I TEACH A LOT. AMONG THE MANY BENEFITS, BOTH practical and otherwise, is that teaching is a constant reminder of what
it’s like to be in the early stages of getting to know the bass. The only
other good shortcut I know of is to intentionally play the bass in the
“reverse-handed” way, e.g., if you play right-handed, flip it over and
pluck with your left hand. Try it, and you’ll feel like an instant rookie.
As all of us can sympathize, one of the big initial hurdles for
rank beginners is figuring out how to coordinate the plucking and
fretting hands. At the outset, I try to tackle each separately, caring
less about shabby technique in one hand if a student is still trying
to get their fingers (and minds) around an exercise in the other.
At some point, though, the time arrives to coordinate the hands
and get down to the business of bass playing. I relish this period,
because I have the blessed opportunity to impart all my brilliant
insight and forever influence the way they play. Oh, the power!
But rank beginners are not the focus of this piece. Instead, I’d
like to talk to those of us who have been at this thing for a while.
I’ve taught many non-beginners, some with decades of experience
under their belt, and here’s one nearly universal trait they have in
common: an underestimation of how much alteration in tone is available
in the plucking hand. Whether it’s playing with your fingertips,
a pick, palm-muting, slapping, or doing any of the above with an
added awareness of where on the string your playing, there’s more
sonic variety available via the plucking hand than most any EQ.
Get a hand-le (ha!) on this, and at the very least you’ll be less apt to
reach immediately for the amp when you’re not digging your tone.
HOW YOU PLUCK
Let’s focus on all the interesting sound available from your hand—
we’ll get to position relative to the bass in a bit. There are dozens of
ways to address the string to make it vibrate, and when you compound
that by the variety of hands themselves, there are millions of
tones out there. In my highly subjective order of popularity, here’s
a run-down of plucking-hand techniques to explore:
The alternating fingertip pluck. This is the standard-issue fingerstyle
technique. The index and middle fingers of the plucking hand
brush past the string, ideally with a fairly consistent 1–2 alternation
to maximize efficiency. If you aspire to play fingerstyle, you must
master this technique. It produces round and even tone, assuming
you’ve trimmed your
that’s something else
entirely. It also is well
suited for string crossing
Slap. Whether you
love it, hate it, or merely
find it culturally unfashionable,
one the instrument’s
most distinctive abilities. It maximizes percussive potential, allowing
a player to behave as much like a drummer as a melodic instrumentalist.
The prevailing approach involves using the bony part of
the thumb, near the knuckle, to slap one of the two or three lower
strings, while the index finger pops one of the higher strings with
an aggressive snap. I prefer orienting the thumb so that it’s essentially
parallel to the strings, rather than perpindular-ish, à la Flea.
More advanced approaches elaborate upon the technique to unveil
a huge palette of sound.
Pick. Playing with a pick is a weirdly polarizing thing, for no
good reason. I’ve even talked to non-musicians with an odd prejudice
against bass players who use one. Instead of arguing, I usually just feel
impressed that they even know what a bass is. Anyway, if you’re in
the anti-pick faction, it’s time to get hip. Sure, you can just pump out
solid-and-simple eighth-notes—and that’s totally cool—but there is
so much more available. Whether it’s the unbeatably even and sharp
attack, the locomotive funk when combined with judicious muting,
or the abrasive and singular sounds that emerge when you use the
pick at different angles, it’s time to put the pick prejudice behind us.
Palm-muting and thumb-plucking. If you’re looking for big
bottom end and quick decay, this is your go-to technique. The pinkie
side of the palm is gently laid across the strings near the bridge, while
the thumb handles plucking duties. It’s an excellent way to mimic the
note envelope of an acoustic bass or reduce an instrument’s high-frequency
response for pillowy bass response in R&B, reggae, and other
low-frequency-dependent styles. Varying the palm’s pressure on
the strings allows precise control over your sustain. One limitation:
With only the thumb doing the plucking, it can be hard to play fast.
Palm-muting (or not) and plucking with more than just
the thumb. This technique evolves the thumb-only approach to
include one or more of the other plucking-hand fingers. It may
or may not include a palm-mute, but it does orient the hand
in a similar fashion. This addresses the speed disadvantages of
using the thumb alone, and can have a huge impact on efficiency
and speed. Whether it’s the sophisticated approach of someone
like Gary Willis or the no-less-advanced flamenco-esque style of
Matthew Garrison or Abe Laboriel, this technique may be difficult
to master, but is potentially one of the most effective—it combines
the round and fleshy attack of traditional fingerstyle while
capitalizing on the fact that our hands have more than two fingers.
There are many more options, to be sure, but these are the
most common. Feel free to disabuse me of this notion on Bass
Player’s Facebook page.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In parallel to all this discussion of plucking-hand technique, there
must also be careful consideration of exactly where on the bass you’re
doing your plucking, slapping, muting, picking, etc. To begin to discover
the huge sonic variety available by attentive positioning, try
plucking a string with just one finger, all along its length between the
bridge and the neck’s highest fret. You’ll notice that the closer you are
to the bridge, the more midrange-y and percussive the attack. Moving
your finger nearer to the neck reveals an increasingly syrupy sound
that reaches full rubber-band booty as you pluck close to or directly
over the neck’s end. Essentially, by plucking in different positions,
you’re altering the overtone characteristics of the string, resulting in
a gradient of timbres that change substantially as the hand travels
to and fro. It is truly like a built-in EQ for the bass, as this alteration
of a string’s overtones dramatically affects its frequency response.
At this point, you have probably also noticed how different a string
feels near the bridge versus near the neck. Near the bridge, it feels tight
and pluck-resistant; as you move toward the neck it’s more pliant and
flexible. This quality can dramatically alter plucking technique as the
string’s perceived tension demands more or less strength to get it going.
Whether all of the above is old news to you, or if it helps to catalyze
some exploration of your own, there’s no doubt that the plucking
hand is under-recognized as a tone-shaping asset. Rather than a
utilitarian necessity to make a string vibrate, plucking-hand technique
is an essential expressive tool.