Alternating Bass (Guitar Lesson)


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Orville Johnson

Alternating Bass

In this lesson, Orville introduces one of the basic fingerstyle techniques - the alternating bass technique.

Taught by Orville Johnson in Fingerstyle Blues seriesLength: 14:49Difficulty: 2.0 of 5
Scene 1
Orville describes the chords to use in the sample song Railroad Bill. We'll need to know C, E, F, and G7. He outlines how we want to use our thumb and fingers the way a piano player uses two hands. The thumb mimics the role of the piano players left hand, playing a moving bass line. The fingers take up the melody lines as would the right hand of the piano player. The interplay between these two elements can create the same feel of orchestral counterpoint that the piano can generate.

Orville plays the tune with just the thumb part. He sings the melody, which is the part your fingers will play after you've worked on just the alternating thumb bass part for awhile. He breaks down which strings you play for each chord in the progression, 5-4-6-4 for the C chord, 6-4-5-4 for the E, 6-4-6-4 for the F, back to 5-4-6-4 on the C, 6-4-5-4 for the G7 and then back to C to finish the progression.

Scene 2
In this scene, Orville adds the melody notes. He mentions that you need to be patient as you learn this and that it will probably happen the same way you learned to ride a bicycle. You try and try, fall down again and again, and then one day you get on the bike and ride away as if you'd always done it and you think "why was that so hard? I can do it now without even thinking!" Alternating bass is like that. Make sure you notice when you accidentally do it right and notice what your hand feels like when you do it. Try to get that feeling again.

Orville lays out the melody notes, playing them all on the beat so that the finger always plays at the same time as the thumb. It sounds a little stiff that way, but you need to get your thumb and fingers playing together and the easiest thing to do is have them play notes at the same time. Most of the melody notes are on the first string with just a couple on the second.

Scene 3
After you can play the notes with the thumb and finger playing together, it's time to try to play with the proper rhythm and phrasing so the melody resembles the sung melody line. This means that some of the notes will fall in between the thumb strokes and there will be a mixture of on the beat and off the beat notes. Now we're syncopating the melody to keep it from sounding so stiff, getting it to flow with the same phrasing a singer would use. This is the challenge of alternating bass, to gain the independence of your fingers and thumb.

Scene 4
Orville plays the tune for you again slowly and with correct phrasing. Players to listen to - Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, and Mance Lipscomb. All these pickers use alternating bass lines extensively in their music and you'll hear creative differences in their phrasing but they never lose the drive and forward motion of the rhythm. The thumb keeps on pumping. Keep practicing and soon you'll be doing it too.

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Member Comments about this Lesson

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epaulson2epaulson2 replied on December 5th, 2017

Besides being a great lesson, you have the most soothing voice ever!

RubyPulseRubyPulse replied on January 15th, 2016

Finding the 'F' really hard. Just practice I suppose.

tamalbontamalbon replied on November 22nd, 2015

Excellent lesson! Thanks! I think I've got this one and now I'm trying to speed it up a bit.

cwikulacwikula replied on January 7th, 2014

I just started lesson 1 and I am getting it but I am finding that my fingers are muting out some of the other strings when I am reaching for the G when I am playing the C chord, and the F chord is hard. My fingers are too fat I supose, and just not bending them right.

mrfriendmrfriend replied on October 19th, 2012

Love the lesson, very helpful and informative. Just wish you'd have gone into a little more detail on the fingerings for the melody line in the video, instead of just putting it in the tab. also, why are the last 2 bars of the song in a separate tab file from the rest tab?

gddurstgddurst replied on January 28th, 2011

Hello Mr. Johnson. First, I would like to say great lesson on alternating bass line picking. The first time I heard this style of playing, it blew me away. You have done an outstanding job of explaining it, and you seem so relaxed when you play. Thank you

adjohns3adjohns3 replied on November 4th, 2010

Orville: Good stuff, but you are SO RIGHT about one issue with the alternating bass lines...and how your experience has seen MANY frustrated students try it...count me in that group! I have wound and re-wound that portion of the lessons...played is super slow with beat on the base and not...so far it still sounds like anything but music or a song anyone would know...I am still waiting for that magic moment you described when I can declare I CAN DO IT! Keep 'em coming...we thank you for patience!

