Did You Know That The Bass is a Transposing Instrument?

transposing instrument bass

What is a Transposing Instrument?

Transposing means porting a piece of music into a different key or range. Some instruments are “transposing instruments” which means that the note written on the score is, in fact, not the pitch that is sounding.

There are two main reasons why there are “transposing instruments”

1 • Ease of Operation!

Do you remember the recorder from elementary school? When the notes said “middle C” you put all your fingers down and a C sounded. Now let’s say you practiced really well and graduated to alto flute. The alto flute is a bit longer and larger and when you place all your fingers over the wholes, an F below middle C sounds. So now you had to tear out your hair and relearn all the fingerings.

In contrast, if you learned the flute, which has quite a few keys and a more complex fingering system, you learned that all fingers down meant “C”. Then you switched to alto flute, where all fingers down is a G below the staff. In this case, however, people decided it would be more economical to just transpose the score, so the flutist does not need to relearn all the complex fingering on the flute, whew. So, they would write a C when they wanted a low G and they would write an F if they wanted a C to sound. All we need to do is change the score and the fingerings for the flutist remain the same. The alto flute, then, is a transposing instrument that is written a fourth higher than it sounds. Great!

2 • Range!

Ledger lines! Okay, so how do you feel about reading this, for example (a four-string bass actually has those pitches):

or how about this (a five-string bass has these sounds):


The above are bass lines written on a piano staff (non-transposing). Na, thanks! Too many ledger lines. So, the convention is to notate the bass an octave higher with the understanding that what we hear is an octave lower.

The examples from above look like this when the bass clef is meant for the bass player (it is still a piano staff):


So much easier to read!

Of course, there are also quick notation shortcuts that can help us, whenever we need octave transposition – such as this “8va” (“octava”) sign, which says: play an octave higher than written.

The opposite – “8vb” or “octava basso” – also occurs and it looks like this (find it underneath the staff):

We don’t use these shortcuts often for bass, though, because they are cumbersome and would be over the entire staff anyways. Or most of it. And then we have to flip octaves.

Basically, whenever bassists read music our score always has such an “8vb” sign implied over the entire score because we take it down one octave, play it in effect an octave lower than written. Sometimes you can see a tiny number 8 below (or above) a clef, which is also pointing to the same octave displacement:


What This Means:

It means that the Bass is a transposing instrument that transposes an octave down. Said differently: the (electric) bass is written an octave higher than it sounds.

  • Know the range of your bass. If you look over a pianist’s shoulder and see them read the low E, they will sound an octave higher than you do.
  • When you play piano or cello pieces on your bass, take the notes up an octave to match the range!
  • Here is your low end:
  • Some instruments transpose by as little as just a whole step (Bb trumpet, Bb clarinet); or by as much as an octave plus a whole step(tenor sax for example).

  • Others by a major sixth or minor third plus octaves up or down (alto sax, bari sax).

  • Other instruments use specific clefs that help their range stay readable and without too many ledger lines, such as the alto (viola) or tenor clefs (cello at times, bassoon).

  • And yet others by just an octave, such as us bass players and on the other end of the spectrum, the piccolo flute.

Range is the Rage

It is so cool that our hearing affords us such a wide frequency spectrum. That way we can spread out lower and higher frequencies and everything in between without getting too much low end rumble (unless that is the effect we are looking for) or without getting lost in ethereal ethers of thin sounding high notes (unless, again, that is the effect we are going for, it’s beautiful if used well). And then we can combine everything in between for beautiful variations and effects.

There are a lot of notes – the piano for example reaches from “A0” all the way up to “C8” (that’s counting the lowest A as the “zero range”, with numbers switching each time at the note C;) “middle C” – the one between bass and treble clefs and the first note we learn on the piano – is then “C4”. There are different systems of counting octaves, but this is one that is used a lot in the USA and is also the International Scientific Pitch standard. (So please, everybody in the Yamaha camp, come on board and accept middle C as C4 already!)

What gets me is as a low ender is that the piano has two notes on us, even when we bring the five string. So jealous! I have friends who remedy that situation and manage to win the “race to the bottom” (so to speak) by exploring additional low strings on extended range basses or tunings as low as the C# below the B (that is C#0)!  Check out sub-contra bassist Jauquo-iii X’sC# Theory” for example.

