In this bass guitar lesson I’m going to show you how to transpose on the bass guitar and two techniques that you can specifically use as a bassist to make transposing easier.
Transposition is a really important skill all bass players should know how to do and it’s something you’ll be asked to do regularly if you start performing with other musicians, especially vocalists.
What is Transposition?
Transposition (or transposing) is changing the key or key centre of a song or piece of music. Every song has a ‘key note’ which all the other notes in the piece relate back to.
If you are asked to transpose a song the key note and every other note in the piece needs to change by the same relative amount.
There are two main practical reasons why you’ll be asked to transpose a song as a bass guitar player:
1 - To suit the note range of a singer.
Singers tend to have different ranges of notes in their singing voices. Some singers have a high range, some singers have a lower range. Male vocalists have a different range to female singers.
For a singer to be able to sing a song properly the notes must be within the range of the singer. So it’s really important the song is in the right key for the specific singer. A vocalist may ask you to change the key of song to suit their vocal range.
2 - To suit the instrumentation of a band.
Some instruments work better in different keys. Guitars tend to favour ‘sharp keys’ such a E, A, D, G because of the open strings. ‘Flat Keys’ tend to be simpler for brass instruments such as the trumpet or trombone.
An example of changing for the key for different instrumentation could be Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. The original is in the key of Ebm and that works great for the piano / keyboard. Guitar driven bands will often transpose in ‘E’ so they can use the open strings. Patterns using the open strings tend to be easier to play and also give a more ‘rocky’ sound.
How Does Transposition Work?
To transpose from one key to another you need to know the interval (or distance) you are transposing by. To give an example, if you are in the key C and you are asked to transpose into the key of Bb, every single note moves down by a whole step.
So you need to know what key you are in, what key you are moving to and then be able to work out the interval.
Some common transpositions are:
C Major - Bb Major = Down A Whole Step (or down 2 frets)
C Major - D Major = Up A whole Step (or up 2 frets)
C Major - Eb Major = Up A Minor 3rd (or up 3 frets)
Eb Major - E Major = Up A Half Step (or up 1 fret)
F Major - Bb Major = Up A 4th. (or up 5 frets)
Transposition Technique One - Shifting Shapes
As a beginner bass guitar player the simplest way to transpose on the bass guitar is to start moving patterns and shapes around the fretboard. The great thing about the fretboard is it’s visual and works on patterns and shapes - we must use that to our advantage especially when we are just starting out.
To demonstrate this I’m going to take the old classic bass line to the Ben E King song Stand By Me and show you how to transpose it into 3 different keys using the ‘major scale pattern’ the bass line creates on the fretboard.
Stand By Me in A
Here is Stand By Me in the original key of A. It is an 8 bar bass line that repeats throughout the whole song.
I encourage you to learn this using the ‘one finger per fret’ fretting hand technique to make the pattern on the fingerboard clearer.
This bass line uses the 5 notes from the A major scale. ‘R’ is the root note or key note of the song. Memorise the shape those 5 notes create on the fretboard:
Next we are going to transpose Stand By Me from the key of A into the key of G. This means every note is moved down by a whole step or down 2 frets.
Now look at the shape on the neck. All we have done is move the pattern back or down two frets.
Last, we're going to learn the bass line to Stand By Me in the key of C. This means we are going to transpose the original bass line up a minor 3rd or 3 frets.
Now look at the pattern it creates on the fretboard:
Technique Two - Transposing Chord Sequences
Once you are comfortable with the concept of moving shapes around the fretboard the next skill is to understand how to transpose chord sequences. Understanding the chord sequence will open the whole of the fretboard and will make memorising songs much faster.
Here we are going to take a simple C - Am - F - G chord sequence (I - VI - IV - V chord sequence) and transpose it into 3 different keys. This is also the same basic chord sequence for Stand By Me. The fingerboard diagrams will show you are all the possibilities for playing the chord sequence across the neck.
Ideally, when you learn a chord sequence you want to get to the point where you see the whole fretboard board ‘lights up’ with all the various possibilities of where the root notes of the chord sequence could be played.Here we are going to use a track called Taking It Home which is available inside the Bass Lab PLUS membership.
Taking It Home In C
Here are all the possibilities to play the root notes of the chord sequence:
Now let’s take the same chord sequence and transpose it up a whole step into the key of D.
Lastly we are going to transpose the original chord sequence from the key of C into the key of A. This means we are transposing down a Minor 3rd (or 3 frets).
Here are all the possibilities of how to play this chord sequence in the key of A. You can also use the open strings too.
Lesson Wrap Up
Transposition is a really important skill for all musicians to understand. If you’re playing music with vocalists the chances are it’s a skill you’re going to need!
Moving shapes around the fretboard and understanding how chord sequences are constructed is the number one way I transpose on the fly when I’m on a gig. These skills take practice, but the more you try them the simpler they will become.
Don’t forget you can always write out the song in the new key too.
If you need help more help understanding music theory or how to transpose make sure you check out The Ultimate Music Theory Bootcamp inside the Bass Lab PLUS Membership, for a step by step course on music theory and how to directly apply it to the bass guitar.
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All Bass Lab PLUS courses are easy to understand and simplify complex ideas so bass players in the early phases of learning can make rapid progress and achieve results that impress their friends and family fast.
Good luck and get stuck in!