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied on November 7th, 2010

I know it's frustrating at first but the key is go slow...you can't play it fast until you can play it slow. And repetition. you just have to do it over and over until it kicks in. Keep at it and it will come to you.

terryeterrye replied on April 7th, 2010

Thanks Orville. This lesson set is great... Even for an old guy who never thought he could go finger style after forty odd years.....I just might have a shot after all....

brianjhofsteenbrianjhofsteen replied on February 21st, 2010

good lesson, would love to see more!

dallendouglasdallendouglas replied on February 6th, 2010

Orvillle, Never mind my question I forgot I need the "Pinky" for the Melody. Woops.

dallendouglasdallendouglas replied on February 6th, 2010

Thanks Orville for this lesson. Om the alternateing C Chord could I just play a full "C" and not have to move my finger up and back?

moppenrowmoppenrow replied on January 29th, 2010

Thanks Orville, tremendous lesson, super approachable. I love country style blues. Look forward to your upcoming lessons.

mermermermer replied on January 12th, 2010

Excellent lesson. Really looking forward to some more

sendbahtsendbaht replied on January 12th, 2010

I work on this song like no other...and I GOT IT!!! slow but it sounds good. Thanks Sir!!

pthomp01pthomp01 replied on January 8th, 2010

Om point, Orville. I like having some songs to learn rather than just exercises and scales. I like your style and hope that you will develop more lessons for us.

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied on January 8th, 2010

Yes, I like using songs as a context for learning techniques. When I did my initial filming for jamplay I did several more songs as well as lessons like this one that concentrate on a certain aspect of playing. Many more lessons will roll out as time goes by. And don't forget to have a look at my teaching of Railroad Bill in the song section. I used it here to illustrate the bass technique but I teach the entire song in detail in that lesson

skaterstuskaterstu replied on January 6th, 2010

When will we see more lessons from Big Orv? These fingerstyle lessons are really cool... more please ;-)

patsendpatsend replied on December 17th, 2009

thanks orville I am very impatient knowing how at least to make my thumb independant form the other fingers. bye

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied on December 19th, 2009

Just keep at it. As I mentioned, it's the kind of thing that one day you'll be able to do and you'll wonder why it was so hard to get.

patrpatr replied on December 11th, 2009

i cannot hear the guitar-well barely hear it--have sound at highest on the right---how can i get sound higher--guess ineed some special speakersd

gsturngsturn replied on December 9th, 2009

Great Lesson, Looking forward to many more.

Fingerstyle Blues

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

The blues is a distinctly American style of music. Many popular genres such as jazz, rock, and country music draw upon basic blues concepts. Consequently, it is advantageous for any guitarist to study the blues.



Lesson 1

Alternating Bass

In this lesson, Orville introduces one of the basic fingerstyle techniques - the alternating bass technique.

Length: 14:49 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 2

Winin' Boy Blues

Orville Johnson teaches his interpretation of the piano-based song "Winin' Boy Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton.

Length: 29:33 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 3

Blues Turnarounds

Orville Johnson introduces turnarounds and provides great ideas and techniques.

Length: 16:30 Difficulty: 2.5 FREE
Lesson 4

Payday Blues

Orville Johnson teaches the fingerstyle blues song "Payday Blues."

Length: 19:04 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 5

Walking Bassline with Chords

Orville Johnson demonstrates how to play a walking bass line in conjunction with chordal accompaniment.

Length: 18:33 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 6

One Dime Blues

Orville Johnson teaches his take on a blues standard entitled "One Dime Blues."

Length: 13:46 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 7

I'll Fly Away - Piedmont Style

Orville Johnson teaches the classic gospel tune "I'll Fly Away" in the Piedmont style.

Length: 18:40 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 8

Beulah Land

Orville Johnson teaches the classic gospel song "Beulah Land."

Length: 12:40 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 9

Make Me a Pallet on the Floor

Orville Johnson teaches "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" in the Piedmont style.

Length: 17:58 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 10

How Long, How Long Blues

Orville teaches the a fingerstyle version of the classic blues number "How Long, How Long."

Length: 23:31 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 11

Common Blues Melody

Orville Johnson teaches a common blues melody that has been used in several classic songs including "Louis Collins."

Length: 15:09 Difficulty: 0.0 Members Only
Lesson 12

St. Johnny

Orville Johnson reviews an original tune he calls "St. Johnny" in this lesson.

Length: 44:09 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 13

Blind Blake Style

In this lesson, Orville Johnson takes a look at the style of Blind Blake with some fun tips and tricks.

Length: 12:50 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 14

Chord Substitutions: Major

In this Fingerstyle Blues lesson, Orville Johnson uses the 12 bar blues in C to talk about chord substitutions.

Length: 35:34 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 15

Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling

To demonstrate the relationship between gospel and blues, Orville Johnson teaches an arrangement of an old gospel tune called "Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling".

