when writing your own bass lines.
A Major Arpeggio starting on the E-string
- Now, we’ll take a look at the second major arpeggio in the overview included below.
- Again, we’re using G as our example, but now we’re starting on the A-string, so you’ll need to find the first G on the A-string on the fretboard, which sits quite far up at the 10th fret. Make sure to start on the G circled in bold.
- Now, practise this arpeggio in the same way as the first one. First, follow the red line from the lowest pitched G, to the highest pitched G, then come back down again to end on the low D on the E-string (indicated by the yellow line) before starting again.
Starting arpeggios on other notes
- You can actually start any arpeggio on any note.
- For example: play through the first major arpeggio again, but this time, shift the pattern up by two frets to the A (see below). Now you can use these notes to play along with an A-major chord.
- Maybe you want to play along with a B-major chord. Then, just shift the starting point of the pattern up by another two frets to the B.
- Try playing both of these major arpeggios starting at various different notes. Make sure that you’re able to play the arpeggios smoothly higher up the neck as well as lower down the neck.
Using Arpeggios to Play Along to Chord Progressions
- Major chords: you can recognise a major chord immediately since it’s usually just a chord name without any extra numbers, symbols or letters. For example: G or B♭. You can always use the notes of a major arpeggio to play along with a major chord.
- Minor chords: a minor chord is easily recognizable since the note name is always followed by an ‘m’ (sometimes ‘min’ is used). For example: Gm or B♭m. You can always use the notes of a minor arpeggio to play along with a minor chord.
- Of course, there are plenty more chords. By making sure that you can play both of the arpeggios included per chord in our overview below, you’ll have a bigger repertoire to play with and any jumps between notes will be as small as possible. This approach will also help make your playing faster and smoother.
- A little tip for beginners: start by working with simple chord progressions at first, and leave out chords with a ‘6’, ‘7’, or ‘9’ (or higher) in the name. For example: if you come across a C7 chord, just play the C-major arpeggio notes instead of the C7 arpeggio for now.
Example: from A to D
Now, we’ll show you how to easily transition from the A-major arpeggio to the D-major arpeggio. You can see below that you don’t even need to move your fret hand since each finger pretty much stays in the same position. We’ll start with the A-major arpeggio (above) then transition to the D-major arpeggio (below):
An Overview of Bass Arpeggios
Below, we’ve listed two arpeggios for each of the most-used and well-known kinds of chords. All of them are easy to play. There are, of course, plenty of other arpeggios to learn, but this list will get you off to a great start. All of the first arpeggios start on the E-string, and all of the second arpeggios start on the A-string. Below that, we’ve included a map of the bass guitar fretboard up to the 12th fret, so you have a clear guide.
○ = root note
To keep things clear, the image above only maps out the root notes (so, A, B, C etc). The notes that lie between, are the sharps and flats, like the one between F and G, which is F♯/G♭. Want to know more about reading music? See our blog: Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale.
Learn More About Chords
Now you’ll begin to understand that as a bassist, it’s going to be pretty handy if you’re able to understand and read chords. If you want a deeper understanding of chords, then you’ll find plenty of good reading material in the other blogs listed below:
- Chords: Theory & Chord Symbols: by the end of this blog you’ll have a solid basic understanding of everything that makes chords work.
- Guitar Chords for Beginners: why not gain a little insight into how playing the guitar works? The bass and guitar are very similar instruments, so the transition isn’t that big. It’ll also give you a better feel for the chords your bandmates are playing since you’ll be able to actually recognise them.
- How to Play Basic Piano Chords: a piano or keyboard is perhaps the most perfect instrument for really understanding how chords work.
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