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 for each.
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 right-hand descriptions.)
Here are some general rules of thumb—or fingers—for right-hand techniques on each instrument:
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 rest stroke).
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, punchy tone).
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 the string.
5. Right-hand finger muscles carry out most of the plucking motion, with very little wrist and arm weight (except when using slapping techniques).
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- bass-taskers!