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Bass Essentials Series Pt. 3: Bass Guitar Notes, Fretboard Radius and Neck Profile

Welcome to Part 3 of the Bass Essentials Series. Here’s we’re going to look at the bass guitar fret board, the bass guitar notes and some tips to help you learn the notes along the fret board faster. If you missed Part 2 and Part 1, check them out to get yourself up to speed!

When it comes to learning bass guitar, knowing the notes on the bass guitar is an unmissable cornerstone. It’s as obvious as it seems. Without knowing what the notes are on the fretboard, communicating with other musicians and learning music becomes a nearly impossible task – or at least a very, very challenging one.

There are many different techniques for learning the notes on the bass guitar fretboard and depending who you ask you’ll get a different answer each time. There is no right or wrong way of going about the learning process, so long as the way that you decide upon is one that works for you and delivers the desired result: knowing what notes are where on the bass’s fretboard.

1. Fretboard and Neck Essentials

a. The Fretboard Itself

The fretboard is where you actually play the bass guitar. It’s the top-most piece of the bass guitar neck where the frets are embedded and the fret markers (the little white dots in the left picture) are inlayed.

Fretboards should not be confused with the bass guitar neck. They are two different pieces entirely, but often used interchangeably.

The neck is the separate piece of wood attached to the body of the instrument. The fretboard is what is laid on top of the neck nad is usually made from a different kind of wood than the neck.

The most common woods used for fretboards tend to be maple or rosewood. Sonically, rosewood tends to have a warmer, darker tone in contrast to maple which tends to have a punchier, more aggressive sound. While these are subtle differences, skilled players who have ample experience with both kinds of materials are usually able to hear the difference in performance and tone. Your typical Fender Precision or Jazz bass or even an off-the-wall Yamaha, Ibanez or Gibson bass is likely to make use of these woods.

Rosewood and maple are not the only two kinds of fretboard material out there. More exotic woods including ebony, purple heart, tigers eye maple, birds eye maple, and pao ferro are woods used by more boutique and custom instrument luthiers.

Warmoth Guitar’s website provides a very comprehensive guide to fretboard woods and their respective sonic qualities.

b. Fret Sizes: Big and Small

Frets are pieces of wire cut and fitted into the fretboard of a guitar or bass guitar. Frets are the actual pieces of metal not the spacing inbetween one piece of metal to another on the fretboard.

Fret size refers to the height and width of the fret. In lay, how big the piece of wire is that was cut to make the frets.

Fret wire comes in 3 primary sizes: small, medium, or large or jumbo. The size of the fret comes from the width and height of the fret crown or fret bead:

Fret-anatomy1
Courtesy of Fender

Fender provides a very comprehensive breakdown of fret sizing definitely worth checking out.

Basses tend to have 3 different quantities of frets: 21, 22 and 24. The number of frets is not always directly related to the scale of the instrument although there aren’t many short scale bass guitars with 24 frets.  The more frets you have, the more notes there are on each string.

In most styles of music you won’t be playing in those upper frets much. If you plan to play a lot of solos, you may find them very useful. While you might not play the 24th fret a lot, having 24 frets allows you a little more physical freedom in those upper frets (18-24).

Most basses tend to come built with jumbo frets while the standard six string guitar comes with small or medium frets built into it. Frets can be replaced through a process called refretting and it’s encouraged to consider refretting your bass every couple of years. Extensive playing especially with roundwound strings tends to wear down and corrode the frets, dampening the sound quality over time.

c. Bass Guitar Fretboard Radi and Neck Profiles

Ever play one bass right after another and notice that the neck feels kind of different from one guitar to another? You’ve just experienced a difference in neck profiles.

Fender, again, provides the best definition of what a neck profile is:

The term “neck profile” refers to the shape of the back of a guitar neck in cross section and is often used interchangeably with the term “back shape.” It’s also referred to simply as “neck shape,” although there are other important neck measurements with which “neck profile” shouldn’t be confused (i.e., neck width, neck depth and fingerboard radius).

