In 2002, I was the vocalist in an electronic band called Anorkia.
On a few of my online bios back then, I listed my occupation as “musician.”
Someone once made fun of me for that, because they knew I didn’t know anything about music. I was just feeling my way through the dark.
Now, fifteen years later in 2017, I am finally learning more about music.
I’ve been gifted a beautiful bass guitar for my birthday, and my friend Dave (and my other friend, the Internet) is teaching me how to play.
Which is quite a job, because I knew next-to-nothing when I started.
Which is actually quite thrilling for me, because every little thing I pick up on is a revelation.
Speaking of picking things up…
The pickup is where the vibrations of the strings are absorbed so that they can be converted into an electrical signal to be sent through the instrument cable.
Some guitars have multiple pickups, as seen below.
I do not know the benefits of this, or the mechanics of how pickups work exactly.
Heck, I do not even know what those knobs do. All in due time.
Even after some research, I’m pretty much unclear on the bridge’s exact function in the context of an electric bass guitar.
It seems that on acoustic guitars, the bridge channels the sound vibration into the body of the guitar, serving as amplification.
Anyone reading this, feel free to correct me on anything I’m off base/bass about.
Along the neck’s surface is the fret board, or fingerboard.
The frets are metal lines along the fret board. The space between each fret is called an interval, which delineates semitones (or half steps).
So, the basic goal in playing bass:
Choose notes by holding the strings down on the frets with my left fingers, while strumming, plucking, or picking with my right hand, down near the pickup.
Which is great and all. But how do I know which notes are which? And how does someone with an untrained ear have a breakthrough to make all this more intuitive?
One of my first major tasks with bass is to memorize the sequence of the notes. It seemed daunting at first, but there’s rhyme and reason in it.
Each string on its own, without any pressure applied at a fret, is called an open note.
The open notes go like this:
When I am playing, the E-string is closest to my eyes, and the G-string is furthest away.
So, I used an acronym as a memory tool.
Just my way of memorizing open notes while fortifying my faith in the human race.
So I work my way up and down through the open notes over and over, saying aloud (and attempting to match my voice to the sound of each note), “Every Asshole Does Good,” “E, A, D, G,” and then backwards, “G, D, A, E,” “Grand Dogs Arf Euphorically (or whatever).”
Pretty simple so far, but where it gets tricky for me is learning how holding down on each fret alters the note.
It’s important to understand the sequence of notes. But before that, it’s vital to comprehend sharps and flats.
Basically, a sharp (#) is moving up one semitone (remember, the space between two adjacent frets is a semitone), while a flat (b) is moving down one semitone.
If you’re new to this like me, that may be confusing. But hang in there with me for a sec.
It makes more sense when you look at the sequence of notes.
A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab
If the sharp/flat symbols are disorienting, here it is written out:
A, A sharp/B flat, B, C, C sharp/D flat, D, D sharp/E flat, E, F, F sharp/G flat, G, G sharp/A flat
Note that the sharps and flats are the same notes, and that there are 12 notes over all.
On a piano, the sharps/flats are the black keys.
I found that the black keys made it easier to grasp the concept, even though I’m learning bass guitar.
If you look at the picture above, you’ll see the first note is C. So, the next semitone up is C# (sharp).
However, if you go down one semitone from D, you’d call that Db (flat) even though it’s also C# (sharp).
Because sharp is up, and flat is down. Which is actually still true even if you’re on the F note. If you go flat (down) from F, that puts you at E. If you go sharp from E, you land on F.
For some reason, there are no notes called B sharp/C flat or E sharp/F flat.
I found that to be quite confusing at first, but it got a lot easier with spaced repetition.
So, back to bass.
If I know the open notes (E, A, D, G) and I have the entire sequence of notes memorized, all that’s left is knowing that the first fret up at the top of the neck moves each open note up one semitone.
In other words, if I press down on the uppermost fret while plucking the E-string, I’ll get a note that is one semitone higher than E.
What’s one semitone higher than E?
Well, let’s look again:
A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab
One semitone higher than E is F.
So plucking the E-string with my fingers pressed down on the uppermost fret will result in the F note.
Which means the second highest fret on the neck will get me an F#/Gb.
So what note will I get if I pluck the A-string while holding down on the uppermost fret?
And then B if I press down on the second fret while plucking the A-string. And so on.
A fluid trip through all 12 notes in succession is called the working the chromatic scale. Practicing the chromatic scale is useful for identifying each note by ear, and working on different finger placement techniques.
But I have a confession to make…
I have absolutely no idea how to properly tune my guitar.
Do I just twist the tuny-knobby thingys until each open note sounds right?
Will my ears know when it sounds right? What does it even mean for a note to sound right, and what are the existential implications of this? Before matter existed, were there quantum seeds for sound vibrations floating around in space waiting to wake up and rock out? Where do babies come from, and why do they poop so much?
Just a few of the questions we’ll be analyzing and playing around with over time.
Next up, guitar tuning and training my ears. Or basically, whatever else I feel like writing about.
In the meantime, enjoy some Dr. Green.
Also published on Medium.