Roots and Octaves

Posted on August 8, 2010


Hello fellow Bassists. I am back for the next segment in Bass line construction. This week I want to talk about roots and their octaves. This is very important knowledge for us to have as players. It involves first knowing your fret board to locate the roots and then being able to find the octaves of that root. For those of you who are not yet acquainted with the term octave, it is the higher or lower version of the note you are playing at the moment.

If you’ve ever heard the solfege syllables Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do, you can see and hear the 2 “Do’s” the first is lower than the second. The second is the higher octave .

Being in many playing situations over the years, I’ve found that understanding and being able to read through and react to chord changes to be a very helpful tool. Anything you learn will be more for you to add into your bag of tricks. Just like a chef needs to know how a spice will react in any certain dish, we want to explore how our bass tones will sound with the other chord tones being played.

Let’s talk about Roots first. The root is the name of the chord, this is the first note we want to hold ourselves accountable for, this one is the “biggie”. It’s going to help us lock in with the other instruments and is the most consonant note to be played with any chord, it will match the guitar or other chordal players. We hear chords from the bottom up. In other words we hear all the other chord tones in relation to the Root. Nailing the root is one of our biggest jobs in the band, harmonically speaking. You’ve all heard this while jamming with people right? I bet you’ve also heard it if you overshot you’re landing by a fret and was a half step above or below the root. This shows us how powerful the root is.

Let’s find some roots:

I am going to make a list of a few different progressions to play through. If you are unfamiliar with the note names, check out my previous article, “Naming the Bass Fret board” If you have a way of recording yourself and playing along then I recommend doing so. This will give you a chance to hear not only the roots but the other tones we will be talking about later.

Hold each note for 4 beats, this is also known as a whole note. To count it out you would start the note on beat 1 and count 1-2-3-4. Then keep the beats going steady and start the next note on the next downbeat, beat 1.

1. C F G

1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4


2. C A D G

1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4


3. G E A D

1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4


4. G C D

1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4


5. C Bb* A G

1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4

*If you’re unsure of the Bb, it’s the first fret on you’re A string. When you take any natural note,

C, D, E, , etc. and bring it back one fret you will find the “Flat” (b). This is why Bb is on the first fret on the A string. B natural is on the second and when we lower it to get the flat it’s on the first.



Step 2 now will be to find the octave of all the notes from the progression. The octave is so important because of it’s consonance (thought of as being pleasant sounding) to the root. It is so consonant because it is the closest tone in the overtone series to the fundamental pitch. The fundamental pitch is the note that you are playing at any moment.

If you were able to record these progressions, play the octaves along with the recorded notes so you can hear what an incredibly rich sound the octaves can make together.

Here are a few tips to finding the octaves on your fret board. This only works if you’re in standard tuning. If you are not in standard tuning you can always go tune up to standard, learn it this way and then modify it to your needs once you are familiar with the sounds.

1. If you are on either of your lower strings, E or A, then you’re octave will be located 2 strings over and 2 frets up. So, if we Play the note low F, which is on the first fret of your E string, you will be able to find the higher octave F, 2 strings over, this brings us to the D string and 2 frets up, which brings us to the 3rd fret.

Play the octaves separately and then play them together as a chord to hear what they sound like.

Remember it’s just 2 and 2!

Once you are familiar with the sound of the octave, you can try and find the octave of any of the frets on your 2 higher strings, D and G. These octaves will not follow the same pattern because physically the 4 string bass is not set up to accommodate. This doesn’t mean you can’t play it, you just have to shift up the fret board a bit. For example, the octave of the 5th fret of the D string, the note G, is on the 12th fret of the next string, the open G string. Again, once you are familiar with the sound then I believe that finding the octave from these starting points will be easier.

2. Let’s try and find the lower octave now if our starting point is higher. Basically, we are going to just reverse what we did in the 1st exercise. If You’re starting point is on the G or D string then you’re lower octave will be 2 strings before it and 2 frets back.

Let’s start on the note high B, which is the 4th fret on the G string. Go back 2 strings, which brings us to the A string and now count back 2 frets. This brings us to the 2nd fret and to our lower octave B note.

This about sums up my thoughts on roots and octaves. Just remember that there are lots of ways to look at music. There are some rules depending on the playing situations that you want to find yourself in, but, feel free also to indulge in that musical, artistic, explorative side of yourself that says “nah, I don‘t like rules“, You may be the next Zappa. I like the rules but I’ve always indulged in expression too. I devote time to and embrace whatever wants to come out of me.

I hope you enjoyed this latest segment and remember that anything you learn serves the purpose of giving you more to pull out of your bag of tricks. Be a good chef, explore and get to know all of your spices!

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