Blues Guitar Institute

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Here’s a Few Quick Exercises to Help You Nail Alternating Bass

Lesson ID: TB105

Great finger picking blues guitar happens when three main areas of your playing fall into place. The beauty and the challenge of solo finger picking guitar is getting these three elements to come together.

So what are the three elements?

– Bass line
– Chords
– Melody

In this lesson, we’ll work to bring all three into focus. We’ll start with the bass line. Specifically, the alternating bass style heard in countless country blues songs.

What is Alternating Bass?

Alternating bass is when the bass part cycles back and forth between two notes – usually on separate strings. Since we’re dealing with low-pitched bass notes, this technique is usually played on the three lower strings.

Changing Chords Smoothly

The biggest challenge when attempting alternating bass for the first time is changing chords smoothly and in time. This is especially true when changing from fifth string to sixth string rooted chords

Exercise 1 builds your ability to nail solid bass notes while changing between chords with different root strings.

Fifth String Roots

For chords with the root on the fifth string, alternating bass will typically be played between the fifth string and the fourth string. The basic C Major chord in the first position is a great example of a fifth string root chord that will alternate bass notes between the fifth and fourth string.

This can be seen in the first two bars of Exercise 1.

Sixth String Roots

For sixth string rooted chords, such as the open G Major chord, alternating bass lines typically cycle between the sixth string and the fourth string.

See the last two bars of Exercise 1.

Creating the Pulse

In Example 2, we’ll push through the upbeats (beats 2 & 4) to create a little more rhythmic pulse. We’ll keep our chord changes identical to Exercise 1 but we’ll push through to the third string on the upbeat.

You’ll hear this in many player’s picking style and it certainly is a simple move that adds a tinge of fullness to an otherwise basic bass line.

Until now, the exercises we’ve covered isolated the bass line. It’s important to focus on one thing at a time, so I’ll urge you to practice the first exercise with a metronome until you have rock solid timing and the ability to smoothly transition between the C and G chords.

Once you’ve mastered this introductory exercise, then it’s time to work in some chords.

Adding Chords into the Mix

In Exercise 3 and Exercise 4, we’ll bring in other fingers on your picking hand to pluck out some of the chord tones on the higher strings. This is where we begin construct a song on top of this alternating bass business.

First, we’ll work on the ability to simply pick the chord tones while holding down the bass line that we’ve worked so hard to develop in previous exercises. Then, we’ll light things on fire and add in a staple rhythm technique of country blues.


Syncopation is all about rhythm. It helps create that country-tinged pulse you hear from guys like Blind Boy Fuller and Mississippi John Hurt pluck the strings. It’s surprising easy to get that feel by using this rhythm technique.

Syncopation can be a tricky thing to understand if you’re into music theory. But, I like to think of it as playing off-beat. Playing in-between the beats.

In Exercise 4, we’ll work in some of the chord plucks in between the main beats.

Next Steps

If you’re like me, you will have a strong pull to skip this lesson. But, I urge you – especially if you’re new to alternating bass – take the time with these exercises and really devote some of your practice time to them. With a metronome, of course.

Practicing these exercises will help you master the rest of the course much faster than trying to skip over this lesson.

To go deeper and put your new exercises to the test, check out Morning Cup inside BGI’s Premium Member Area.

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