EVEN AFTER PLAYING BASS FOR DECADES, I STILL RUN ACROSS TECHNIQUES THAT ARE NEW TO ME. I was practicing Bruce Thomas’ manic line on “Radio Radio” by Elvis Costello (This Year’s Model, 1978), but my feel in the verses—a relentless string of fast eighth-notes—wasn’t happening. I realized Thomas plays the eighth-notes short, or staccato. Normally I’d probably try to achieve this with my fretting hand, releasing the string a bit to cut off the note before plucking the next one. However, this requires a fair amount of left–right coordination, and it’s fatiguing after a while. Also, “Radio Radio” includes open-A eighth-notes, which can’t be easily shortened with the fretting hand. How do you play staccato eighths when some of them are on open strings?
I realized the secret is in the plucking hand, not the fretting hand. If you rest a finger on a vibrating string for a split second before re-plucking it, you’ll kill the vibration, and just like that the note becomes shorter. It turns out you can get a broad range of note lengths by varying how your plucking fingers approach and leave the strings. By just brushing across them with your fingertips, keeping your fingers moving, notes will ring their full length (tenuto, the opposite of staccato). But by plucking a string and then immediately stopping it with the next plucking finger, you can get notes as short as you want. All with one hand.
This kind of muting is easier when you’re hitting the strings hard; it gets delicate when you’re playing softly. Yet, this is what’s needed for “Radio Radio”: The choruses are loud and wide open, and then for the verses, the dynamics drop down and the feel tightens up. I realized the best way to master that transition was by drilling it.
Example 1 will help you develop your plucking-hand muting. It starts with staccato eighths, and then both the dynamics and the note lengths build. The trick is to be able to navigate the repeat and get right back to the softer, shorter eighths. You might find that your time gets rocky at the repeat, so stay with it.
Of course, this kind of muting isn’t limited to open-string notes or steady eighths. Any time you need to mute a note, being able to use a plucking finger gives you another tool for the job.