Bass Chord

Let’s Talk About Bass Chords

How to play bass chords is something I get asked about a lot, so I figured I’d do a blog post on the subject. I hope you’ll enjoy this lesson, and if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign up for your free video lessons over on the right! One of them is the first of my series about chords.

Okay, bass chords…

Let me start by saying that the amount of times I’ve been asked on a gig to play chords on my bass is somewhere around Zero times.  It’s not what we’re really about as bass players, so as we move into looking at them remember that ol’ Chris Tarry is telling you to get your time together, listen and play along with records, get the bass function and groove together first.  These are all things that will survive and sustain us long after playing chords on the bass has gone the way of rugby pants (see E.T. the movie for rugby pants reference).

I like to think of chords on the bass in a very simplistic kind of way, by breaking every chord quality into two different shapes, those that work using four strings and those that use three.  This will give every chord quality you play on the bass two different variations, one that incorporates all four strings on your bass, and one that only uses three, enabling you to grab the chords at any time from anywhere on the bass.

As we move forward in this lesson I’m going to assume that you have a rudimentary understanding of diatonic harmony.  If you don’t, pick up “The Jazz Theory Book” by Mark Levine, simply the best book written on the subject.


Let’s take example number one, a C7 chord.  Start by placing your first finger on C on the E string (8th fret).  Next, skip the A string and add the 7th using your ring finger, Bb on the D string (8th fret).  Complete the chord by adding the third (or tenth) above that, E on the G string (9th fret), with your pinky.  Take a look at the shape.  It’s a chord spread out over four strings (you don’t play the A string). Keep in mind we rarely play the 5th when creating chords on the bass as things tend to get muddy and we only want the notes that get across the sound of the chord.  In this case the root, seventh, and third (or tenth) on top.

Now, for my money, these four string versions of chords on the bass sound better.  The third on top is why.  It spreads the sound of the chord out and opens up the sound.  You’ll see when we take a look at the three-string version of the same chord.

Let’s create the three-string version of C7 right now, same place on the neck.  With this shape we play the root with our middle finger this time.  C starting on the E string followed by E, first finger on the A string, then Bb, ring finger on the D string.  You can see how this shape incorporates just three strings.  In this example we’re not taking advantage of the G string.

These are your two basic shapes, the three-string version and the four, memorize how they look and what finger you use to play each of them.

Let’s put them to use so you can see how they can work together with a basic II-V-I progression and let’s move a little higher up the bass.  Generally chords played below the 12th fret can tend to sound a little muddy so we’ll take it higher to get a clearer sound.  Try G-7, C7, to FMaj7 staring on G on the E string, 15th fret.

G-7 we’re going to use the four-string shape.  First-finger goes on G, skip a string, middle finger on F on the D string (15th fret), ring finger on Bb (15th fret on the G string, the minor third).

Next, move to the C7 chord, we’re going to use the three-string shape for this one.  All you need to do to get there is to move just two fingers.  Keep your ring finger where it is (Bb 15th fret), and move your middle finger to C on the A string (15ht fret), and your index finger to E on the D string (14th fret).  See how easily those shapes work together?

Lastly move back into the four-string version for the resolution to the FMaj7 chord. First finger on F (13th fret), skip a string, middle finger on E on the D string (14th fret, the major 7th of the chord), ring finger on A on the G string (14th fret, the major 3rd).

Make sure you always practice slowly and get these concepts and shapes down, before you move to something more complicated. “One step at a time, every day”… It may sound corny, but it works!

About the Author

Chris TarryChris Tarry is a four-time Juno Award winning musician and a writer. His debut collection of short fiction, “How To Carry Bigfoot Home,” is out now from Red Hen Press (March 2015). He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife Michelle, daughter Chloe, and son Lucas. Connect with Chris on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter.View all posts by Chris Tarry

  1. Ed Mandell
    Ed Mandell01-18-2013

    good article but isnt it Mark Levine who wrote the Jazz Theory book? I hope so, if not I just bought the wrong book ;-)

    • Chris Tarry
      Chris Tarry01-18-2013

      Hey Ed,

      You’re right! Good catch! I’ll fix it in the post.


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