Taming Your Fretting Hand, Part 1

IF YOU’RE AT ALL SERIOUS ABOUT cultivating good bass technique, you’ve probably thought about re-examining how you use your fretting hand.

IF YOU’RE AT ALL SERIOUS ABOUT cultivating good bass technique, you’ve probably thought about re-examining how you use your fretting hand. Finger-to-finger exercises can help you develop the physical skills necessary to consistently get a clean, accurate tone, and they can also wake up your fingers and give you a boost of confidence before gigs and sessions. Doing these exercises regularly will give you the strength and the finger independence to execute tricky passages on the fly, a crucial skill for any bass player who wants to work and keep working.

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New York bassist/producer/teacher Tony Conniff certainly knows something about staying busy. A veteran of Manhattan’s studio scene whose credits include Billy Cobham, Judy Collins, Phoebe Snow, Shawn Colvin, Cats, Rent, and Hairspray, Conniff somehow finds time to freelance, lead his own band, teach privately and at the Bass Collective, coach songwriting classes, and produce artists, jingles, and film music. In his pursuit of the ultimate studio bass tone, Conniff adapted these finger-to-finger, single-string permutations from exercises he received three decades ago from fellow New York bassist Rich Samalin. “He was the most important bass teacher I ever had,” says Tony. “I’m still practicing the stuff he gave me.”

Before you begin the exercises, Conniff stresses the importance of getting your fingers in position. “Whichever finger you’re pressing down at the moment, all the fingers behind it should be down and in position, ready. That way, if you go to play a note below the one you’re playing, all you have to do is lift the finger you’re using. And if you’re playing a note above it, that finger is in position to drop onto the next note. Your hand should look like you’re playing trumpet: All your fingers move in concert, close to the strings, ready to play.”

Starting on the G string, do each pattern in Ex. 1 twice on every string, move on to the next pattern, and then go in the other direction. If you’re on a 5-string, for example, play twice through the first pattern on your G string, and work your way down one string at a time to the B. Then start the next pattern on the B string and work your way back to the G. Conniff reiterates that it’s important to stay relaxed. “If you’re not used to doing this, it will hurt. A little stress is okay, but stop and rest a minute, and then continue and you’ll be fine. It’s going to be painful at times, but you’re not supposed to be in pain.”

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Although the exercises can be played anywhere on the bass, they have a special impact in the 1st position, frets 1 through 4. “Being a 1st-position-loving bass player, I recommend working on this a lot down there, because it’s the hardest and the biggest finger stretch,” says Conniff. “But it’s not a bad idea to try it in all different positions- -it certainly helps you get across the neck.” In the last couple years, in fact, Conniff has started using these permutations along with John Patitucci’s “spider” exercise. “These work great with ‘the spider,’ because they don’t cover string-to-string dexterity. They make a really good match.” 

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