Can you find “Middle C” on your bass?

Hint: Take what you read as middle C and place it up the octave. All basses (including 20-fretters) have that note. A six string even has another C on top of that.

For more info on the range of the bass check out Chapter 2 in my book, Music Theory for the Bass Player. That page 11 is quite the infamous page with my crew – we had to finagle and wrangle it quite a bit to make it all fit. Enjoy!

To learn more Music Theory for the Bass Player, check out our 20 unit course!

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Bach for Two Times Two

Bach for Two

Bach me up!

Need Bach up? Alright, enough with the puns, let’s get to some serious shedding. Bassists have loved playing Bach’s music on the electric for eons – be it the famous cello suite number 1 , pieces from the Welltempered Clavier or others – JS’s bass lines rock! There is something about the function of the bass in baroque music that seems to strike a chord with electric bassists – maybe it is the rhythmic function and the outlining of the harmonies in walking bass that are a bit akin to figured bass, who knows.

So, from a technique standpoint, it can be pretty daunting to attempt a JSB piece – these pieces are often composed for cello (tuned in fifths, so there is less jumping around to get to the notes!) or piano (five fingers and two hands!), so yes, they can be pretty challenging.

If reading is not quite yet your forte you might be tempted to not even try.

I hope to change this sentiment by inspiring you to give it a go!

Because: I have selected a couple of easy but sweet sounding piano pieces and arranged them for bass, included TAB, and – what’s more – made it so you can play this with a bass buddy! Twice the fun, twice the motivation, twice the learning!

These videos and transcriptions first appeared on notreble in my Talking Technique series.

The notreble posts contain the PDF with TAB in a variety of versions – pick the one that is easiest for you to read.

Give it a go – you may be surprised just how much fun that is!

Oh, and if you want more, let me know in the comments.

Also if you are into Bach resources, check out this cool site on the Cello Suites For Bass Guitar.

Bach for Two

Get the Transcription for Bach for Two (PDF)


Bach for Two in Three

Get the Transcription for Bach for Two in Three (PDF)


Enjoy! If you want to learn music theory – the first step to learning to read on the electric bass in my opinion – I recommend my Course, Music Theory for the Bass Player

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Why Should I Practice Technique? I Just Want to Learn Songs…


Why should I practice Technique? Isn’t it a waste of time and much better to practice songs instead?

Whenever I heard that argument I used to throw my hands up and say – I don’t even know where to begin!

It seems that saying – Nike style – “just do it” is a faster way to get an answer to this question than trying to put this reasoning into words. But it is a fair question, so I sat down and did think about where to begin…

The thing about tech practice is,

it tends to have a bad rap in the electric bass world. When I studied classical upright, piano, flute and the others, there was no question about the value of practicing technique. Some teachers would even go to such great lengths that they would forbid any kind of “song” playing until a technique milestone was reached. Now that, in my book, is overdoing the importance of technique a bit.

I remember when I started playing piano

my teachers had this terrible contraption that they would hang around my neck (it was made of paper that would connect to the book on the piano so the student could not see the fingers on the keys! It was a bit of a torture, and what they had me play in that book did not sound very good to boot. But it did help me find my keys without looking very fast and effectively.

No worries, I am not suggesting drapes around your neck or blankets over your bass neck… but:

How can we do useful tech exercises, keep them fun, musical, applicable and practical?

Read about

  • why I love tech exercises
  • several unexpected advantages they provide such as a welcome change of pace and not getting tired of the music
  • how tech can aid learning in chunks and hence memorizing
  • how these exercises develop discipline, set the mood and boost confidence
  • the musical elements of tech practice – how technique exercises help us make sense of musical elements and help us keep the music flowing by singling out the technical challenges
  • the high musical relevance of technical exercises
  • the power of relaxed playing

and much more. This article is an easy, bullet-point, 10-minute read that contains lots of additional links and resources. Check it all out, do a few exercises for a few minutes over the course of a few days and then let me know if you are still thinking about

  • whether doing technique exercises is useless or powerful,
  • boring or a fun challenge,
  • musically a waste of time or rather musically highly relevant…

What do you think?

