How to read bass sheet music: a beginner’s guide

01.02.2022 Ben Maloney Bass

So you want to read bass sheet music? Sublime. We need more bassists in the world, supplying what’s been the most pivotal ingredient in tonal music for centuries - the bassline. 

Just to clarify, this article deals with sheet music for bass guitar. If you play double bass, or sing bass, then these instructions might not be so useful to you. 

That said, the notational principles outlined in step two apply to all instruments that use staff notation. So while you might not learn how to produce a G on a double bass, you can still learn to spot one on the page.

If you’re an aspiring bass guitarist, then you’re absolutely in the right place. This guide will walk you through the process of reading sheet music for your instrument. All you’ll need to hand is the bass itself - preferably one that’s in tune.

How to read bass sheet music

  1. Start off with tablature
  2. Turn to staff notation
  3. Articulation and performance
  4. What do you want to play?

Step 1: Start off with tablature

Tablature is a form of sheet-music notation designed for fretted string instruments. Its a type of representative notation, meaning that it works by depicting the fretboard and indicating fingering patterns as opposed to musical pitches. Because it’s a visual system, it’s a lot more accessible, and that’s precisely why it’s a good place to start.  

If your sights are set on staff notation, then that’s fine. You could jump to step two right now. But it’d be worth your while to stick around - a knowledge of tab can function as a useful platform that helps you get to grips with staff notation more easily.

Tab is also really commonplace in the world of popular music. So if you’re looking to engage with genres in this area - pop, rock, R&B, country, etc. - then you should definitely spend some time on this step.  

Comparing the two forms of notation, tab doesn’t quite match staff notation when it comes to detail. That said, even the densest, most complex of bass parts can be notated in tab, so a working knowledge of it can take you to wherever you want to go.

How it works

Below you’ll see an example of some bass tab. Note the four horizontal lines. While they’re not unlike the lines on a stave, which mark musical pitches, these four lines represent the four strings of a bass guitar. 

And, reading horizontally, they also mark the passage of time. So, a note appearing to the right of another will be played after it. We’ll get more specific about time and timings later on.

Our four strings will be tuned to certain pitches. In this article, we’re going to work in standard tuning: E, A, D, and G - from thickest to thinnest. If a tab’s written in a different tuning, it’ll say so. In that case, just tune your bass to the pitches it prescribes and then read the tab as per the method below. 

When a number appears on a line, you should pluck the corresponding string. ‘0’ indicates that the string should be played openly, without a fret being pressed. Anything above a ‘0’ will require you to fret the string. 

A ‘1’ means that you should place your finger before the 1st fret - the one closest to the nut at the top of the fretboard. ‘2’ tells you to place your finger between the 1st and 2nd frets, ‘3’ between the 2nd and 3rd, and so on. Place your finger as close as possible to the numbered fret for the crispest sound.

Looking at the tab extract above, you’re told to finger and play the 1st fret on the lower E-string (the note F), followed by the 3rd fret on the A-string (the note C), the 2nd fret on the D-string (an E), and finally an open G-string - not the grooviest bassline, but it’ll do for now.

These aspects of tab relate to pitch, but rhythm is a no-less important parameter of music and of notation. Check out the extract below. Above the lines and the numbers you’ll see symbols denoting the rhythm of the music notated. 

The forms of those symbols broadly derive from those of the note values used in staff notation. Using the time signature to help us interpret the notes, they span two bars of music and consist of: 

  • One minim (or half note)
  • Once crotchet (or quarter note, followed by a crotchet rest
  • Three quavers (or eighth notes, followed by a quaver rest),
  • A dotted quaver
  • A semiquaver (or sixteenth note)
  • One crotchet 

We’ve jumped ahead a bit with time signature. If that didn’t make much sense to you - don’t worry about it. It should all become clear as you work your way through step 2, which isn’t too far off now as we’ve pretty much covered the basic principles of tab. 

There’s a bit more to it, which we’ll come back to, but you should now have the tools to work your way through a simple bass tab part. Particularly if it’s for a song that you know, because in that case you won’t need to worry about interpreting rhythm, which we’re yet to cover comprehensively.

One more thing: if your bass has five strings (or more) then tab works just the same way. There’ll just be five horizontal lines instead of four - or more. 

Step 2: Turn to staff notation

Staff notation - or standard notation - is the system that the majority of written Western music utilises. Even if you don’t know how to read it (and you soon will), you’ll doubtless recognise its symbols straight away. 

There are a lot of aspects to staff notation, so it can take years to learn to read it fluently. But the good news is that it doesn’t take too long to understand its most basic principles. With that in mind, we’re going to focus on those fundamentals. 

How it works

Just like in tablature, staff notation makes use of parallel horizontal lines that represent the forward passage of time. But here there are five lines, and instead of symbolising the bass’ strings, they mark fixed pitches. And in this context, these lines are collectively called a staff - or a stave

Clefs and pitches

Clefs fix certain pitches to the staff’s lines. There are several clefs used in staff notation, but the only one you’re likely to see in bass music is the fittingly named bass clef - shown below. It fixes the pitches depicted to the stave.

