The bass guitar is the 4-stringed, baritone sibling of the 6 string guitar. Holding a bass guitar is basically the same as holding an acoustic or electric guitar, although a bass guitar is generally a little bit bigger.
Though its size may seem a bit intimidating, fret not! It is a simple and fun instrument to learn and is played in much the same way as a regular guitar.
If you’re unfamiliar with playing any sort of guitar or bass, follow these steps to get yourself playing in no time:
- Choose the correct handedness bass. For most people, this is a standard, right handed bass, meaning the neck is held with the left hand, and the strings are plucked/strummed with your right hand.
- If you are seated, sit on a stool or chair without arms. Place the body of the bass guitar on your right thigh, and support the neck with your left hand. If you are standing, adjust your strap. Attach your strap and adjust it so that the bass hangs in a comfortable place where you have a free range of motion with your arms to fret and pick/pluck the strings. You should not be supporting the weight of the bass with your arms. Let the shoulder strap take most of the weight.
- Place your fretting hand. Grab the neck with your left hand, using your fingers to fret different notes on the neck.
- Determine your picking style and place your right hand. How you want to play the bass (picked, plucked, slapped, etc.) will determine your right hand’s position. A good place to start is to fingerpick the strings, resting your thumb on the top of the pickup, or on a thumb rest (if your bass has one).
Let’s dive into exactly how to hold a bass by following these detailed steps:
How to Hold a Bass Guitar – Detailed Steps
These instructions are for a ‘regular,’ right-handed bass. If you are playing a left handed bass, the instructions are the same, but the orientation is simpy reversed.
Choose the correct handedness bass
Most people play right handed, meaning that the frets are played with the left hand and the strings are plucked/strummed with the right hand.
Often times, this is determined by your natural handedness (ie. a right handed player plays a right handed/regular handed guitar, and a left handed player plays a left handed guitar), but it is best to try out both if you are unsure.
If both feel unnatural, then it is probably best to choose a right handed bass to learn on. This will be advantageous later on, since there are many more options for right handed guitars and basses than left handed.
If you are playing while seated…
Playing while seated is a great way to practice. Bass guitars can be heavy and fatiguing to have slung around your neck for long practice sessions.
Finding the right stool or chair is important. Using a stool or chair (or couch) without arms is preferable so that there are no arms to bump the guitar on, allowing for the maximum amount of freedom while playing.
If you can find a seat that allows you to have your feet flat on the floor with your legs at a roughly 90° angle (or use a footstool to get your legs in that position), the bass will sit very comfortably. Alternatively, you can sit cross legged on the floor with the bass.
The bass is held in the same way as a regular guitar. For a right handed bassist, the body of the guitar will sit on the right leg with the neck of the guitar extending to the player’s left. This allows the player to easily strum/pluck the strings with the right hand, and fret on the neck with the left hand.
In a seated position, the bass should be balanced in a way that the neck does not fall below horizontal. Play around with the bass’s position on your leg to find where it is most balanced and comfortable.
If you are playing standing up…
If you prefer to stand while playing, you will need an adjustable shoulder strap for your bass.
The height that you want the bass to sit at is up to you, so feel free to adjust and find what is comfortable. Depending on your style of play, you may want it to sit higher up towards the chest or lower towards the hips.
To check if the bass is sitting comfortably, hold the neck with your left hand to fret, and place your right hand in a position to strum or pluck the strings.
If it feels like you are stretching or straining to play, or conversely, feel too cramped, adjust the strap accordingly. Repeat this until you are satisfied with the position of the bass.
- Read More: How to Attach a Guitar Strap (for Different Guitar Types)
Place your fretting hand
Your left hand should comfortably hold the bass neck. All your fingers should be pointing upwards, with your thumb on the back of the neck so you can fret the strings in a pinching motion.
Unlike the guitar, bassists very rarely play thumb over, so be sure to position your hand in a way that is relaxed and provides a good range of motion for your fingers over the fretboard.
Place your picking/plucking hand
Your right hand is used to strum, pick, slap, pop, or pluck the bass strings. There are many different ways to play the bass that will vary the position of your right hand.
A good place to start is by strumming individual strings with either a pick, your thumb, or your fingers.
For each of these methods, you will get the most consistent tone if you strum the string near the middle of the bass’s body, roughly halfway between the bridge and where the neck connects to the body (if you are unfamiliar with guitar anatomy, you can check out our article on parts of an electric guitar).
If you are fingerpicking with your index and middle fingers, you can use the top of the pickup to rest your thumb on and make a “walking” motion with your fingers to play the strings.
If you are using a pick, you can rest your palm on the strings near the bridge, which will give you control over the dynamics (loudness) and tone of the notes. You can play around with the palm positioning here to get more or less note sustain.
Playing with your palm on the strings will act as a mute (which is a technique called palm muting), so if you want longer notes, make sure that your palm is not resting on the string that you are trying to play.
If you are playing with your thumb, you can rest your palm on the strings in a way that allows you to play the strings with the side of your thumb. Similarly to picking, you can use your palm to palm mute notes to change their tone and sustain.
How to Hold a Bass Guitar – FAQs
If you’re new to playing the bass guitar, you can also check out these other common questions so that you get it right and get the best results.
Where do you put your fingers on a bass guitar?
For a regular handed bass, the left hand fingers are used for fretting, and the right hand is used for picking, strumming, plucking, slapping etc.
When fingerpicking the bass, many bassists will rest their thumbs on the top of a pickup to get more consistency, power, and leverage.
Some basses have a rectangular, plastic thumb rest on the pickguard above the low E string for this purpose. Some basses will also have a similar rectangular plastic piece below the strings, often called a “tug bar.” This is to be used as a grip for your fingers when playing with your thumb.
Whether or not you decide to use any of these rests or not is up to you. If using one of these aids helps get the sound, comfort or consistency that you like, then by all means use it!
What angle is best to hold a bass guitar?
The best angle is whatever is comfortable for you, though the bass guitar is typically played horizontally, or with the neck slightly tipped upwards.
Bass guitar necks are longer than a regular guitar neck, so playing with the bass’s neck tipped up a bit is often the most comfortable and puts the least amount of stress on your left arm.
Having the neck angle slightly upwards can also be helpful to avoid bumping into things while walking around.
Do you have to use a strap with a bass guitar?
When seated, you do not need a strap to play the bass. Depending on the model of bass and the weight distribution between the neck and the body, sometimes a strap can be useful when playing seated to keep the bass from tilting one way or the other.
When playing standing however, you will need a strap. Bass guitars are generally larger and heavier (on average) than solid body electric guitars, so trying to play standing without a strap is unsustainable for more than a short period of time.
If you are going to play the bass standing up most of the time, invest in a good quality strap that is highly adjustable.
Strap length and bass position while standing and playing is a personal preference that usually boils down to comfort and range of motion.
What height should I play my bass at when standing?
Many rock and punk bassists play their bass at hip height or lower, which can be more comfortable for picking, but not as comfortable for playing styles such as slap.
On the other end of the spectrum, bassists who specialize in jazz or slap bass will sometimes have the body of the bass up very high on their body (near the chest) for more control.
It all comes down to personal preference, so feel free to adjust and see what works for you and your style.
Holding a bass guitar is very similar to holding a regular guitar. Most of the finer details of hand/arm/finger positioning will depend on what feels comfortable to you and what style of music you are playing.
If you are new to playing the bass, the fundamental positions are simple to learn and can easily be varied as you gain more confidence and experience with the instrument.