Introduction to “Shell Voicings” on Bass

Playing chords on the upright doesn’t only add to our tonal palette, it also strengthens our knowledge of a tune and our instrument. Some voicings, however, are more pleasant than others. Three and four note chords can easily become “muddy” and unclear, especially in the mid to lower register. As a result, many bass players choose to play Shell Voicings, rather than full chords, to achieve similar effects.

A Shell Voicing includes only the root, third, and/or seventh. Two note shell voicings are the most common on upright, i.e. root and third, or root and seventh. Chord movement sounds best when the guide tones (meaning the 3rds and 7ths) connect smoothly, moving by ½ or whole steps.

To demonstrate, below is an illustration of how we might play some root position shell voicings around the circle.

Some things to note about the example below:

  • For clarity, I’ve kept some intervallic space between the two notes of any given chord. As a result:
    • Roots tend to sound best when played on E or A strings. The Roman numerals below indicate strings, not positions.
    • The 3rds and 7ths are exclusively on the G string. This gives us some intervallic distance between the root and our guide tones (i.e. our chordal 3rd or 7th).
  • In the example below, the 3rd of one chord generally moves to the 7th of the next chord. This allows for smooth voice leading. Smooth voice leading is not always possible, of course, so there is some “jumping around”.
  • There are any number of voicing choices that could have been made below. So, once you are comfortable with the voicings given, experiment on your own, using only the root and 3rd or root and 7th.

Shell Voicings Exercise for Bass

Playing Shell Voicings on your bass is an excellent way to enhance your knowledge of a tune, as well as increasing your fingerboard knowledge. So, work the etude above and next time you pull out a tune using functional harmony, try applying shell voicings to it and see what new ideas you come up.

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

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