10 October 2008

Learn to Play Alternating Bass

This lesson shows you how to play alternating bass rhythms with open chords. Alternating bass is an easy way to add some bass movement to your chord accompaniments that will really make them swing.

The lesson is in three parts:

  1. What is alternating bass?
  2. How to play alternating bass.
  3. Bass notes you can use for common open chords.

Let's get started right away by discovering what alternating bass is all about.

What is Alternating Bass?

In the alternating bass style you play two different bass notes along with your chord strums. You play the two notes in turn, or alternate between them in other words, hence the name of this style.

One of the bass notes will almost always be the root note of the chord. The other can be any of the chord's other notes, but the most common are the fifth or the third of the chord. The fifth note gives your accompaniment a lively sound with lots of movement so it's good for up tempo, happy pieces.

The third note can be used where it's more convenient to play or if you want to emphasize the major or minor quality of the chord.

How to Play Alternating Bass

You can play alternating bass using a pick or your thumb (for the bass) and fingers (for the strums). I suggest you try to learn both techniques, they will give you different sounds to use.

To get started, practice the picking hand rhythm pattern. By putting all your attention on the strumming hand you'll make it easier. You can finger just one chord with your other hand if you want, but don't worry about chord changes to start with.

You are going to use two different strings for the rhythm part. This is a very common way to play alternating bass notes. Later you may learn some accompaniments that involve fretting different notes on the same string. But keep things simple for now.

So, let's get started with a simple four beat rhythm. Play the bass notes on beats one and three, strums on beats two and four, like this bass, strum, bass, strum...

Remember to play one bass string on beat one, and another on beat three. Choose the pair of strings you are going to pick in advance. For example, sixth and fifth string, sixth and fourth, fifth and fourth. Hit the top three to five strings for the strums.

Practice this picking hand technique for a while until you are comfortable with it.

Bass Notes You Can Use For Common Open Chords

Now you know how to play picking rhythms for alternating bass. But what bass notes do you pick on what strings?

The table below shows you the root and fifth bass notes you can use with easy open chord positions.

Chord Root Fifth
D D - open 4th string A - open 5th string
G G - 3rd fret 6th string D - open 4th string
A A - open 5th string E - open 6th string or 2nd fret 4th string
C C - 3rd fret 5th string G - 3rd fret 6th string
E E - open 6th string B - 2nd fret 5th string

You might need to learn a new fingering for the C chord. Play it with the third (ring) finger of your fretting hand on the G at the third fret of the sixth string and use your little (pinky) finger to play the root C note you normally play with the third finger. If this is too difficult for you simply alternate the C bass note with the third, E, on the second fret of the fourth string. You can use the normal C chord position for this.

Now you have all you need to play alternating bass style with these open position beginner guitar chords. Let's review what we've learned in the lesson.

  1. Alternating bass uses two bass notes that alternate on different beats.
  2. How to play alternating bass rhythms with either pick or fingers.
  3. Bass notes you can use for common open chords.

Time to go to your practice room and work on those alternating bass strumming rhythms now. Practice with all of the chords and bass notes you learned above. Start slow and focus on getting your strumming action accurate and smooth.

Leave a comment using the link below if you have any problems or questions and I'll try to help you.

If you enjoyed this lesson you might like this one on How to Play Bass Strum.


How to Play Bass Guitar said...

Good Post! I would like to thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are putting very good effort into the stuff you post. Keep up the good work

Gary Fletcher said...

Hi, Thanks for the encouragement. I'll keep trying my best to deliver useful guitar tips.

Acoustic Guitar Chords for Beginners said...

Thanks for this post Gary, I love it! This is one of the best lessons on learning to play alternating bass that I have come across.

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