Neck profiles come in  a handful of different shapes and contours. Below is a small chart detailing the most commonly used neck profiles in guitar manufacturing. This chart is equally applicable to guitar as well as to bass guitar.

To give you a frame of reference what each one tends to feel like, a standard 4 string Fender Jazz bass has a C-Shape neck profile, smooth and gently tapered, while a Warwick Corvette 4 string is more of a U-Shape, rounded and more baseball bat-like.

Neck Shapes

Neck profiles also are measured in inches. Using the previous two guitars as examples, the Warwick Corvette 4 string has a neck profile of about 20 inches while the Jazz bass has a neck profile of about 9.5 inches (quite the difference).

Fretboard radius is not the same as a neck profile. According to Pro Guitar Shop:

The fretboard radius is a commonly misunderstood term, incorrectly referred to “neck radius”, which leads people to think about the wrong part of the neck. The radius only pertains to the curve of the fretboard, which dictates how the guitar will play and feel just as much as the neck profile.

Typically, the larger the number measuring the fretboard face, the wider the radius. Conversely, the smaller the number, the smaller the radius. Typically when examining a bass guitar, the fretboard radius will be narrower towards the nut of the guitar and wider towards the front pickup at the botton of the neck.

Here’s one illustration of a fretboard radius:

Humbucker Music offers an even more interesting look at fretboard radius by providing a conical outward view and an overhead view:

A fretboard radius measurement as if you were looking down the neck from the bottom of the neck to the top of the neck.

What the above picture looks like from the side.

Bass Clef Notes and Notes on Bass Guitar

Here is the bass guitar fretboard up to 12 frets. It’s as straightforward as this:

bass-guitar-notesWhen you begin reading music for bass, you will quickly realize there are many different ways to play the exact same thing in different locations, or positions, on the fretboard. This is because the same notes appear all over the fretboard in different places.

For example, you may have learned to tune your bass by using the 5th fret of one string to tune the next open string. Those two notes are the same pitch. Then the 6th fret is the same as the next string’s 1st fret and so on. All strings are just staggered 5 notes apart.

bass-guitar-notes patterns

Additionally, you might also notice that the octave of each note fits directly on the diagonal of each note:

bass-guitar-notes

Or that the fretboard repeats itself entirely past the 12th fret just one octave higher:

24 fret bass guitar fretboard

With experience and knowledge of the bass fretboard, you will learn to choose where to most easily play a piece of music.

Andrew Pouska from Study Bass has a good tip for learning the fretboard:

A good rule to bear in mind is if you are constantly shifting around over more than 5 frets, there is probably a better way to play it without so much shifting. You should reconsider the fingering of bass tabs that have you playing a simple line up and down one string. Just move the notes to the next string instead.

Tips for Learning the Notes on The Bass Guitar:

  1. Associate parts of the neck with certain bass lines. Few people take this approach, but this is certainly one worth considering. Take some time to learn songs and notice the bass lines that emerge, what notes you play and how they arrange themselves on the fretboard. This simple observation is a powerful way to fast-track the learning process.
  2. Make the learning process as holistic and inclusive as possible. Nothing will bore you to tears and turn you off from the learning bass guitar faster than going up and down the fretboard playing the notes over and over again without much focus other than to just learn the notes. The fastest and most enjoyable way to learn anything in music is to work it into other things you’re learning.
  3. Experiment with different techniques throughout the learning process. All three of these points go hand in hand as they are all meant to prevent you from setting a timer for 90 minutes and sitting in a room all by yourself and going up and down the neck saying the names of the notes to yourself as you play. By using different techniques, slap, tap, double thumb, two fingers versus one or three, is another great way to challenge both the limits of your physical playing as well as to begin thinking in different ways about how those same notes sound in different ways. A slapped E sounds different than a plucked E or a picked E.

Additional Resources to Consider: