by Scott Zimmerman

This article compares chords on the bass and on the guitar. To learn more about playing the bass guitar, check out our courses here or our article about learning bass here.

Many guitar players will at some point pick up the bass guitar. Not only is it practical to learn the bass (it will provide you with many more gigging opportunities), but it is also a new creative path within the world of music. Because the bass and guitar are both stringed instruments and are tuned the same way, they share much in common when it comes to playing chords. Let’s take a look at how chords on the bass and guitar are similar.

What is the difference between bass and guitar chords? The theory behind and the process of building chords is the same between bass guitar and guitar; however, the application of chords on the bass guitar is different than the guitar, and are therefore used in different ways.

In order to understand bass guitar chords, let’s take a look at some of the similarities between chords on the bass and on the guitar.

#1 Chord Theory The Same – Application Different

Chords can be played on the bass and the guitar in the same way. In fact, if you already play guitar and are transitioning to bass, you will be able to use many of the chord shapes you learned for the guitar; however, you will need to think of the bass shapes as a guitar missing the bottom two strings. Practically speaking, due to the low frequencies of the bass guitar, the result of playing guitar chords on a bass will sound “muddy” and undefined, and therefore undesirable, except in a few select instances.

Typically, the guitar and piano play full chords and the bass will play a note from the chord or partial chords. However, there are ways to play full chords on the bass that mitigate the unpleasant sound of a low frequency sonic buildup,  or “muddy” sound. Let’s take a look at the different types of chords and practical ways to make them sound good on the bass.

#2 Open Position Chords

Open position chords are the chords played closest to the head of the bass guitar and contain at least one open string. If you are transferring your knowledge of guitar chords to the bass, visualize the guitar chord on the bass without the bottom two strings, i.e. the two highest sounding strings. The open position chords on the bass, if strummed, will sound very “muddy” and undefined because of the low frequencies of the notes.

One solution is to play the open position chord using an arpeggio, i.e. plucking one string at a time from lowest to highest. If you mute each string after it is plucked and before the next note of the chord is sounded, it will also help the low bass tones from clashing with each other. However, there may be a musical situation that lends itself, creatively speaking, to this type of sound and in that case you can let the strings ring out over each other.

#3 Movable Chords

Bass guitarists and guitarists both use moveable chords. A moveable chord is a chord that does not contain any open strings; therefore, the chord shape can be moved anywhere on the neck and it will be the same chord quality, e.g. major, minor, augmented, diminished, etc. These moveable chords can be strummed or arpeggiated on the bass. Playing these shapes on the higher frets, e.g. fret seven and above, will produce a clearer and more defined tone than playing on the lower frets. The higher the chords are played the less clashing of low end frequencies occurs.

However, because the distance between the frets on a bass guitar is much larger than on a guitar, finger stretching can be a problem, especially in the middle of the bass and on the lowest frets. If you are playing a long scale bass, playing in the higher frets will help this situation, or alternatively, you may want to try a short-scale bass. Typically, the neck of a short-scale bass is four inches shorter than a long scale bass, which means that the frets will be closer together.

#4 Activating the strings 

The process of activating the strings, i.e. plucking or strumming, is the same for both instruments. Bass chords can be strummed with a pick, thumb, or fingers. Practically speaking, as mentioned above, although it is technically possible to do this with a bass chord, the musical result of strumming the bass, due to the clashing of the low frequency notes, may create an undesirable musical effect. Remember, if you play higher on the fretboard, i.e. above fret seven, you will achieve more clarity between the notes when playing a chord.

#5 Arpeggios

Arpeggios are a technique where the individual notes of a chord are played one after the other, usually from the lowest tone to the highest. Musically, this is a very beautiful and creative way to play a chord in a melodic way. Usually, when playing arpeggios on the guitar, it is desirable to let the strings continue to ring as the new note of the chord is sounded; this creates a melodic and chordal sound.

However, because of the low frequencies of the bass, the overlapping of the low tones of the chord can create a “muddy” or undefined sound, especially on the lower frets. To solve this problem, the individual notes of the arpeggiated chord can be cancelled before the next note of the chord is played. This can be done simply by releasing the finger to stop the note from ringing. Alternatively, holding down the notes of the arpeggiated chord will sound clearer when playing on or above the twelfth fret of the bass.

#6 Power Chords

Power chords work really well on the bass. A power chord is typically a two note chord that only uses the root and fifth of a chord. The interval of a root and a fifth, i.e. the distance between the two notes, is wide enough so that the frequencies of the two notes do not clash. Power chords can be used on the bass, especially in heavier music, to take over the role of the guitar player when it’s time for the guitar solo or to “fatten” up the sound by doubling the power chords being played by the guitarist.

#7 Chord Inversions

Chord inversions are a great way to create variety in chord progressions. When a note of the chord, that is not the root note, is played as the lowest tone of the chord, it is called a chord inversion. You will see chord inversions on lead sheets like this: G/B. This indicates that a G chord is to be played, but the lowest note when played will be the the second note of the G chord- the B. Bass players can play chord inversions just like the guitarist, but for reasons indicated above, it is not musically practical.

However, with a little bit of music theory knowledge, a bass player can play either the second or third note of the chord instead of the root note. This creates harmonic variety because the bass is not always playing the root note of the chord. When the second note of the chord is played as the lowest tone, it is called the first inversion, and when the third note of the chord is played as the lowest tone, it is called the second inversion, e.g. G chord = GBD: 1st inversion G/B, 2nd inversion G/D.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.