How to Play Bluegrass 

Bass Fiddle

By Warren Yates

How to set up your bass fiddle.  Click Here.

Can I teach you to play in this article?  I can give you the tools and basic understanding to play, but you will have to teach yourself.  Remember, you are not into this to be discovered next week.  It is supposed to be fun and if you do break to show business, then that is extra.  If it's your life dream, I hope I was able to inspire you.  I wish you the best.         

Click here to print off a picture of a fiddle neck to make notes on.  The picture is of a small fiddle but will work just as well.  You will probably use this as a tool forever.     

Learning the Bass Fiddle / Violin  The first thing to do is listen to some bluegrass music.  By hearing the sounds over and over is like loading a computer with software; your mind works the same way.  Program your thoughts with what you want to know. It is easiest to listen on the way to and from work.  If you drive 30 minutes per day then you will have listened to 2-1/2 hours in one work week.               

What is a "Bass"?  If you are reading my section on fishing then it might be a fish with a very big mouth.  If you are in the music section, it would be an instrument used to lay a low foundation sound in a song.  It is pronounced like the word "base".  The bass fiddle is known by many different names. Bass fiddle, upright bass, doghouse bass, bass violin, acoustic bass, and so on.  There is a washtub bass that is used for the same purpose, but is not the same thing.  You can read more about them on my washtub bass page.  The bass fiddle is the largest instrument in a bluegrass band and in my opinion, the most fun to play. With the bass fiddle, you don't have to know every song.  
You can follow the basic outline of the song even if you don't know the song in most cases.  With all of the other instruments, you need to know more to get through it.  When walking toward the area where the band is playing, the bass fiddle can be heard from a distance long before the other instruments.       

The bass fiddle has no frets so it is a little harder to find the notes.  This is done strictly by feel.  Place you hand on the neck and notice where your hand touches the neck.  Whether it is at the top or the bottom, when it starts to make the sounds that you want; remember where you are and try to be consistent to that touch.  

Now it is time to get out the music that you have been listening to and see what we can try.  You will not be able to play what you hear and we will not even try it now.  What I would like for you to try is to find one note in the key that they are playing in and see if you can hit it smooth with them.  Music is mostly tuned to standard these days so you should be close in tune.  Adjust where you need to.   

First let's tune up!  The bass fiddle is tuned the same way as a bass guitar or the same as the top four strings of a guitar.  E, A, D, G, starting with the big string.  The fiddle is also E, A, D, G, except you would start with the small string.  It is is backwards from the bass.  The best way is to listen to a full guitar chord for every string.  Tune With Me.

The bass fiddle is played by alternating two notes back and fourth.  1,2,1,2,1,2,1,2 is usually the order. What I call slapping the bass, some call syncopating it.  This is done with a bounce of the right hand.                                       

 111 222 111 222 111 222   The numbers in bold are the 1,2,1,2 (1 high note, 2 low note) and the notes in between are the notes in the bounce.  Syncopating the bass is done very little because it can become over done very quickly; however, it can be very powerful in short segments and allow the bass player to really shine for a short time. It is best to hold out on the good stuff when playing for a band and let the people think you can do more than you can.  If you show it to them to start with, then you are finished.  Keep them wanting more by not giving them enough.  A little goes a long way.  The main job of a bass is to hold the band together by supplying a foundation that can be heard no matter what.  What ever tempo the other instruments kick it off, a good bass player can hold it at that speed until the end.   

Let's look at each note.  In bluegrass, the bass notes are not held throughout the entire measure.  It is deadened very quickly.  A short lived note gives and an exciting punch effect. Bluegrass is not a relaxing music, it has a drive to it that builds excitement in the listener as well as the musician.  To accomplish this, when fretting a note, pluck it and release the fretted note before the next note is due.  Allow a space between notes where there is no sound.  If the note is an open note, deaden it with the left hand on the neck.  Some deaden the string as they grab the next one to pluck.  

