Bass Note Savvy

As a guitarist who has always played with my fingers, as opposed to picks, I have always been very interested in bass notes. My right-hand thumb is always free to go looking for bottom end notes, and I’d like to pass on some of what I know.

We all associate bass notes with root notes. It certainly makes sense to play, for example, an E note as the bass note of an E chord, or a D note as the bass note of a D chord — after all, that’s the note which names the chord. But what about the other notes that make up a chord? Simple chords consist of the I, III and V of the scale, I being the root note. Can the III and V be used as bass notes also?

They sure can. Let’s use G as an example. A simple G chord consists of G(1), B (3) and D (5), and is written “G”. If we want to use the 3 as a bass note, we would write G/B, pronounced “G over B”, meaning “a G chord sitting on top of a B note”; if we want to use the V as a bass note, we write “G/D”, meaning “a G chord sitting on top of a D note”. All three are G chords, but all have a different context. These chords are sometimes referred to as “slash chords”, because of the “/” used when naming them.

Go to this lesson page for a look and listen to what I’m talking about. I’ve loaded up some RealAudio files of an example progression. I play the chords normally first, then play them using alternate bass notes. The example uses the III as the bass notes of a few of the chords, and you should be able to hear the difference.

This lesson highlights the need to be able to zero in on chord notes in terms of their scale value. The 1, or root, or tonic, is always easy to spot, the 3 and 5 need to be memorized in the context of the chord shape. Once you can pinpoint the scale values of all notes in a chord shape, you will then be able to visualize the scale notes that surround the chords. This is an integral part of being able to improvise, whether chords, melody or harmony.

Have fun with this one. It will open up a whole new world of “inversions” for you to look into, inversions being the term used for this alternate order of chord notes. For simple chords, the usual inversion is (from bass to treble) One Three Five. The other two are Three Five One, and Five One Three. You should always investigate the sounds of these inversions in the context of the piece of music. More often than not, there’s a more interesting way of “voicing” your chords.

Don’t forget, the ‘trick’ to keeping track of music, including all the above, is revealed in my book PlaneTalk — The Truly Totally Different Guitar Instruction Book, and demonstrated on the video. If you want to save yourself years of poking around the fretboard looking for the “constant”, the one landmark that everything else refers to, I divulge the one I discovered in this package.

Kirk Lorange is one of Australia’s best know slide guitarists. He is also the author of PlaneTalk guitar method. Check out his sites: and