Read the article

The featured image of this post is from my book, Music Theory for the Bass Player – yes, it is a theory book, but when talking theory on the fretboard it is prudent to do these fingerings with good technique, so there is lots of technique info in the book.

Good bass technique in my view can be summarized by following a few simple principles. We are all built differently so some details vary from person to person, while others stay the same and are quite accessible – check out this handy learn-graph!.

To change bad habits fast and effectively, check out my PORA technique.

Technique practice does not need to be complicated! As Nike says – Just do it!

To practice technique systematically with me (just pop in the video and practice along) check out the Finger Kung Fu section of my Course, Music Theory for the Bass Player; 20 units chock full of technique, theory and bass line creation!

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

How to Become Great in Just Two Minutes a Day?

habits Ariane Cap

Before you think this is some sort of hype – hear me out. There is good science behind this…

The Tiny Habits® method developed by Stanford Behavior Design Lab’s lead BJ Fogg is a simple, easy, quick and powerful method for developing habits.

  • Behavior Scientist BJ Fogg, PhD, teaches us that if something is hard to do, the motivation needs to be high to do it. High motivation takes effort, is often problematic to sustain and, well, hard.
  • If something is easier to do (or at least to start), it does not take as much motivation to do it.
  • If we celebrate small successes we create positive feedback loops that make it easier and easier to do what you want to and form the habit. One important conclusion from this is that habits are not formed by repetition but by positive emotions.

BJ has developed a fascinating, easy to do and powerful method based on the above principles, as part of what he calls the Fogg Behavior Model. This method can help us develop practice habits, habits of thinking as well as improve our bass playing, theory knowledge, and overall attitude when playing. As I have noted before, a self-supportive attitude is key to help us succeed!

May I have 2 Minutes of Your Time, Please?

Not even in one go, but spread out over the course of the day!

Please Suspend Judgment for a Moment and Try This:

  • After you close the restroom door you pause for a second and recite the note names of the A string ascending using sharps where needed. Then flats descending.
  • After you get up from dinner you plug in your bass and play one permutation or permutation variation up the A string.
  • Every time you are alone in your car and after you stop at a red light or in traffic*, imagine playing through the roots of the cycle of falling fifths keeping the notes on the E and A strings only.

The above sentences are written in the form of Tiny Habit® “recipes” – it is important that they work for your specific behaviors that you want to work on, and there is a bit more to it than meets the eye. The trick is to get the “anchor moment” right

  • after I come out of the restroom,
  • after I put my morning coffee cup in the sink,

… similar everyday occurrences like these that have a precisely defined end to them…

Quoting from BJ:

This concept of “after” is important. You won’t reliably form a habit until you know where the new behavior fits in your life — what it comes after.

For more in-depth information Tiny Habits® offers fantastic free coaching. If you’d like to join over 40.000 people who have done this and transformed their lives, check it out! I recommend my friend and excellent coach Shirl Rivera, sign up with her here!

As for the bass specific part of the recipe

…make it tiny as well as just hard enough. Not too easy, not too tough. Not too long, not too short. Just right. 30 seconds is a good starting point.

So, maybe the cycle is total news to you and you need a print out in your pocket to get through it the first five, ten times. Fine! No problem, use the “cheat sheet”. If you know the cycle cold on those two strings, come up with additional challenges, such as: stay in a designated four fret span to do this; or limit yourself to one string; or two other strings.

Pick something that is a bit hard, but you can figure it out. If not the cycle, pick a scale. Know C major ascending, no problem? Try Gb major descending. Maybe harmonic minor. Or the modes of melodic minor. Come up with your own ways to challenge yourself, the possibilities are endless and just thinking about these exercises in itself is a great exercise! You can also learn songs that way. If you need help, reach out and book a lesson with me.

Don’t you think after a week of doing this hard but valuable thing every single day, several times during the day, you will start to cruise through this? Won’t it be worth it? 

