It’s time to focus on the guitar aspect of bass guitar and learn to play chords. Why bother with this technique? First, it will improve your ability to hear the chord structures other band-mates play and give your ear a head-start on making a strong line. Second, you’ll get to learn a lot about what goes on above the root and increase your harmonic awareness. Third, it will be a great technique to use in solo playing or with a loop device. Finally, you can get serious gig-points if the keys or guitar drop off and you fill the sonic void with a sweet chord progression.
So how is a chord built? In these first examples we’ll be building up from the root, so the root of the chord will be the lowest note we play. The next note is the third, a major third will give a major chord and a minor third will give a minor chord. The third is the determining tone for major or minor function. After the third we will add the fifth on the top of the chord. This creates a triad.
To get the cleanest sound from the chord pluck the strings with the thumb, index and middle fingers at the same time. Make sure the note all sound at the same time and are the same volume. Practicing this will help you develop greater dexterity and will allow you more agility in playing melodies along with the chords.
Exercise 1: A C-major chord – C E G
Exercise 2: C-minor chord – C Eb G
Now try playing the same patterns starting from the high C (fret 15 on the A-string).
The next basic chord structure to learn involves the octave. This chord will be build from the root, fifth and then the octave on top. It since there is no third involved it can be played over with either major or minor lines, it sounds more open and does not force a specific harmonic definition.
Exercise 3: C open chord – C G C
Now that you’ve got basic triads and the open chord form under your belt we’ll start playing with voicings. A voicing refers to the order of the notes in a chord and to the tones themselves. In most chords the root and dominant (1 and 5) are consistent. You almost always need the root for harmonic definition, but you will not always need the fifth. We can replace the fifth with the seventh (either natural or flatted) to get a wider range of harmonic options. These next exercises will involve using the seventh in the chord structure. Also certain chords will require the tones to be rearranged for a more feasible fingering and will differ from the order listed in the exercise. We are always putting the root on the bottom, but the order of the seventh and the third will vary. Each exercise will show a voicing with the root on the A string and the root on the E string.
Exercise 4: Cm7 – C Eb Bb
Exercise 5: C7 – C E Bb
Exercise 6: Cmaj7 – C E B
Exercise 7: Cdim7 – C Eb Bb
The great thing about these chord shapes is that they are easily transposed on the bass. Once you know the shape for Cdim7 then you know the shape for Ddim7, Edim7, Fdim7 etc, all you have to do is slide to the next root and keep the same fingering pattern!
Try the following pattern out and you can see just how cool chording can sound on the bass:
Fmaj7 F#dim7 | Gm7 G#dim7 | Am7 D7 | Gm7 C7 | Cm7 F7 | Bbmaj7 Bbm7 | Am7 D7 | Gm7 C7 | Fmaj7 |