Now lets play and example for each style that we talked about above. First without deadening and then with deadening. Then with a pop in between and last, the slap.  Example

Just for fun, I like to find someone that I can have fun with while I am playing bass; as they are playing their break, I will gradually speed them up by hitting my bass notes slightly prematurely.  Before you know it they will be playing faster than they really can, just on the edge of flying apart.  The look on their face is worth it all as they wipe the sweet off or their forehead.  It takes a while sometimes before they know what I have done to them. It is worth trying once anyway.                             Bluegrass Bass Fiddle / Violin

What kind of bass fiddle should I buy? When it comes to bluegrass, there is not much difference. You can get a new bass for around $1,000 and it will be fine. There is not enough difference to warrant spending a lot of money.  In fact, I play a washtub bass more than anything else. The sound is very much the same and in some cases, better.  I sell plans for them for $14.95.  My washtub bass has a fingerboard so that it can be fretted as well as bent.  You won't believe it!  See my Washtub Bass page. 

What about the construction?  In respect to the front and back panel, carved basses are carved out of a solid block of wood.  There are laminated basses that are made with a thin plywood.  Carved sound better, but laminated hold up better. Carved basses are very expensive.  Remember for bluegrass, it doesn't matter.  The difference is so slight that the average person would never know.

Strings  There are all metal sets that sound much like a bass guitar.  This might be better suited for an orchestra or when an amplifier is being used.  There are sets where the two high notes are larger and nylon.  These give a softer sound that is more commonly found in bluegrass music.    

The Bow  In bluegrass music, the bow is rarely ever used.  Unless there is a really different style used, I can't think of any old standard songs that use one.  To read more about bows, see my fiddle page.

Click here to learn how to play the bass run in the song, Alabama Jubilee by The Seldom Scene.


If your computer does not have the software to open my examples, download a free program at one of these places. 

In these next two examples, I am using a bass guitar diagram so that you can see the frets.  The bass fiddle has no frets so it is easier to show where they should be. The difference between the bass guitar and the bass fiddle is that the imaginary frets on the bass fiddle are farther apart due the the strings being longer; about 8 inches total.

The diagram to the right shows finger positions with numbers representing the order in which the notes must be alternated.  Always start with 1 and then 2.  You can pick any set of 1 and 2 and they will work just fine.   

Look at the picture labeled "F" Position.  This is what I call the upper position and the lower position.  Look at the "2, 1" in the middle of the picture; the arrangement starts off with a high note (high position).  The other is the "1" at the top and the "2" in the middle. It starts out with a low note (low position).  I like to use the high position for the most part but I do use the low position for flavor in short segments.    


"F" Position  "Bb" Position

Now look at the picture to the right; we have notes floating out in the air.  I did that to show what the pattern would look like if there were more strings.  This is a pattern that goes with the major scale.  Image this pattern any time that you want to know where to move next.  When a song is being played and you don't know what key it is in, find just one note and remember this pattern.  You will already be holding part if it.  The notes are also two frets apart.  This is easiest played with the pointer and pinky finger. If you relax your hand around the neck, your fingers will end up in that position.  This makes it easy to slide around.  With the bass fiddle, play as many open strings as you can.  This sounds better and it will give you hand a break.  Holding the strings will tire you out if you are not used to it.  

I just don't have it in me.  Give it ten or forty years, you might be surprised.  Think about this, you know more now than you did before you started reading this article.  Just learn some tomorrow and you will be there faster than you think.               

                                Bluegrass Bass Fiddle / Violin                      

The Washtub Bass A bass is generally played by alternating two notes.  As you stretch your string and sink in into the grove at the top of the neck, try to tune it in a relaxed position to the lower of the two notes.  This way the high note can be fretted on the fingerboard.   Some bending is necessary to keep it in tune but try to keep it to a minimum with the way your string is set.  As you find your high note and a comfortable hand position, just bend the neck a little until you are in tune.  Keeping the same hand position, bend the neck back and you will be in the next chord.  Go back to your original position and move your little finger down about a hand width and you are in your third chord.                      

Now that you probably have a headache, take a break and read my section on "How to Learn Astronomy".  I promise that one is not very complicated.    

Warren Yates     

Computer Software

The new "Transcribe!" software allows you to slow CDs down to a 1/2, even 1/4 speed, without affecting the pitch.  It will help you to understand what is going on in the music.    Download a Free 30 Day Trial.   

 Click Here and learn more. 

 (c) Copyright 2007