Playing From A Lead Sheet

I’m getting ahead of myself (currently in Module 9), but I wonder if there’s some “formula” to figure out decent-sounding bass notes from a lead sheet. My favorite genre is “oldies,” and I’ve been focusing on their bass lines. One thing I’ve noticed is that in a lot of slow songs the bass plays a single note on beats 1 and 3. Should be easy peasy, right?

But which notes to play on my bass? Playing the root notes of the chords on a lead sheet’s treble staff doesn’t work at all, my ear isn’t good enough to easily determine the notes (although I suppose I could tough it out with a lot of trial and error), and I’m not finding much on the web about this…


Hm, this seems a bit odd, @asf… the root should almost always work in such cases. Unless, perhaps the chords are given like “C/G”, which means it is a C major with G in the bass (i.e., the lowest note; in other words, the second inversion of C major) - in those cases, you’d be better off with playing a G than a C.

Could you perhaps scan parts of the lead sheet, so that we could see the melody and chords written there?? That should make it easier to come with suggestions!


Great suggestion there.
If we see it, we can help.

For first level bass line application, ignore the notation.
All you want is the time signature, the bar lines, and those chords above the bar lines.
Play the root note of the chord at the right time, and you should be cashing gig checks tomorrow.

Level 2 - play the root on 1, the 5th on beat 3.
Then you’ll be subbing out gigs, and beating off country singers with a stick.

We can help more if we see more!


Thanks for your comments… Here’s a simple one…

Lead sheet--

Listen here –
If you dial up the bass on your sound system, the bass notes are very clear.

Even the very first C on my bass guitar sounds wrong while she sings “wind” in E. Could she be singing in a different key…?

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Yes, OK, I see now…

That is exactly what is going on. The YouTube version is in B, i.e. a half tone down from C and so, yes, playing a C there would sound pretty bad. So, take the sheet music chords and transpose all of them down one half step: C becomes B, F becomes E, G becomes F# and so on - that should solve your problem :grinning:(Well, you need to do the same with the melody, of course, if you are interested in playing that!)

Songs can often be found in different keys than the original… often it is for the benefit of the singer, as he/she might have difficulties hitting the higher/highest notes of the song otherwise. Sometimes, the song is transposed for the benefit of one or several instruments to avoid certain notes that never really sound good, or certain awkward fingerings, or something similar.

So, next time you encounter a discrepancy between the sheet music and a recording that you want to play along to, just try several notes on your neck until you find one that “fits” or at least sounds better, and sleuth your way to the correct key from there :smile:


joergkutter, thanks for the great response. How long did it take to get the point where you could tell that the song was in a different key? Obviously there’s more to music than meets my beginner’s eye… :slightly_smiling_face: BTW, I’m just learning bass – no six-string guitar – tried that years ago, also clarinet and piano. Doing well with Josh’s course… Somehow after piano and watching bass videos I felt bass was my true musical calling…


It’s not magic, @asf - and I don’t mean that in a condescending or bragging way…

I took my bass, started the video, and plucked a “C”, heard that it sounded awful and so tried the next note down - seemed to me more likely to be in B than in C#, which is why I went that way on the fretboard. And then I confirmed by playing some of the other (adjusted) roots as the chords changed.

I guess it comes down to training your ears - you passed the first lesson already, so to speak, by hearing that the C could’t be right here. Next, you need to find something that sounds better… just run the video a couple of times and try different notes for that first chord - some will sound OK, some may sound OK-ish, some will sound “off” - you should be able to find the “best”, which is likely the one most pleasing to your ears. Just try it and get a feel for it.

Then find another similar song on YouTube and don’t even try to find sheet music for it… just use the trial and error approach to find the notes on your bass that sound most pleasing along with the song - after that, it is almost a given that the very first chord (root for you) and/or the very last chord give you the key of that song.

Have fun exploring!


Another thing to watch out for with sheet music is if it is written for a transposing instrument.

Some instruments transpose up or down a bit for notation so that their notation doesn’t look all funky.

Bass Guitar, for example, transposes up an octave, so the sheet music you see for bass is notated an octave higher than the actual notes. This is so that it fits in the bass clef.

Piano, on the other hand, doesn’t transpose for scoring, so if you take the bass notes from a piano score and try to play them on bass, you’re going to have a sad time.

Wikipedia has a pretty good article on it, actually.


@asf don’t let @joergkutter fool you. It is magic and Joerg is a Wizard. They keep telling me, I can learn this magic too, but I’m still not there yet. Starting to feel it, but not quite there.


@howard I didn’t even know this was a thing. Thanks for the article. You must also be a Wizard!


More like a past victim of this than a wizard :slight_smile:

This surprises nearly everyone.

It’s part if a general trend that sheet music is written, above all, for convenience.


I have the “benefit” of having played the saxophone, a transposing instrument (the tenor sax is in Bb). So, whenever the keyboard player would call a chord, or if he asked me what notes I played in a melody I suggested, hilarity would ensue, because - to this day - I am confused in my head as to whether it is “if I play a C on the tenor, it is really a Bb” or whether it is “if I play a Bb on the tenor, it is really a C” or something different entirely. I have to sit down with a piece of paper to work it out… or trust my ears and wing it that way :smile: (@eric.kiser: that would be the equivalent of the “wizard” using a bit of “flashy light and smoke” powder to create a distraction :grin:)


Great advice, from these posts. A guitar player and I recently agreed to learn some cover songs before meeting up. We played them, sounded like crap. Oops, we learned them in different keys!! I agreed to transpose, figured out the new fingering (it was just moving the shape a few frets down, really), then, magic, sounded perfect. (It also helps to make sure your instrument and everyone else’s is properly tuned too!)