Naming the Bass Fretboard

Posted on August 1, 2010


Hello and welcome to the first segment of my Bass line construction series. In this article I’m going to cover one of the basic elements of playing, fret names. Having a solid foundation in this area I’ve found makes it easier in the long run to advance more quickly. I don’t disapprove of tablature but I’ve found an increasing number of students not being comfortable with fret names which in turn can limit their musical experiences should they decide to branch out into other playing situations. I compare the bass neck to the keys on a piano, except of course the bass neck isn’t black and white, wouldn’t that be fun though. Notice the pattern of the black and white keys, there is a set of 3 black keys and then after that a set of 2 black keys. This pattern is repeated for the entire length of the keyboard.

If you are not familiar yet with a keyboard, the white keys are the natural notes and the black are the sharps and flats. A sharp is when a note is brought up a 1/2 in pitch and a flat is produced when you bring a note down ½ step in pitch.

Now let’s find middle C to establish a sense of where we are with the notes. Middle C is the white key that is right before the set of 2 black keys located near the middle of the piano. The musical alphabet, on any instrument, runs from A to G and then starts again at A, which is an octave (8 notes) higher. If we were to start naming the white notes at middle C and move up we would just say C D E F G A B C and this would continue through to the end of the board.

Look closely at the white keys and see if you can find the 2 sets of white keys that are right next to each other. Those 2 sets are B and C, also E and F. These are the natural half step, there is no black key between them. B,C occur right before the set of 2 black keys. E,F occur before the set of 3 black keys.

Why do we want to know that? This same exact pattern occurs on the bass fret board. Whenever you encounter B,C and E,F on your fret board they will always be next to each other. Then it just becomes a matter of accounting for this natural ½ step which will then in turn allow you to name every other fret.

Let’s take the open string names. I read this way back in a magazine years ago, I wish I could remember who wrote it, I owe him a lot of thanks but I can not recall his name (sorry). But this little saying he used is great for remembering string names. Starting with your low E string (the thickest one) and going down, your string names are E A D G. Now use this little saying to help that stick, Eat At Dan’s Grill.

Take the first letter of each word and those are your string names.

Second step, starting with your open string, let’s take “A”(if you‘re a right handed player and are holding your bass, the A is the 2nd string from the top-also the 2nd thickest), name all your natural notes from the open string up to the 12th fret. At the 12th fret all your note names repeat.

A is the open string, now let’s look for the note B. Here’s where remembering the natural ½ step comes in. A and B are not one of the natural ½ steps, this means that they have a black key/fret between them, since we are only doing the natural notes (no sharps or flats, no black keys) this means we will skip that first fret but don’t worry we will be naming it later. This brings us to the 2nd fret, this is the note B.

Now B and C are one of the natural ½ steps, so the way they are next to each other on the piano keyboard is the same way they are on the bass. B is on the 2nd fret and C on the 3rd.

Now we will find the note D. Are C and D one of the natural ½ steps? No, only B,C and E, F. This means we will again skip a fret just like we did between A and B. So this places the note D on the 5th fret.

D and E are not the ½ step either so we will skip another fret to find E.

This places E on the 7th. Now we are looking to find F. Aha! E and F are the natural ½ step which means they are right next to each other on the 7th and 8th frets.

Between F and G there is a fret, this places G on the 10th. And now we come around, we’re in the home stretch, between G and A there is a fret/black key/sharp or flat, this places A on the 12th. BAM!! we’re home again, remember the string repeats at the 12th but with the notes being an octave higher.

I’ve met many students and players, some of whom had been playing for quite some time, who had not yet had a comfortable working knowledge of the fret names. I’ve heard many arguments about what is helpful to know as a player and I’ve come to the conclusion that being able to find the frets when chord changes are read or called out is such a useful tool. I’m hoping that this article makes it easier for you.

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