Learning the Double Bass Fingerboard

Double bass

I received this question recently via Facebook:

“How can someone become more familiar with the fingerboard? I can find the positions on my bass pretty easily, but sometimes I have trouble knowing exactly what notes are in that position across the strings. Thank you!”

I’m so glad you are looking to solidify your knowledge of the fingerboard! There is certainly a lot of great material to help you do so. Below are just a few ideas that will help you utilize it well. They are not particularly glamorous or fun, but they work.

First you will want to make sure you know some Basic Music Theory.

You don’t need to be a theory genius, of course, but it will be helpful in this endeavor if you understand the music alphabet, how flats, sharps and naturals work, and have some understanding of intervals.

The most important thing to understand is probably how Perfect Fourths are constructed. If you don’t already have this knowledge, I’d suggest pairing your study of the fingerboard with some basic music theory, focusing on intervals.

A Fingerboard Chart is your friend.
Most beginning double bass methods will provide this for you at the front of the book, but a google image search for “bass fretboard note names” or “double bass fingerboard note names” will also give you some good resources as well. I’d suggest using your chosen chart in the following ways:

Copy the chart out, by hand, using pen and paper, multiple times, over multiple days.

  • This tedious act will help burn this information in your brain.
  • Work towards being able to construct the chart by memory.

As you are working towards being able to construct a fingerboard chart from memory, test your memory of individual “frets” using a time constraint: (You can use positions, but I suggest using fret numbers, even though we don’t have frets).

  • Write the frets, from 1-12, on small slips of paper and place them in a bowl.
  • Set a metronome to 60bpm.
  • Pick a slip of paper at random and immediately give the names of the notes from the E string to the G string in that position, in time with the metronome (speaking in quarter notes). Give them in both flats and sharps.
  • For example: 1st fret – F… B?… E?… A?; Then – F… A?… D?… G?.
  • Repeat the process by reciting the notes, in time, from the G-string to the E string (reverse of what we just did) using both flats and sharps .
  • Test yourself daily on all 12 frets until you can easily and accurately recite them every day for a week. .
  • Do this for all 12 frets.
  • When you can do this easily, the information is pretty solidly in your mind. .

Practice material at the bass that has been designed to solidify this information.
Most good beginning double bass method books are designed, at least partially, to solidify your knowledge of the fingerboard, so it’s pretty easy to find material. I tend to use both Edouard Nanny’s Method, Volume 1, etudes as well as Franz Simandl’s Method Volume 1, for this. However, most beginning method books will provide etudes to solidify your knowledge of positions and the fingerboard.

Finally, until you are confident in your knowledge of the fingerboard, I would advise keeping a fingerboard chart on the stand at all times, so you can easily refer to it as you need.

Good luck, and welcome to the double bass adventure!

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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  1. that bass guy

    Of course, everybody has an opinion on any subject, but I think a far simpler approach, and one that will actually have you playing instead of spending time making a game board, is to know where the major harmonics are and figure out what notes you can play when you have your finger on them. For example on the E string, put your fourth finger on the A. Now you’ve got your first finger in position to play the G below the A, while the second finger is over G#/A-flat. Do this with all the harmonics as a starter exercise. But if you’re really serious about the fingerboard, pick a scale like C-major, and play every possible fingering you can come up with. In the Rabbath method there approximately 150 different fingerings for a 3-octave C-major scale. If you learned a quarter of that you’d be way ahead of most people. Also, when you’re playing your scales, don’t just play the scale by ear but actually ask yourself what note you’re playing at any given time.

    • Geri O

      I do like your comment and I actually am working as you describe. I know music theory like a fiend, I know keyboards notation and trumpet, but when I picked up bass (in high school), the opportunities to play were nearly all by ear. These days, as I learn songs by ear, number charts, or chord charts, I try to make a point of thinking the notes as I play the parts, especially when I play above the 5th fret. I think that Dr. D is probably targeting those that aren’t familiar with the music theory as you and I might be. I love his articles and of course, he has to approach a very wide audience with his articles. I consider myself a fairly advanced player, but I always take away something from his articles

  2. Monkeygroover

    Learn the notes that correspond to the white keys string per string, then all strings combined, untill solidified. Then the black ones.. I learned where all the notes where first , without focussing on positions. Positions then became a tool to play these notes more fluently and move around on the fingerboard.