stop using bass tabs today

Complete Bass Player: Why tabs are bad for you

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New bass players are usually very focused on the physical aspect of playing bass. Which in itself is not surprising. Being able to use both your left and right hand independently is a huge challenge by itself. It is no easy feat fretting the right note and simultaneously plucking the right string. And then we haven’t even touched on the subject of using the right fingerings.

One skill beginning to intermediate bass players overlook the most, is being able to transcribe songs by ear. And that’s an absolute shame seeing it will benefit their playing tremendously. In this article you can find all the benefits you gain by being able to transcribe songs by ear. Instead of looking up the bass tab.

I hope this will inspire you to get transcribing. It will be the next step in becoming a better and more complete bass player.

Bass Tabs and YouTube tutorials

Back in the day, if you wanted to learn the bassline to a song, you had to buy the album on vinyl, cassette or CD. Then you would listen to it many times (sometimes until you got close to going crazy). And at some point you’d hopefully be able to pick out what the bass player was doing.

Nowadays however we live in an era where information is free, abundant and available from anywhere. Typing in the name of a song in Google followed by “bass tab” or “bass tutorial” will work for most well known songs. Free of charge you can learn almost any song. Easy right?

Although this enables you to come proficient much faster than a lot of bass players before you, it also has some downsides. One of them is not learning how to communicate properly.

Music is a language

If you’ve been following my website a bit longer you have seen me write before, that music is a language. And when you learn a language, it’s nice to be able to express yourself. However to have a nice conversation with someone, it’s crucial that you also learn to listen and interpret what others around you have to say. Just like conversations, being able to feed of each others ideas, agreeing and disagreeing with each other makes for the greatest interactions.

As said before, we focus a lot of time on saying stuff on our instrument. We do so by becoming proficient in playing songs. If we however really want to unlock all the beauty that music has to offer, we should invest just as much time into listening. Listening and hearing what others have to say by developing our musical hearing.

Create an extensive vocabulary

Just like children learn new words from listening to their parents, we also learn musical phrases from other players.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel” is a quote you have probably heard many times. And for bass playing this definitely isn’t any different. Listening to other bass players (or players of any musical instrument for that matter) will unlock your creativity. Transcribing what other players have done before you, enables you to use their ideas, develop them further and incorporate them in your bass playing.

Transcribing the greats like James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius and Marcus MIller is a sure way to become better at your instrument. Throughout your bass playing career you will find many great basslines that you will adapt/make you own and add to your personal vocabulary.

Another way to expand your bass line vocabulary is by checking out my series Groove Backpack. It has some great bass lines you can use in actual real life situations (and of course it’s free!)

Develop your ear for live situations

Transcribing bass lines will help you to recognize patterns and musical lines in live situations as well.

The longer you’ve been transcribing songs, the more your will recognize certain patterns and chord sequences on the fly. In other words, when you are at a jam session or in the rehearsal room, you will start to recognize what the other players are doing.

This enables you to jump on the wagon and jam along. At first this will take some more effort, but slowly you will realize you’ll become better and better at it.

There is nothing more satisfying than being able to respond instantly to what’s going on in a musical way.

Learn about arranging

Transcribing bass lines will help you understand what parts work together in a song and which parts don’t.

A band only works if everyone works as a team. You should always strive to find a part that fits the arrangement well. As bass players we are looking to outline the harmony, but we also want to lock in with the drummer. We want to support singers/soloists and also add some nice creativity to our parts.

By transcribing songs you will learn what other players/arrangers have done to make the songs work. How do the kick drum and the bass line intertwine? Where are the spaces between the guitar and bass part? You will start asking yourself many questions like these. Especially when you are also writing your own songs/basslines.

Another thing you will start to recognize is, what kind of bass sound works in which situation. Sometimes a bass sound is really middy, other times the bass just “zooms” and sits underneath the kick drum. Treat every song as a possibility to educate yourself.

If you want to learn more about the role of the bass player in the band check out The role of the bass player in the band.

