IT’S NOT MULTITASKING—IT’S MULTI bass-
tasking. Playing both upright bass and
bass guitar is rewarding, but the two instruments
have as many differences as similarities.
Switching between electric and
acoustic bass is comparable to the feeling
of playing Grand Theft Auto, screaming
down the highway in a Banshee at 150 MPH,
screeching to a halt, and jumping into an
ultra-elegant Landstalker to continue the
flight from the long arm of the law. Both
vehicles are cars—well, cyber-cars—but the
feel, sound, and driving techniques are different
The plucking hand determines tone and
timing on both instruments. The sound of
the bass guitar is produced mainly with
small finger movements, enhanced by the
electronics of the bass and amp. On upright
bass, the pizzicato (plucked) technique
demands larger arm and wrist movements
to support the plucking finger. The upright
bassist needs to use extra muscle to produce
a good acoustic tone, which can then be
amplified—or not. (Note that we’re assuming
“right handed” playing in this article. If
you are a lefty, please reverse the left- and
Here are some general rules of thumb—or
fingers—for right-hand techniques on each
1. The right-hand wrist and arm help the
finger deliver more weight into the string
to produce a pizzicato sound.
2. Lightly anchor your right thumb on
the edge and toward the end of the fingerboard.
The thumb pivots slightly on the fingerboard
edge when playing different strings.
3. Place your right hand toward the end
of the fingerboard to achieve maximum projection.
The right-hand finger plucks through
the string, into the fingerboard (not up and
away from the fingerboard).
4. Angle your right-hand fingers straight
down, or at a 45-degree angle. The plucking
finger can also be slightly curved, and
hook into the string.
5. The right arm and wrist begin the
movement of the plucking finger.
6. For faster passages and rhythmic
embellishments, you can use a two-finger
right-hand technique. When playing faster,
use less arm weight.
1. The right-hand touch is much lighter
than on the double bass. The right-hand
finger strikes through the string, resting
on the next-lowest string to achieve the
optimal attack and tone (a classical guitar
2. The right-hand thumb is anchored
either on a thumbrest, the top of a pickup, a
metal string guard (as on the classic Fender
Jazz Bass), or on top of the next-lowest
string to the one being plucked.
3. Strings can be plucked anywhere from
the end of the fingerboard (for a warm, dark
tone) to close to the bridge (for a clean,
4. Right-hand fingers are usually positioned
perpendicular to the strings (straight
up-and-down), but they can also be angled
or hooked slightly to get more “meat” on
5. Right-hand finger muscles carry out
most of the plucking motion, with very little
wrist and arm weight (except when using
6. Some bassists use mainly the 1st (index)
finger—like “the Hook,” as James Jamerson’s
technique was called. Many bassists use two
or more right-hand fingers for faster passages.
Some use a pick (plectrum), which produces
a precise, edgy attack. Many play with the
right-hand thumb for a mellow attack, or
use the thumb against the string at the end
of the fingerboard for slapping.
Let’s examine and apply some of these
basic techniques to your playing style. Example
1 is a simple open-string etude. You can
use this string-crossing test to observe your
plucking technique on either bass guitar
or upright. Does your technique conform
to the general descriptions above? What
if you change one variable: placement of
the fingers, placement of the thumb anchor,
or the angle of the fingers? If you change
your technique slightly, what do you notice
about the sound and ease of playing? Use
this exercise to give yourself a mini-lesson
and determine your concept of tone production.
If you play both instruments, play
the exercise first on one instrument, then
switch to the other instrument. How does
your technique change from one instrument
to the other?
Example 2 is a basic string-crossing
workout. While playing this exercise,
observe your hand, arm, and finger placement,
and muscle movements. See if
your sound and rhythm improves when
you focus on the right hand. If you are
already doubling on acoustic and electric,
your goal is make the sound and
timing on both instruments equally strong.
Good doublers sound convincing on both
basses, and we often don’t know which
one is their primary instrument because
they have developed an elegant touch on
acoustic and electric.
The great doublers in the bass world—
players like Jamerson, Stanley Clarke,
Christian McBride, John Patitucci, Brian
Bromberg, plus many studio and show
bassists—have spent countless hours on
both instruments. They aren’t multitasking,
because that implies they might be
doing more than one thing at the same
time, usually with poor results. They can
perform two similar but intrinsically different
things masterfully. They’re mastermulti-
Discuss all aspects of bass playing with John
at the musicplayer.com LowDown Forum.
Also visit John’s website, johngoldsby.com, for
sound files, videos, and bass-related material.