How to Write and Teach Jazz Bass Lines


How to Write and Teach Jazz Bass Lines

Fingering Systems for Upright and Electric Bassists


By NAfME Member Megan Cleary


What do we do with the rhythm section of our jazz groups? The piano, drum, and guitar parts are usually just bare bones writing. At least the bass part has notes, so it must be okay . . . right?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is a resounding NO. The bass part looks appropriate, but it’s not. Most parts are written with no knowledge of fingerings, fingerboards, or even string changes.

jazz bass | luckyj1


Think about your bassist for a minute. Usually the bassist has started the instrument more recently than the winds, so they have much less experience. Most have switched from another instrument, and some have even switched from another clef. This is true even in high school groups. This means that, while your winds know two octave scales in most keys, the bassist is often still dealing with what note is where. Let’s also add in that there are two instruments (upright and electric) and two fingering systems, and things get complicated.

electric bass | MarkFGD


All upright bassists use fingers 1, 2, and 4 (with 3 pairing with 4). Electric bassists with large hands can use one finger per fret. What about electric bassists with smaller hands, though? Those electric bassists should use the upright bass fingering system. This is something that many band teachers do not realize.

Many beginning band method books use the wrong fingering system because the part was edited by a grown up with big hands. When the stretch is too far, students will adjust on their own—and not in a good way. They will play using only one or two fingers and needlessly move all around the fingerboard.

bass lines | Furtseff


How do we teach bass students, then, when the parts are inappropriate in so many ways? This session at NAfME’s 2017 In-Service Conference will cover:

  • both fingering systems and how to tell which one to teach
  • editing actual jazz band bass parts
  • chord patterns that lie under the left hand (using both fingerings)
  • ornaments that advanced bassists use to spice up a quarter note line

About the author:

orchestra director

NAfME member Megan Cleary is a bassist and teacher in North Central Washington state. Her bass teachers were Bert Turetzky, Fred Tinsley, Carolyn Davis Fryer, and Barry Lieberman. She has her MM in double bass performance from Rutgers University. She is a member of the Washington Music Educators Association (WMEA) Hall of Fame. In 2004 she was honored with the Washington ASTA with NSOA School String Teacher of the Year award. She is the recipient of the WMEA 2006 Outstanding Music Educator award for the Elliott Bay Region. She currently teaches strings and mariachi in the Eastmont School District in East Wenatchee, WA.


Megan Cleary presented on her topic “How to Write and Teach Jazz Bass Lines” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Submit a session proposal by February 1 for the 2019 NAfME National Conference!


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