Lose you dependency on bass tabs

If you have ever had the misfortune to have to play a song using a bass tab, you know how painstaking it can be. Since most bass tabs don’t contain any rhythmic information (when do you play the note) deciphering what the person who wrote the tablature intended can be intense.

And on top of that, a lot of the bass tabs out there are far from perfect, making it an unreliable source of information. Once you get the hang of transcribing songs by ear, you will thank yourself for investing the time. You will have a transcription that is right, and also will be able to play songs which don’t have a bass tab readily available.

Getting a firmer grasp on how to apply your theory

Transcribing bass lines will give you insight into how scales are used in real life situations.

Once you transcribe bass lines you start to notice familiar patterns. If you have ever played Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, you soon realized that all notes of the songs are in an E minor scale. And how about Billie Jean by Micheal Jackson? It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the bass player uses an F# minor pentatonic scale for that groove. Okay another example, Good Times by Chic? Classic example of an E Dorian scale.

Scales and finger patterns can be tough concepts until you figure out a way to apply them. Looking at how the masters have done it (used their scales), is a great way of learning new tricks.

Not sure if learning music theory is for you? Check out Why learn music theory, and where do I begin? If you want to read more about how musical theory can help you in learning songs fast, also check out Learning basslines, easy guide to remembering songs fast.

How do you transcribe a song by ear?

There are many ways to get started, but the best way to start transcribing is to take an easy song you like. And although it might not seem obvious, first listen to the song without your bass in your hands. Take any section of the song that appeals to you and just try to sing along to what the bass player is doing.

Take a small segment at first. It can be two bars, one bar, or maybe just the first root note the bass plays. Really listen to it a few times and make sure you sing the right note. Once you are fairly certain you have it, try to find it on your bass. After that move on to the next section.

Note that the singing is a very important part to transcribing. By singing the part you internalize it and you will become better at reproducing the sound on your instrument. If you really know what the part must sound like, finding the part on your instrument is that much easier.

Also note that your transcribing doesn’t have to be limited to the bass part. You like the saxophone line? Go for it!

Training your hearing is like training a muscle

At first you will have a lot of trouble transcribing even the easiest of parts. But trust me when I say that you will become much better fast. It’s about not giving up. At first you will transcribe a few lines in an hour, but before your know it you’ll be able to transcribe a few songs in an afternoon.

In my article Playing songs by ear on bass I give a lot of tips you can use when you are having a hard time hearing the bass part of the song.

To summarize

So now you know why you should learn to transcribe basslines by ear. It will:

  • Help you become a better musical conversationalist. You will not only be able to express yourself but also interpret what others say and build on that.
  • Expand your vocabulary and open up your creativity.
  • Enable you to jump in when there is a jam session or when you are writing with your band mates.
  • Make you a better arranger and educate you about using different bass sounds.
  • Give you a firmer grasp on how to apply your musical theory in a real life situation.
  • Make you a better musician overall!

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy Get better at bass: Feeling stuck? Do this now!

I hope you found this article helpful! Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are and if you have any questions or suggestions.


  1. Outstanding information for some outstanding results I am always trying to learn the way the bass guitar the way it should be played and the way the bass should sound into it’s role-playing in support of the band I have learned a lot from playing by ear and listening too other professional bass players The tools you wrote for establishing me to become one of the greatest bassist was and is very fundamental . TY

  2. Well this is an eye/ear opener! After touring across Canada as a lead vocalist and keyboard player in a past life, at a ripe old age I’m finally taking up the bass. I seem to have an affinity for it and you may have shown me the reason why. Hope to get to your website and have a conversation with your wisdom.

  3. I’ve been playing bass for almost 60 years, at an amateur and professional level. Largely self taught, often under pressure as it was a case of “nail it or lose the gig”. I own a lot of bass instruction books, some better than others. This is the first time I’ve visited your site and what you’re saying is great advice and so true! Simple, sound advice. You want to advance your skills – learn to read! Using your analogy, overcoming illiteracy will be a huge advantage for any player. Good stuff!

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