Want to learn the bass fingerboard?

You’ve got to try this!

By Jon Liebman
September 15, 2023

I don’t know about you, but when I was first learning bass, I had my “familiar places” and my “unfamiliar” places on the instrument’s fingerboard.

My comfort zone was usually limited to frets zero to five. On a good day, it may have gone all the way to seven. Woo-hoo!

Once I got north of those spots, though, I felt totally lost.

One reason the bass is so cool

When I look back, it seems odd that that should have been the case. After all, the bass is tuned consistently up and down, all in fourths. It’s not like a guitar with that B string, or a piano with all those black keys.

The bass is cool that way. In fact, if you can play something anywhere on the bass, in most cases you can play it everywhere on the bass.

So why all that unfamiliarity?

I was talking with Dan Lutz a couple weeks ago, a veteran of the LA session scene, in a conversation published as this week’s FBPO interview.

During our talk, Dan shared an exercise his teacher used to have him do that helped his fingerboard knowledge tremendously.

There’s more than one play to play that note

“I remember,” says Dan, “my early bass teacher would tell me that before I could do anything I had to find a note in three different places on the bass. Not octaves, but the same note in the same register in three different places.”

Have you ever tried that? It’s a very handy skill to have. Once you get it down, the end results are amazing.

“And then he would make me play scales using a pattern,” Dan continues, “and he would make me move that pattern somewhere else. As I played, I had to say every note out loud. I would watch my hand and watch where those (notes) are. Eventually I could train myself.”

Here’s how you start

When you think about it, the relationships between the notes are the same no matter where you are on the bass. You start by meticulously finding the right places to put your fingers, then memorizing the names of the notes.

Dan remembers going through that process very well.

“It’s monotonous at first,” he says, “but you memorize where that F# is on the A string versus the D string versus the G string, and you know where those octaves are.”

Once you get that system down, you can transfer that skill anywhere on the bass.

“I had to do that in all 12 keys,” Dan remembers, “in two different places every time, saying every note.”

It works like a charm

Dan says this advice can do wonders for anyone learning bass and it will get you very familiar with the entire bass fingerboard.

“Say the notes as you’re playing them,” he advises, “because if you can get familiar with that middle part of the bass, specifically across the strings, like 4th, 5th fret all the way across, you can really open up your vocabulary.”

Not only that, but it will strengthen your grasp of some basic music theory concepts too.

“After playing for 20-some years,” Dan says, “I have a lot of muscle memory, so I know where (the) notes are and I don’t have to look. I know what a minor third feels like, I know what a fifth feels like and all that.”

How about you?

Do you ever have that, Whoa, where am I? feeling when you move up the bass fingerboard? Leave a comment below and let me know what’s helped you. And by all means, give this method a try. The results can be startling!

Be sure to check out my interview with Dan too. You’ll find it here.

Special announcement: Navigating the bass fingerboard is one of the areas thoroughly covered in my brand new digital course, Bass Guitar for the Rocker in You, coming in October. Watch for details.

Comments on Want to learn the bass fingerboard?

  1. Celia Bradley says:

    I learnt a great method from Todd Johnson’s courses – basically you play one octave scales through the Cycle of 4ths, with roots all on the same string, ascending then descending – so you really have to learn to target all the roots quickly to keep up with Todd as he plays through the Cycle. Next you play the scales descending first, then ascending – that’s the catch because then you have to learn where all the roots are on a different string, according to which scale pattern you’re using (there are 3 courses each teaching a different pattern) – I found this hard at first because I was used to learning scales ascending first. Next you play the arpeggios, first ascending-descending then descending-ascending (each time you run through the Cycle of 4ths). You will do this for the major scales, then the minor scales, then the dominant (Mixolydian) scales. You do this as a regular practice routine (you don’t have to do the whole lot every time) and by the time you’ve covered 3 scales (+ the arpeggios) using 3 patterns, through every key round the Cycle and starting on a different string for each run through, you will have covered every note on the fretboard just about. No open strings are used so sometimes you’ll have to go higher up the neck to fit in the whole scale pattern – basically you can choose where to start as long as you start on the same string for each key (for each run through of the Cycle) and you can fit in the whole pattern. You can also say the name of the root note as you play it – because you have to play in time you learn to target the notes and you build up the tempo. It sounds a bit complicated when I try to explain it but really it’s straight forward once you get into it. It has worked well for me in learning the fretboard – It also helps to get the sound of the different scales and arpeggios in your ear and you end up learning the Cycle of 4ths off by heart – I can also tell if I go wrong because the Cycle sounds so perfect when you play it right (I think that’s amazing!). Writing this has reminded me I need to get back to practising it some more!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      That sounds awesome, Celia! The more ways you practice and the deeper you take it, the better your command of the fingerboard and knowing where all the notes are. I used to something similar, like walking through blues and rhythm changes, changing keys after each chorus. In addition to playing through the circle of 4ths, try the reverse and do the circle of 5ths. You could also move up chromatically, one fret at a time. I’m glad you also mentioned starting from the top down instead of always going from the bottom up. There’s always a hesitation, at first, from students when they do that as they’re not used to playing that way. Great stuff, Celia. Thanks again!

  2. Rick Bevan says:

    A friend of mine, Paul Rogalski used to hold group seminars as such.
    One of the exercises he gave us called “Get to know the notes”
    That same practice you just described. Good stuff
    On another note, I have looked high and low thru my puter and laptop for that exercise you gave me: It was tunes with the bass removed. I believe you sent it electronically.
    Unfortunately, I haven’t done much of later; what with COVID and all that other crap of that era, I was just so angry with all the “protocols” we had to do.
    “I’ll show ‘em alright, I won’t play my bass for 3 years. 😂😂
    My biggest problem is I have no organization skills that are remarkable, so I can’t structure a practice routine. NUTZ, huh?

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Rick. Organizing your practice schedule doesn’t have to be hard. It starts with your priorities and what you most want to learn. My teacher used to have me keep a practice log where I would write down everything I’d intended to practice each day. For example, it could be, say, 15 minutes for scales and arpeggios, 10 minutes for string crossing exercises, 20 minutes for a Vivaldi sonata I was working on, etc. The key is to write it down BEFORE your practice and check things off as you go. It helped me a lot!

  3. Duck says:

    In my experience (55 years), the best way to learn the neck is to read standard notation, which provides many additional benefits—theory, rhythm, score following, dynamics, not watching your hands, etc.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great advice, Duck. Thanks!

  4. Leela Kuo says:

    Take any riff, and run it through the cycle confining yourself to say frets 5-10. You’ll learn the fretboard pretty quick. Of course, the next week/month, you move to 8-12. (All from Ari’s Pattern system.)

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Yes! That’s a great discipline. Thanks, Leela.

  5. Celia Bradley says:

    That’s a great idea Duck, so long as you read the notation without the tab, and learn all your unisons and octaves so you can play it in lots of different places on the fretboard, not just stuck in one position.

  6. Celia Bradley says:

    Thank you Leela for reminding me of Ariane Cap’s Patterns – I’ve got that book/course and I keep forgetting about it – there’s so much to practice, I’m overwhelmed!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Ariane’s great.

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