Mnemonics come in handy when trying to remember the bass-clef pitches. Reading from the bottom line to the top, the pitches match all the initial letters of: Grizzly Bears Don’t Fear Anything.

When you see the black circle of a note (the notehead) positioned either on a line or in a space, as above, then the corresponding pich should be played on your bass. 

Accidentals and key signatures

Accidentals are the little symbols that appear next to notes. They indicate that the note marked should be raised by a semitone (equivalent to one fret on a bass), or lowered by one. Sharps (♯) raise while flats (♭) lower. Naturals (♮) cancel out any previous sharps or flats

Sometimes you’ll see a group of flats or sharps at the far left of the stave next to the clef. This is called a key signature, and it designates the key of a piece - in other words, the group of notes that the music is largely based on. 

This blog article on how to find the key of a song explains the concept of key in a little more detail. It might also be worth checking out the music theory cheat sheet for more info on accidentals, key signatures, and a few other subjects that are touched on here. 

Rhythm and time signature

While the placement of the notehead determines the pitch that is played, the note itself determines the timing and length of the note, relative to others in a passage of music. Here we’re stepping into the world of rhythm, something crucial for bassists to master.

The first thing you need to know about rhythm is that in staff notation, music is broken down into bars. Think of these as rhythmic building blocks - little units of time that help you to navigate a piece of music, step by step. Those building blocks vary, usually from piece to piece but sometimes also within an individual work. 

Each bar contains a particular grouping of strong and weak beats, a recurring pattern known as the metre. The metre is determined by the time signature, which comprises one number placed on top of another. You’ll find the time signature at the far left of the stave, next to the clef and the key signature. Examples are shown below.

The top number indicates how many beats there are per bar, while the bottom number indicates the note value that each beat is equivalent to. ‘Note value’ refers to the length of a note relative to a bar. All the different note values are also shown below.

Whatever kind of note it is, if a dot is positioned next to a notehead, then the length of that note should be extended by half its original value. For instance, a dotted minim - or half note - should be held for the length of a minim plus a crotchet - or quarter note.

So, if a time signature reads 4/4, that means that there are four beats per bar, and each beat is equal to a crotchet. Say the lower number were eight; there would be four quavers to a bar, and if the number were two, then there’d be four minims to a bar. 

Just how quickly beats actually recur in real time is down to the tempo, which is set at the beginning of a piece. It’s usually expressed in beats per minute - or bpm - above the stave. A metronome can help you interpret bpm instructions. 

Should there be a verbal instruction, like ‘grave’, then the basic tempo markings glossary included in the Wikipedia article on tempo can help you to figure out the kind of tempo that you should be playing.

To refer back to tab briefly, the rhythmic symbols above the lines, which we looked at before, correspond closely to the appearance of the note values shown in the image above. Commit those note values to memory and soon you’ll be interpreting tab rhythms effortlessly. 

From the page to the fretboard

One key issue remains: how to transfer those notes on the page to the motions on your instrument. The figure below clarifies that by illustrating how notated pitches correspond to the strings and frets on the bass.

You might notice that only the first four frets feature in this scheme. That’s because by the time you reach the fifth fret on each of the lower three strings, you’ve reached the pitch of the open string above. But you can realise particular pitches elsewhere on the fretboard.

Check out the figure above. While the previous figure showed first-position fingering patterns, here we can see the patterns of fifth position. The fingerings are completely different from those in first position, but most of the pitches overlap. Higher up the fretboard even more overlapping occurs.

This means that when you see a pitch on a stave, you’re faced with a range of fingering options - in other words, there’s rarely one totally correct solution. You must determine the best way to sound that pitch and the passage it’s part of - for you, the player.

Certain fingerings will inevitably be preferable to others. The right fingering will be one that’s easiest to carry out, and which sounds the right timbre - different articulations of the same pitch will all sound slightly different. Because it prescribes specific fingerings, tablature doesn’t have this issue - another reason why it’s easier to use. 

Step 3: Articulation and performance 

We’ve covered the main principles of tab and staff notation so far. You’re in a position to establish a working knowledge of how these two systems basically function. But there are many further aspects of both that we haven’t yet explored - ways of notating the various complexities that music and bass-playing can involve.

As we discussed earlier with regard to staff notation, it’s a long journey towards fluency, and to some extent the same goes for tab. But even the longest of journeys starts with a few steps, and the next ones to think about relate to articulation and performance instructions - in other words, how notes should be played.


Articulation refers to the way in which notes and gestures are expressed when playing. We’ll explore a few of the most common types of notation relating to this facet of musical performance. The images provided show these articulation instructions in action in staff notation as well as tablature.


Slurs instruct the player to move smoothly from one note to the next. In other words, to play with a legato feel. On the bass, this involves using the fretting hand to move to the next note, instead of the picking hand. This is done either by hammering on to the fretboard, or by pulling off it.