Length: 20:22 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 16

Chord Substitutions: Minor

Orville Johnson is back with another fantastic lesson on chord substitutions, this time in a minor key.

Length: 19:03 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 17

Mississippi John Hurt Style

Orville Johnson demonstrates Mississippi John Hurt's style using an old spiritual song called "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder".

Length: 10:18 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 18

Skip James Style Part 1

Orville Johnson explores the style of Skip James in open G tuning.

Length: 19:28 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 19

Skip James Style Part 2

Orville Johnson takes another look at the style of Skip James, this time in cross-note (D Minor) tuning.

Length: 25:08 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 20

Bo Carter Style

Orville Johnson takes a look at the style of blues artist Bo Carter in this lesson.

Length: 15:35 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 21

Jelly Jelly

Orville Johnson walks through "Jelly Jelly," an original piano blues style song.

Length: 22:14 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 22

Travis Picking Pt. 1

Welcome to part one of a two part lesson bundle where Orville breaks down Travis Picking, a fingerstyle pattern made famous by the great Merle Travis.

Length: 21:51 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 23

Travis Picking Pt. 2

This is part two in Orville's Travis Picking demonstration. Orville now teaches how to increase speed with the picking hand. Then, he explains how to improve synchronization between the picking and fretting...

Length: 23:10 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 24

Scrapper Blackwell Part 1

Welcome to part one of a two part mini series on the great guitarist known as Scrapper Blackwell! Orville tackles the unique techniques Scrapper utilized.

Length: 28:15 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 25

Scrapper Blackwell Part 2

Now that Orville has introduced Scrapper's style, he covers some more difficult techniques that he used.

Length: 17:56 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 26

Mississippi John Hurt Style 2

Orville Johnson delves into the style of Mississippi once more. This time around he takes a look at a song that is inspired by "Frankie and Albert".

Length: 16:17 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 27

The Style of Elizabeth Cotten Part 1

Orville talks all about the style of Elizabeth Cotten, an acoustic fingerpicking legend. He uses a song called "I'm Going Downtown" to showcase her way of playing.

Length: 38:01 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 28

The Style of Elizabeth Cotten Part 2

Orville dives back into the world of Elizabeth Cotten. This time around he teaches a newsong called "Sugar" and introduces other common musical themes she was known for.

Length: 18:20 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 29

Heavy-Time Bass

Orville Johnson likes to use a technique called "Heavy-time bass" when playing the bass notes on his guitar. In this lesson he teaches you how adding this trick to your arsenal can make you a more versatile...

Length: 25:29 Difficulty: 3.5 Members Only

About Orville Johnson View Full Biography Orville Johnson was born in 1953 in Edwardsville, Illinois and came up on the St. Louis, Missouri music scene, where he was exposed to and participated in a variety of blues, bluegrass and American roots music. He began singing in his Pentecostal church as a young boy, in rock bands in middle school, then took up the guitar at 17,with early influences from Doc Watson, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Chuck Berry. In the early 1970's, Orville spent several seasons playing bluegrass on the SS Julia Belle Swain, a period-piece Mississippi river steamboat plying the inland waterways, with his group the Steamboat Ramblers.

Orville moved to Seattle, Washington in 1978, where he was a founding member of the much-loved and well-remembered folk/rock group, the Dynamic Logs. Other musical associates include Laura Love, Ranch Romance, File' Gumbo Zydeco Band, Scott Law, and the Twirling Mickeys. Johnson, known for his dobro and slide guitar stylings and vocal acrobatics, has played on over 100 albums. He has appeared on Garrison Keilor's Prairie Home Companion, Jay Leno's Tonight Show and was featured in the 1997 film Georgia with Mare Winningham. His musical expertise can also be heard on the Microsoft CD-ROMs, Musical Instruments of the World and the Complete Encyclopedia of Baseball. He teaches as well at the International Guitar Seminar, Pt. Townsend Country Blues Week and Puget Sound Guitar Workshop.

Orville released 4 recordings in the 1990's: The World According to Orville (1990) Blueprint for the Blues (1998) Slide & Joy (1999) an all-instrumental dobro tour de force and Kings of Mongrel Folk (1997) with Mark Graham. He also appeared on 4 discs with the File' Gumbo Zydeco Band and produced Whose World Is This (1997) for Jim Page and Inner Life (1999) for Mark Graham. In the 21st century, he has released Freehand, a new Kings of Mongrel Folk disc, Still Goin' Strong, and been featured in the soundtracks of PBS' Frontier House and the Peter Fonda flick The Wooly Boys as well as the compilation cd Legends of the Incredible Lap Steel Guitar.

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