Here are a few more tips that will help you succeed

  • Have the bass out of its case, ready to go. Plug and play! (Remember: making it easier to start means you need less motivational effort)
  • Celebrate each time you did the little activity you set out to do. Even if the scale wasn’t perfect, even if the cycle was slow, go: “Yay, I did it. High Five!”  And mean it! This creates a positive feedback loop that makes it much easier to do next time! And – this is my personal experience and experience with my students – this also directs your practicing efforts into a positive, self-supporting direction, the value of which cannot be overstated.

Here is an interview Professor Fogg did with me a while back and there you can also read more about the Tiny Habits Method in addition to many free resources!

*Safety always comes first, so make sure to only do this as you are standing still! If you live in LA or the Bay Area like I do, anything linked to waiting in traffic will really make you a great player!

To get the most out of your practice time, check out our Course, Music Theory for the Bass Player – The Course. It has a section with practice tips and tells you exactly what to practice and how!

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Buying Used? Check this or you may be in for a nasty surprise!

used bass Ari's Bass Blog

Used Versus New?

Used and new, both are great choices!

  • If a bass is new it is a blank canvas waiting for your fingers to shape its tone.
  • If it is used it has a story to tell. Are you its next chapter?

But if you do buy used… keep in mind:

The Most Important Thing to Watch out for When Buying a Used Bass

Is the truss rod okay? Even the best basses in the world are completely useless if you cannot adjust the neck relief. Maybe the setup and action are perfect as you take the pre-owned beauty out of its box – but over time the wood will do what wood does and contract and expand with the seasons.

Then you may be in for a rude awakening: you try to insert the Allen wrench into the truss rod and – whoa – are unable to make the tool have a good grip, and hence cannot adjust the bass! Escrow is long closed or the 30 day return period has passed months back? Ouch.

Too many times I have seen otherwise fine basses with worn out truss rods. It happens easily – a few forced turns with a tool that is slightly too small or forcing one that is a bit too big in there – and the bearing is worn out! You may think one can’t possibly get that wrong if you have a nice full set of small Allen wrenches, but there are sets in inches and sets in millimeters, they look the same to the bare eye, so yes, it does happen!

Check it!

A worn out neck screw makes the bass quite useless. The truss rod goes through the neck of the bass and is responsible for adjusting the relief, ie, how far away the strings are from the fretboard.

  • Too tight and you get a buzz
  • Too lose and you get uneven and hard to play action

Where is it?

You can find it at either end of the neck – sometimes covered up by a little plastic or wood cover, sometimes tugged away right at the base of the neck.

So, when you get that big box in the mail and are getting ready to test it , make sure to take a good look at the truss rod.

Have an Allen wrench multi pack ready in mm and inch sizes (you can get both at Home Depot or Lowe’s or even on Amazon) and see if you can insert the tool and if it fits snuggly. Some basses come with their tools – ask the seller to include them, if possible!

Bad Grip – Bad News. Yet, not all may be lost…

In some cases, it is possible for a skilled metal worker to redrill the neck screw to the next size Allen wrench. I have seen this done, but depending on where on your bass the truss rod is accessed and how “bad” it is, this may not be possible. Worth a shot, though!

Help for Good Set Ups: Action Ruler Gauge

Here is a nifty tool that can help you find your favorite action: with this string action ruler gauge you can find the perfect number for your playing needs.

  • Lots of tapping? go thinner on the strings and set towards a lower number.
  • Grooving hard? higher end and thicker strings! To be able to do both, find a compromise that works for all situations.

Other things to watch out for

Of course there are plenty of other items to examine; you want to check if the neck is twisted, what shape the frets are in and how much they have left on them, if all the buttons work and what they do, if the pickups are okay; you want to open up the battery case and look for signs of corrosion or a leaked battery and of course diligently test the bass overall. But the truss rod disappointment is a biggie, so:

The Most Important Take Away

  • If you go somewhere to test a bass, ask the owner to have the tool ready or take a set of these guys with you!
  • If you are in escrow on ebay – test right away!

Don’t fall in love with a bass with a worn out truss rod. You will regret it down the line!

Enjoy your new (old) bass to the fullest with technique exercises and bass line creation:

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course