This lesson gives an introduction to the basics of reading music on bass guitar. Many players find difficulties in getting started with reading music because they try reading lines at the level of their overall playing.

The key is to start reading music with the absolute basics. Reading pitch and rhythm in isolation and reading 2 or 3 notes on a single string in one position. This helps with getting a foothold and it’s much easier to build on that foundation.

Click Here For The Simple Steps To Sight Reading Course

Quick Reference Guide To Music Notation

You can use this page to quickly find the names and values of different symbols you may come across when you read a peice of music.

The Stave

The stave, or staff, is made up of five horizontal lines running across the page. When we have about 10-12 rows of these on the page, we call it manuscript and use it to write music notation on.


Each line and space on the stave corresponds to a specific pitch on the fretboard. A clef is used at the beginning of a line to signify which notes can be found at certain points on the stave. As bass players, almost all of our music will be in bass clef, but it wouldn’t hurt to learn a little bit about the others too.

Bass Clef 

Treble Clef

Alto Clef

The reason we have different clefs is to keep the music within or as close to the stave as possible. As instruments have different ranges, five lines aren’t enough to have everyone reading comfortably on the stave all the time. If you wanted to notate a flute part for example, you wouldn’t want to do it in bass clef otherwise the notation would be so high above the stave it would be difficult to tell what the notes were. Instead, you would want to notate it in treble clef.

Applying Bass Clef To The Fretboard

To begin learning to read music, you want to limit yourself to a specific area on the bass so you don’t get overwhelmed with loads of notes to learn. For now, we are going to stay at the bottom of the fretboard between frets 1-5. Below is the notation and TAB for the notes on the stave when played in the first position.

Ledger Lines

Ledger lines are used for notes that fall above or below the stave. They work the same as lines on the stave – think of them as extensions.

Bars And Barlines

Music is generally heard and composed in cycles of beats and a bar is simply one complete cycle of those beats. Bars are divided on the stave with barlines.

Time Signatures

Consisting of two numbers stacked on top of one another, the time signature is found at the beginning of a piece of music and tells you how many beats are in a bar.

The top number in a time signature tells you how many beats are in a bar.

The bottom number tells you how long the individual beats are.

For now, just concentrate on the top number – this tells you the number of beats in a cycle. So for example, 4/4 would have a pulse of four crotchets.


A note is nothing without a rhythm assigned to it so let’s take a look at some of the most straight forward rhythms…

   Whole note/Semibreve – 4 beats

Half note/Semibreve – 2 beats

Quarter note/Crotchet – 1 beat

  Eighth note/Quaver – Half a beat

Sixteenth note/Semiquaver – Quarter of a beat

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