Chord Voicing on Bass

Bass Chords

Q: I know you have covered bass chords before, but what I was wondering is about the actual chords, not the progression played as arpeggios. I try playing chords my guitar buddies have shown me, and they sound awful on bass but great on guitar. What chords played on bass sound good?

A: Bass players are somewhat limited with their chordal choices (as compared to guitarists or pianists) because of the range of the instrument. This is especially true for four string bassists.

Because the range of the instrument is so much lower, it’s much easier for a chord to sound muddy if it’s got too much information in it, or if there’s too much dissonance.

Of course, this is all a matter of taste but, generally speaking:

The higher in range the voicing is, the better it will sound.

The fewer notes the chord has in it, the clearer it will sound.

Of course there are exceptions, but I tend to stick to a voicing that has two, three or – at most – four notes. I know guys (I’m looking at you Janek) that have five note voicings used in songs, but most bassists who use more than three notes in a chord are also voicing them pretty high up on the neck – and, often, with a high C string.

Here are some personal tendencies I have when playing chords on the bass.
I tend to avoid the 5th unless it is altered somehow (flatted or raised a half-step). The perfect 5th is a “gimmie” because most chords use the perfect 5th) and doesn’t necessarily help to spell out the actual quality of the chord. It just makes it thicker.
I focus on the root, 3rd and 7th to get across the quality of the chord.
I may use extensions if they are a written part of the chord voicing (unless it sounds too crunchy or dissonant) – tensions work best on the top of the voicing on bass, usually.

I’m sure many of you may have specific voicings that you like that go against one of my “rules”. I do, too. these are general considerations.

What I like to do is to go through a tune in the Real Book and explore two or more possible voicings for every chord in the tune. Really explore what notes are available to you and in what combinations they sound best on your instrument.

Much of this goes for soloing as well. To a certain extent, it’s harder to get away with the kinds of upper-structure lines that many other soloists use, on a bass guitar. This is specifically due to what I mentioned earlier about the range of the instrument and how that lower end frequency resonates (and interacts with the music).

On the lower end of the fretboard, you are usually better off staying pretty inside the harmony (chord tones, safe scale tones) while the higher in register you play, the more you can get away with when exploring the upper-structure stuff (#11’s and so on.)

I hope that helps!

Readers, what’s your approach to this? Share your tips in the comments.

Photo by Carlos Paes.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to Firebird Tomonaga Cancel reply

  1. what great advice.these are great ideas to make in an everyday practice.

  2. I try to stick to two or three note chords. I only use them if the song needs some filling out, or as accents.

  3. Very helpful..I also try all the inversions of a chord e.g. for C7 I may choose the root position with C on the bottom, first inversion with E on the bottom, second inversion with G on the bottom or third inversion with Bye on the bottom. As suggested for clarity I try to avoid using more than 3 notes.

  4. years ago I bought a book on bass chords by Jonas Helborg, then I got Adam Novic’s book on harmonics so I could understand what Jaco was doing. Now, I play 6 string and find that by combining 3 note bass chords with harmonics and tapping I can play chords that really do make sense,, of course the guitarists still get ruffled feathers but I just tell them to practice better comping skills and stop worrying so much about soloing,,,,, hahahahah! also what Anthony sez is cool too , Inversions are really cool to explore too!

  5. I play a ton of chords during songs and even use a POG to enhance some of them… I would say go for light gauge strings which tend to let the chords ring out instead of getting muddy. I use 40’s on my basses.

  6. A great introduction to chords is to play 10th’s or any double stop between the E and G sting, if those really get under your fingers adding an additional note in between becomes simpler and easier, Once the tenths are there I’d start looking at the widest possible voicings of triads in all three inversions… then I guess try to replacce the 5th with a 7th to get the types of voicings you’re suggesting…. is there any particular online resource that you’d recommend for fingerings that you’d endorse, Carlos?

  7. sB you want a complete treaties on chords on bass, check out The Art of Solo Bass, my book on Mel Bay

  8. Don’t forget how you finger the chord—that impacts its feel. I have 4 techniques:

    1. You can do a Les Claypool-esque strum by anchoring your thumb on a string to mute it, then strumming. I like this on power chords and chords with a few notes; also you can do ghost strums.
    2. Using the thumb, index, and middle fingers is how I do most chords. You can comp, do fingerstyle, and even lift your hand off and gently hit the strings for a percussive effect.
    3. Picks and thumb strumming are good for most chords of 4 or more notes; picks give a brighter tone.
    4. Lastly, if you want to play chords in conjunction with your bassline, try free stroke. Use standard rest stroke for the bass mosty, and then let it ring and play higher notes using free stroke, which won’t mute the strings. This is great for harmonics, too, but may take some practice.

    I hope this helps! Try your own ideas, too!

  9. ANY chord or voicing can sound good if you play it right with the appropriate tone. Really listen and let your ears be the judge I say.

  10. A great way to practice ‘usuable’ chords on bass is to start with a root-seventh-tenth voicing (in C, you’d have C in the root, then B above with E a fourth about that). Then move that diatonically up and down the scale. Once you feel comfortable with that in all 12 keys, start at the Octave and come down the cycle of 4ths (Imaj7, IVmaj7, viiø7, iii7, vi7, ii7, V7, Imaj7– the ‘magic phone number’ 1-473-6251!). On my 7 string I can go down two octaves this way and the second octave gives me inversions all the way down.

  11. I mostly follow John Scofield’s advice to skip at least one string between the root and the upper voices (ie, root, 7th, 10th). This is also the major reason I love 7 strings, the upper voicings are clear and it really expands your options when you aren’t playing with a more chordal instrument.

  12. Try open voicings, that is, more than an octave between the lowest sounding note and the upper two or three notes you are choosing. Spread them out like you would on a piano.