BY DANIEL WARD | From the Winter 2020 Issue of Ukulele
Why end on a high note when you can begin on a low one? Adding a simple but effective bottom end can really enhance the sound of a full ukulele group, small ensemble, or even just a duet. All you need to get started is a bass uke and the time to learn a few key elements that make playing any song easy.
Several bass ukes ere available on the market. Choosing one really just boils down to personal preference and budget. The original U-Bass by Kala comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes now, and companies like Ohana, Hadean, Oscar Schmidt, and Luna (among others) have models of various sizes, string scale, and string types. I prefer the sound and feel of wound strings myself, but I know for some, the rubbery slick ones are more comfortable and take a bit less work to fret. If you are dealing with an injury or some arthritis for instance, I recommend a shorter scale with gooey licorice strings. The larger-scaled instruments tend to play more in tune up the neck, and I do love being able to rehearse quietly without plugging into an amp, so an acoustic-bodied bass uke like the Ohana is good choice if you wish to just play with a friend and not have to plug in. Several small, light bass amplifiers are also available, and some even run nicely on batteries, so you can cart them anywhere.
Find a bass uke you like, or already own, and let’s look at a few short examples that will have you playing like a pro in minutes—I’m actually not kidding! This will be fun, and the elements you need are already right at your fingertips. If there is a guitar lying around, you can also use the four lower pitched strings to practice and learn bass parts. It will sound an octave higher, but will still play the same notes as the bass strings: E, A, D, and G.
The following examples are all written in bass clef. Reading it is just as easy as treble clef, but you’ll need to get used to naming the notes as if they were one space or line above. If you see what looks like an F in treble clef on the bottom space, it will actually be an A (the space above in treble). The bottom line on the staff that you are used to calling an E is a G in bass clef. It won’t take long to get used to it, and the tablature will be obvious too, so let’s dive in and learn how to play a simple chord progression. With a few different approaches that can be combined in any way, you’ll soon be able to play bass on any song by just reading the chords.
EXPLORE YOUR OPTIONS
As a bass player, you have several options that will enhance the music by outlining the chords. A simple root note held for as long as the chord lasts always works, so here in Example 1, just play the note under the chord symbol once and hold it as long as the chord lasts in the music. Some notes will be four counts, some two counts, and in the last turnaround each chord gets just one count. Don’t worry about technique or finger placement in this first one. Just give it a try and see how easy it is to get started playing the tablature. You can use just your thumb for now to pluck, or give the index and middle fingers a try alternating and “walking” over the strings.
Now take a look at Example 2. We’ll use this same chord progression to learn each approach. This time we are adding the fifth of each chord to the root note. A simple triad is made up of the root, third, and fifth notes. Playing just the root and the fifthin the bass part works on almost any chord in a song, and it’s a great way to get some movement into your lines, too. In this case the line is the root and the fifth above for each chord.
Play through Ex. 2 now, and this time pay attention to your finger placement. Stay on the fingertips with your fretting hand, and also keep close to the fret to keep the string from buzzing. If you get right on top of the fret it will buzz, too, so play as close to the fret as you can and nestle in just behind it. Play smoothly and connect each note to the next as much as possible. It takes a little work at first, but your ears will help you hear if you are cutting the notes short.
Example 3 is the same idea as Ex. 2, but the bass line is all roots and fourthsbelow the root. At first this can seem confusing, but if you count up to the fifth from the root, or count down a fourth, you’ll end up with the same note. Try counting from a C to the fifth (C–D–E–F–G). G is the fifth of a C chord. Now count back from C to the fifth again, but the interval is a fourth from the top of the scale down (C–B–A–G).
Notice the pattern on the frets you get when switching from a fifth above to a fourth below. All the strings on a bass are the same, so these shapes will never change. It’s two frets over to the next string down for the fifth up, and for the fourth below it stays at the same fret on the string above.
Let’s take a break from the chord progression and look at a simple box pattern you can use to find your place on the bass. Example 4 will help you learn where your root notes and fifths are all over the neck. With a little time, you’ll be able to pick out your bass notes for any song by just looking at chord symbols. Each little box has the root, the fifth, and then the root again an octave higher. You can use any of these notes on all major, minor, and dominant seventh chords. Notice how the fifth above the root is then the familiar fourth below your next root. This example goes around the famous circle of fourthsand fifthsso we get to all 12 possible notes.
Now it’s time to get a root-third-fifth pattern going. You can get through any song with just roots and lower notes, and many times, a simple line is just the right thing, but a swanky walking bass line comes from creating arpeggios that outline each chord. In Example 5, the line now has a different pattern for major and minor chords. A dominant seventh chord contains a major triad, so the standard shape for a major chord will work just fine. I’ve also made this example longer. The chords are the same, but the patterns will last long enough to get a feel for the root-third-fifth patterns.
It’s important with the triads to use the right fingers, so I’ve marked them in the music. The major triad starts with the second finger and is outlined with second, first, and fourth fingers to get root, third, fifth, and then back to third. The minor chord starts with your first finger, so you have root and minor third on the same string. Get used to the two different patterns as you work through the chord progression. You can also take any song you already know and give these patterns a try.
HAVE SOME MORE FUN
Example 6 is a mix of all the patterns we’ve looked at so far. I’ve added the E/G# (say E over G#) chord and the D/F#. Many times these chords go by in a play-along and no one seems to know quite what to do with them! A chord with a slash and another note is a way to ask for a chord to be played with a specific note in the bass. In this case the E chord is played with a G# in the bass part—that’s you! You’ll hear that it really makes a big difference to play these chords with the major third in the bass. Learn this example slowly and keep in mind that you can use any of these patterns from all the examples in any order you choose. I think you’ll find that your bass lines will be stellar in no time with just a little work.
Finally, Example 7 is a simple blues in A. This type of bass line will work on just about any dominant seventh-style blues. Here, the added flat seventh in the line really outlines the harmony in some places. I’m including this example because it will challenge you to keep the fingers of both hands moving in sync and playing smoothly with all the ability that you’ve picked up so far. It’s also a great transitional line that will help pave the way to playing jazz songs and other styles. One of the biggest tricks you should know is also written into the line on this example. If you have a new chord coming up, just play a half step above or below the next root in the last beat before, and it works like magic.
PRACTICE TIPS AND POINTERS
Take time to play slowly and really connect your fretting hand with your plucking technique. Even sound and full note value, along with fixing buzzes, will yield a great tone and good technique. Try this simple alignment drill for both hands. Place all four fingers in a row on the fourth string at the fifth fret and cover one fret each. Pluck each note with alternating index and middle finger as you place fingers 1-2-3-4 right in a row, and hold them down as you go. Move to the next string and repeat. If you are on the tips of your fingers and right next to each fret, you’ll gain the correct hand position doing this little run just a couple times a day. Sometimes it helps to place your fourth finger first and cover the four frets by reaching backwards just a bit. When it’s right you’ll feel all of them parallel to the neck in a line without straining to hold them in that position.
Enjoy your bass lines and be sure to check out the video!