Roots to Chords

Chords and Root Notes

You might remember from reading the role of the bassist lesson that it is your job to help define the harmony, or chords, to a piece of music. You can't define something unless you know what it is. A large part of studying bass involves learning about chords and the notes in them — chord tones. The first step is learning about root notes to chords.

What is a Root?

A root note is the main note on which a chord is built. It is the foundation, or root, of the chord. For example, the three notes G, B, and D form a G major chord. The note G is the chord's root note.

As another example, the notes Bb, Db, F, and Ab form a Bb minor 7th chord. The note Bb is the chord's root note.

Remember, the bassist’s most basic responsibility is to define the sound of each chord with a steady rhythm. A simple, common way to achieve this is by playing the root note of each chord. Playing the root note helps establish the foundation of the chord — the root grounds the chord.

Bassists play root notes of chords more than any other chord tone.

Identifying the Root Note

Root notes of chords are easy to identify. Each chord is always named with its root followed by its chord type, or chord quality.

Here are some example chord names and their roots:
(We're focused on the root, so don’t worry about what the chord qualities represent just yet. We'll get there.)

  • For the chord A7 – the root is A, the quality is 7th
  • For the chord Fm7 – the root is F, the quality is minor 7th
  • For the chord Gb7#11 – the root is Gb, the quality is 7 sharp 11

Playing the Root Note

To play the root note of any chord, just play the note after which the chord is named. If you know the chords to the music (someone tells you, or gives you the chords in written form), you now have something to play — the root note. You can play any root note.

Let's say you have an E minor chord. You could play the note E anywhere on the bass and be playing the root note. You can use a low-pitched E, a higher one, or switch between them. The choice is yours. Choose what sounds best to your ears.

A good starting point for creating basslines is to play the root of each chord at the moment the chord changes. This is often on beat 1 of the bar.

Roots and the Bassist

You will be surprised by how many songs just have the bass player banging away on root notes. Sometimes that is what is appropriate. There is a whole lot a bassist can play in addition to the root note. And, it takes a mature bassist to know when to play more or just stick to the roots. We will be exploring what else can be played in addition to roots in later lessons.

Playing roots is essential and elementary to bass playing. After a while you may feel just sticking to the roots is boring to play. You should realize, at the most basic level, this is what other musicians want and need from you as a bassist. The root notes are a big reason you are around.

Obviously, you want to be capable of doing a whole lot more than just playing roots to chords. But, this is a good starting point and is the first skill you should develop for creating your own basslines. If you can play root notes and keep a steady rhythm, you're ready to play in a band! This is where the false idea that "bass is easy to play" comes from. The barebones basics of playing bass is fairly easy. All the other stuff is going to take a little more work.

Here are some root note exercises and examples to get you started.