Staccato dots, which are positioned directly above or below the notehead, indicate that each note should be played quickly and sharply, and clearly separated from any notes coming before or after it. After you’ve plucked a note, quickly release the finger that stopped it, so that you don’t let it ring. 


Accents are easy. They simply indicate that a note should be emphasised - played with extra intensity relative to the notes around it. So, of the notes shown below, the one that is accented should be the most powerful and prominent.


Like a slur, a slide instils a smooth, legato feel, but the fingering-hand execution is slightly different. It involves plucking a note, and then sliding the fretting finger into another note, or to some indefinite point on the fretboard. You can slide into the main note, away from it, or between two specified notes.


Moving on from articulation, dynamics refer to the intensity of the music, which is a really crucial aspect. Some passages of music need to be played softly, while others cry out for substantial volume. Dynamic markings come in the shape of italicised letters. They appear below the stave, and their meanings are outlined below.

  • ff  (Fortissimo) - Very loudly 
  • (Forte) - Loudly
  • mf  (Mezzo-forte) - Quite loudly
  • mp  (Mezzo-piano) - Quite quietly
  • p (Piano)- Quietly
  • pp  (Pianissimo) - Very quietly

Extended techniques

Extended techniques take things a step further, instructing performers to play their instruments in an unconventional way. A range of extended techniques have been applied to the bass, but you’re most likely to come across the following.

String bends

A string bend involves pulling the string one way to the other to extend it and, as a result, raise the pitch. This is far easier to do on a regular guitar than on a bass, whose thicker strings resist bending. 

If the word ‘full’ appears above the arrowhead, you’ll need to do a whole-tone bend, while a ‘½’ indicates that a semitone bend should be played.


Tremolos are in fact so common that they don’t really count as an extended technique. They involve rapidly repeating the same note for the full duration of its value. If you’re a finger-player as opposed to a plectrum-player, then you might struggle with this one.


Harmonics are bell-like tones produced by gently resting a finger above particular frets on any string, and then plucking that string. Those particular frets are the fifth, seventh and twelfth. 

Have a listen to the intro from Weather Report’s jazz classic ‘Birdland’. In it bass-playing extraordinaire Jaco Pastorius plays an entire melody using harmonics (the ones described above are natural harmonics; these ones are artificial harmonics - even harder to play).

Slap bass

Slap bass is a technique that sounds notes with a percussive and distinctly funky timbre. You do it by striking the string with the thumb of your picking hand - hence the ‘T’ underneath the stave - while fretting as normal.

Seeing as we’re talking examples, check out one of the finest slap players of all time - Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers - in action on this cover of the Stevie Wonder classic ‘Higher Ground’.

Step 4: What do you want to play?

Now you’ve come this far, the thing to think about is what kind of bassist you want to be. That will probably dictate the kind of music you want to play, and in turn the kind of sheet music that you should spend more time getting familiar with. 

If, for example, you’re looking to engage with popular styles, such as pop and rock, then you’re most likely to encounter sheet music in the form of tab. Most popular songs have been transcribed in tablature, so if you practice reading tab then you’ll be able to take on with that repertoire more quickly and successfully.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in classical, jazz and avant-garde music, then it’s worth spending time with staff notation - the majority of works in these traditions are written in this system. Learn some more accessible bass songs to help you hone your reading skills, and you’ll be moving on to harder pieces before you know it.

But, this isn’t to say that you should neglect one form or another. Its best to get competent with both, to develop a rounded playing ability, and be in a position to rise to any musical challenges that come your way.

In short, the key thing is to think about the style you’re engaging with, and the notational conventions most closely associated with it. 

Say you’re looking to be the next great jazz bassist. You might come across some bass parts that contain nothing but empty staves. That doesn’t mean that you’re expected to play nothing. Rather you’ll need to look at the chord changes outlined above the stave, and improvise your own walking bassline. 

Notation is simply a tool that communicates musical instructions. But the nature of those instructions - and the shorthand that they may or may not use - depends on the musical context: genre, style and difficulty. Take some time to think about what kind of player you aspire to be, and find out what kind of skills you’ll need to acquire to get there.

Your next steps for reading bass sheet music

Whatever next? There’s only one thing to look to, and that’s the music itself. The only way that you’re going to transform all this theoretical info into practical ability is by confronting some real-life sheet music - and practising it.

You’ll find heaps of it in nkoda’s library of bass guitar sheet music. There’s a lot there though, so if you’re looking for a simple and hassle-free place to start, then there are few better titles to look at than Basics for Bass Guitar, published by Sikorski.

If you’re game for a little more reading, then the blog article on easy bass songs will point you in a few different directions. Hard bass songs and best bass songs are worth a read too, though don’t let the difficulty of those tunes deter you. You’ll get there one day, just like these legends did: check out the best bass players of all time. 

Something there has to take your fancy.

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