I want to get you playing real music as fast as possible. After all, that’s why you’re going through all this trouble learning the guitar, isn’t it? You don’t just want to fret notes and pick strings, you want to make music, connect with people, move people, or at least move yourself. And while your options of music-making are limited right now, you are just about ready to play the bare bones of a song, the skeleton of a song. What I’m talking about is a bass line.
Usually, the bass line is played by a bass guitarist in a band, but you can also play one on a guitar, and in their simplest forms, bass lines are the easiest way to get started playing real music, complete songs that you can sing along with or jam to with other musicians. By the end of this lesson, you’ll be ready to play the bass line of any or all of the three songs you’ll be getting to know in this course: The classic blues tune “Dust My Broom”, the rock song “Midnight Special,” and the country song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”.
To be prepared, you need to learn how to
Play a quarter-note rhythm
Fret the 6th string
The next two sections are for people without any formal music training. If you know what 4/4 time is, and what a quarter-note is, skip ahead to Fretting the 6th String
Music is measured in small parts the same way that a minute is divided into seconds, and a gallon is measured in cups. They’re called measures for this reason. When you’re talking to your bandmates, it’s often easier to pinpoint a spot in a song by saying, “let’s start at the 17th measure,” than by saying, “play where the guitar goes skronk, skronk, and the drums go hoodly-hoodly-hoodly.
A measure is a segment of time defined by a certain number of beats, just like every minute is made up of 60 seconds. The beat is the steady pulse behind the music. It’s what you tap your foot to. Beat is also slang for a drum part, especially if you’re talking about hip-hop. But technically, the beat is just the steady pulse behind whatever rhythms are played by the drums or any other instrument.
In most music, there are 4 beats to a measure. Here’s how you count a four-beat measure: One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, and so forth. Try counting four measures with me. See how closely in sync you can stay with me. (do it)
Playing a Quarter-Note Rhythm
Now let’s play guitar along with that beat. We’re going to play on the open 6th string this time. Remember that it’s the fattest string, big size 6, so shift your picking hand up on the guitar, and give it some test picks.
I’m going to have you play along with me, so I’m going to count to four before we start. This is called “counting in,” and it’s something you always do when you play along with other people. That way, everyone starts at the same time, and starts playing at the same tempo, or speed. I’m going to say one, two, three, four, and then (play) we’re going to play the open sixth string together for four bars. Ready? (do it)
Good. OK, I’m going to bust out some hard core music notation terminology here. Brace yourself. (Flash Warning: Warning: Music Theory Lesson In Progress) If we just played one note instead of four, and we let that note ring for the whole measure, we’d call that a whole note. If we played two notes that lasted the same amount of time, they’d last for half of the measure--you’d play one on the first beat, and the other one on the third. Those are called half notes. The notes we just played divided the measure into quarters--four equal parts. Take a wild guess what these notes are called. That’s right, 5th notes. Just kidding. Quarter notes is what they’re called, and what you played is called a quarter-note rhythm. See, that wasn’t so bad.
Fretting the 6th String
Here are some tips about fretting the 6th string. I’m going to use the 5th fret for example here. Getting to the 6th string is a long reach compared to the 1st string, so I want you to drop your thumb down behind the neck a bit. You may just need to bring it down to the top of the back of the neck in order to comfortably reach the 6th string. Those with smaller hands might need to drop all the way to the fattest part of the back of the neck. Either way, try to avoid making a big bend in your wrist. That can cause injury down the road.
Also, remember my earlier guideline about arching your finger and playing on your fingertip? This is an exception. Instead, fret the note with the pad of your fingertip instead of the very tip. Why is that? First of all, you need to straighten your finger somewhat to reach the string, right? Also, since you’re going to be playing exclusively on the 6th string, we can actually damp or mute the 5th string be resting the underside of our fretting finger against that string--not enough to fret it, just enough to mute it. This will minimize collateral damage if you get a little sloppy with your picking. Take a moment to fret the 5th fret using this position, and test the 6th and 5th strings by picking them in turn. 6th string should sound like this, 5th string should sound like this. (pause screen)
Now I want to teach you how to read tablature. Tablature’s been around since the middle ages. It’s easier to learn than standard music notation, and unlike standard notation, it shows you where you’re supposed to put your fingers on the fretboard. It also has some drawbacks, but 99% of guitarists will find tablature more useful than standard notation. Here’s how it works:
This is called the tablature staff: Six horizontal lines, which represent the six strings of the guitar. The 6th string is on the bottom, and the first string is at the top. This will make sense to those of you who read standard music notation, because in both systems low-pitch notes are lower in the staff, and high-pitch notes are higher. For the rest of you, consider that when you look down at your fretboard when you’re playing, this is what you see: The 1st string is higher in your field of vision, the 6th string is lower. I’ve found that this makes sense to about half of my students, and the other half think it’s preposterous that on a guitar the first string is closest to the ground, and on paper it’s closest to the ceiling. (Shrug shoulders)
To write notes, you write the fret number on whichever line corresponds to the string you’re playing. So if my fabulous new guitar song started with a note on the 3rd string, second fret, I would count down to the 3rd string, one, two three, and write a 2 on it. If the next note was on the fourth string, fifth fret, I’d count down another line and write a 5. I’d write it to the right of the previous note to show that this note comes after the first note. If both notes are played simultaneously, they’re stacked like this.
Let’s read some tablature together and you can use the closeup of my fretboard for reference if you get stuck. (Play a simple quarter-note melody that spans at least several strings. Yankee Doodle?)
Now remember that music is divided into measures, right? The way we show that in tablature is by drawing a vertical line, called a bar line, at the end of each measure. Let’s fill some measures with quarter notes. Now in tablature there are a couple ways to show how long you play notes. One is to have standard music notation written above the tablature. You look down here to see where you play the notes, and up here to see how long you play them. The other way is to combine the two systems, where you add stems and flags to the tablature to show note duration. I use the second system in these videos. If you know how to read note durations, fabulous, but if not, you can learn the rhythm of the stuff I teach by just listening to me.
OK, here’s your final test. Play this melody and see if you can tell what the song is. Even though you’re not playing it in rhythm, you may still be able to figure it out. (Mary Had a Little Lamb?)
Here’s the answer (play it). Yep, it’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Enough with the nursery rhymes! Now you’re ready to learn your first song. I’ve actually prepared three songs for you to choose from, a classic blues, rock, and country tune. They’ll each teach the skills I want you to learn, so just choose the one you’ll enjoy the most. Or, if you like all the songs or just want some extra practice, do all three.
How's it going?
Are you loving the lesson? Confused? Have a suggestion? I'd love to hear from you.