The Organized Left Hand

ONE OF THE GREATEST ASSETS A bass player can possess is a strong and well-organized left hand.
By BassPlayer ,


ONE OF THE GREATEST ASSETS A bass player can possess is a strong and well-organized left hand. A thorough and internalized understanding of the details of string crossings, shifting, fingerings, slurs, and use of open strings is essential to achieving our greatest potential as players. As discussed in past issues of BASS PLAYER, the specifics of left-hand technique are worth the time and effort to learn as our playing becomes more versatile and our lines become more personal. Tabs are helpful indications of where the notes are found on the fingerboard but we need to think further about which finger to use to play each note, when to shift, when to cross strings, when to slur notes, etc. This more in-depth approach will lead to more efficient motion in our left hand, shifting less and maximizing each position before we move on. Through a more articulate and organized left hand we can anticipate the direction of our lines, expand our options, and make more musical choices that further develop our own voice on the instrument.

To see how this works, let’s take a look at Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology,” first recorded in 1946 for Spotlite Records. Although Bird played this at 228 BPM (and faster!), try to work this up to a cool 180 BPM, practicing slowly at first to get the notes under your fingers. In this example (the first half of an AABA form) the notation indicates specific fingerings, slurs, positions, and shifts, which collectively generate a uniquely jazzy quality in this bebop classic. All of these details work equally well on acoustic and electric bass. The fingerings just below the staff are for acoustic bass and can be altered slightly to include the third finger for bass guitar.

Bar 1: Fingerings start with the pickup, 1st finger on the D string, barring to the G string; pull-off slur from D to C; hammer- on slur from Db to D. The bracket over four notes indicates there is no shift, play these notes in the same position. As you can see, the fingering is indicated for only the first note.
Bar 3: Cross over to the D string to play C, A, and Bb. Be assertive with the shift/hammer-on slur going into bar 4— first finger on the D to fourth finger on the C.
Bar 4: Again, a bracket to indicate notes that are played in the same position.
Bar 6: Slur Bb to C by shifting (sliding) on your first finger.
Bar 7: Play the B on the D string to make the shift up Ab easier.
Bar 8: Bar with second finger (Eb to Bb) and use the open G, so there is no extra shift back to the D and F.
Second Ending: Slur four notes (Eb, F, Eb, D) as a trill (hammer-on and two pulloffs). Keep a compact fingering by playing the second measure of this ending on the D string in preparation for the shift to F# going into the bridge.

Work to apply these techniques to everything you play. Be conscious and deliberate about the fingerings you use, notes you slur, shifts you make, and so on. With practice you will notice how your left hand becomes more organized as you develop the skills to execute all your lines with greater articulation and a deeper musical understanding. Using your ears as your guide, experiment with variations of all your lines, always listening closely to the nuanced difference in the fingering choices you make. Be technically specific and musically purposeful as you assert your musical identity and work toward a sound that is truly your own.

Gotham upright mainstay Andy McKee has performed and/or recorded and with the Joneses: Philly Joe, Elvin, and Hank, as well as the Mingus Big Band, the Village Vanguard Orchestra, Michel Petrucciani, and Steve Grossman. He is also a core member of the Jazz Faculty at the New School. Andy’s new book, Jazz Bass On Top, which expands on the above concept, will be released by Hal Leonard in the fall.