Technique Tip: Fingerstyle Fingertip Muting

Even after playing bass for decades, I still run across techniques that are new to me.
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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.

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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.


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Technique Tip Fingertip Talk

IT WOULD SEEM THAT WITH JUST FIVE fingers and 4-6 strings (oh, alright, sometimes more), there’d be a relatively short list of potential right-hand techniques. But if there’s one thing my incessant Lockup on MSNBC habit has taught me, necessity breeds invention. Take the Funk Brother himself, James Jamerson. Everyone knows that he played all that phenomenally dexterous stuff with just one finger, “the Hook,” as it came to be known. We’ve all wondered how he pulled it off, but sitting in on the Motown mastertape listening session for this month’s cover story made this question more urgent than ever. With Jamerson’s tracks soloed, the near physical impossibility of some lines was striking. So, capitalizing on the rare opportunity, I asked fellow listener James Jamerson Jr. Sure enough, James confirmed what I long thought: On uptempo tunes, Jamerson Sr. would occasionally pluck with both sides of the Hook—fingerpad and fingernail, like in Figs. 1 and 2. It was a rare occurrence, but ap

Technique Tip: New Tricks

GETTING BETTER AT BASS INVOLVES DIGESTING HUGE AMOUNTS OF new information, but it’s just as important to unlearn the bad stuff. Most of us picked up the bass without much initial guidance, and even though subsequent study can illuminate a better path, our individual approach is often cemented in those early moments of discovery. One extraordinarily common habit is to rest the forearm on the bass’s body, like in Fig. 1. I do it almost all the time if I’m playing with a traditional fingerstyle technique. Unfortunately, this is a perfect recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition that occurs when the passageway of bone and ligament at the base of the wrist compresses the median nerve. If that weren’t scary enough, the forearm muscles weakened position seems to rob the plucking hand of strength. Try the approach in Fig. 2, lifting the forearm off the bass. For me, it feels a little awkward, but I believe it’s technically a better option.


Technique Tip : Anchors Away

Teaching beginners always forces me to confront my so-called comfort zone. It happens to all of us: Once we feel like we’re beyond beginner status, we tend to take the fundamental stuff for granted. I was teaching the student about fingerstyle pluckinghand technique. I reinforced the alternating-finger concept, pointing out the importance of a solid thumb-anchor. I had the student pluck a few notes with his thumb free-floating, and then with the thumb anchored on the pickup (Fig. 1). The immediate difference in strength and control is obvious.


Technique Tip Tasty Chords

UNLESS YOU’RE A SOLO BASSIST, YOU probably spend most of your time playing single-note lines. Sure, there’s the occasional delicious double-stop, but the more dense chordal content is generally left to your piano- and guitar-playing bandmates. Being strong, simple, and supportive is pretty much the gig. That said, I’ve stumbled on a pair of chord shapes that are easy to grab, are harmonically supportive, and have a rich and ethereal quality that works well in certain contexts, especially trios. Figure 1 shows the major, add9 shape, which works well over most major chords. From low to high, the intervals are 1, 5, 9, 10(3). Figure 2 shows the shape’s minor alternative. Its intervals, in order, are 1, 5, 9, b10(b3). I think the chord works particularly well arpeggiated. Figure 3 shows a plucking-hand fingering that uses each finger, classical-guitar style to cycle through each note individually. One final note: try this shape around and above the 12th fret. Any lower and it’ll hurt an


Technique Tip: Poor Patterns

THERE ARE A FEW REASONS LYRICAL SOLOING SEEMS to come easier to horn players than bassists. First, by default, horn players spend a lot of their musical time playing melodies, thus burning melodicism deep into their musical DNA. Second, and perhaps more important, the saxophone is nowhere near as pattern-based as the bass. There’s something about the bass’s frets, dots, and strings that makes the fingerboard look like a big checkerboard to our pattern-craving cerebral cortex: Instead of allowing the deeper concerns of harmony and melody dictate our lines, the fingerboard’s visual and digital patterns easily seduce us, corrupting our note choices. One way around this is to seek opportunities to break out of our habitual, pattern-oriented playing by forcing our left hand to confront familiar sounds in unfamiliar ways. The most common major scale shape starts on the 2nd finger (Fig. 1). Try starting the scale on your 1st, 3rd, and 4th fingers, too. Since these shapes may be