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 fingernails—if not, that’s something else entirely. It also is well suited for string crossing and speed.
Slap. Whether you love it, hate it, or merely find it culturally unfashionable, slap-and-pop is 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.