Basser Instincts: Right-Hand Positioning & Fingerboard Mastery

AS THE DAYS GROW LONGER, SO DO THE amount of questions I get from readers.
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AS THE DAYS GROW LONGER, SO DO THE amount of questions I get from readers. Therefore, let’s jump right in!

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Joe wrote, “I have a question regarding right-hand technique, which has been a point of confusion for me. A lot of bassists keep their thumb on the pickup while playing every string, but I can’t properly mute the unplayed strings using this method. Another approach I’ve seen is the movable anchor, where the thumb moves in accordance with the string you’re playing. This mutes the strings better, but I was told it is unnecessary movement for the hand. What works best for you?”

Hi Joe. Yours is not a unique situation. Plenty of my bass students seem to have a hard time deciding where to put their thumb and how to mute ringing strings. The left hand also plays a key role in muting strings, but speaking strictly about the right hand, I can suggest that when you play on your low E string (assuming you’re a 4-string player, as I am), you anchor your thumb on the top of the pickup or the bass body. When you play on the A string, you can try to rest your thumb on the E string to keep it from ringing unnecessarily. When you play on the D string, you can put your thumb on the A string, which should nicely mute the E string, as well. When you play on the G string, just leave your thumb on the A string. Your finger plucking the G string will automatically fall into the D string and mute it. That’s all there is to it. It may take a couple of weeks, but you should be pretty comfortable with this method as long as you have good music to practice muting on.

Jim P. wrote, “One of my weak areas is a good understanding of the fingerboard. Any suggestions?”

Hi Jim. You do not have a weak understanding of the fingerboard— nobody does! You have a weak understanding of music and how to represent it on the fingerboard. This is why fingerboard exercises don’t solve your playing problems; they make the fingerboard the priority, not the musical content, which will help you to learn the fingerboard better. Players are going about learning the fingerboard in a backward manner. The only reason the fingerboard exists is so a player can play notes on it; that’s it! So if notes are the first point of regard, rather than the fingerboard itself, what does that basic fact tell you about how to learn it? Give that some thought, and let me know what you come up with.

Ryan wrote, “While you have the right to your opinion, I believe you are thinking for people who wish to think for themselves. If I want to avoid learning music, then you should respect that, because there are a lot of bass players like me. You are a controversial guy with a big ego, and you should not be thinking for other musicians.”

Hi Ryan. I appreciate your honest comments. I certainly was motivated by ego in the past, but I do not wish to be motivated in this manner anymore. Instead, I would like to off er my thoughts and allow readers to decide if they agree or not. Of course players can choose whatever academic direction they wish to go in. I want to make sure players have more than one option to consider before choosing between learning proven academic musical content or learning via non-empirical example or live demonstration. I received an email from a bassist who said he didn’t want to learn music because it took too long. That tells me the understanding of what learning music really means is lost on this person. It’s lost on many people reading this, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You will all, without exception, improve if you find a source that teaches music academics to you. This cannot be said if you work on approaches to playing that do not make music academics their core. Thanks for reading this month!



Jeff Berlin has toured and recorded with such artists as Frank Zappa, Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, and Billy Cobham. He has released eight solo albums and is music director at the Players School of Music in Clearwater, Florida. You can reach Jeff with questions or comments on this column at


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