One finger per fret? Index, middle, and 3rd finger in the low positions? Index, middle, and 4th in the low positions? If you’re like many bassists, you don’t think about left-hand fingerings—you just grab a note and wish it well. This month, let’s explore a system of double bass fingering that has been around for over a hundred years. The logical approach of this system can also benefit electric players by organizing the fingerboard into precise blocks.
Franz Simandl (1840–1912) wrote the definitive method book for upright bass players, New Method for the Double Bass [Carl Fischer]. The Simandl Method, as it is commonly called, divides the fingerboard into positions for each half-step. The method is still widely used, but it has lessened in popularity in recent years with the arrival of modern double-bass teaching concepts by Rabbath, Vance, and Suzuki. The Simandl Method remains a standard reference for bassists. Even players who use other fingering systems acknowledge Simandl’s legacy.
Simandl uses the index, middle, and 4th left-hand fingers in the lower positions of the double bass, up to the high G harmonic on the G string. On the bass guitar, Simandl’s 1–2–4 fretting-hand fingering system can make fingerings in the lower positions comfortable. An electric bassist with small hands can appreciate the ease and precision of using only three fretting-hand fingers on a long-scale neck.
The string length on a double bass is commonly between 40" and 44", which makes a three-finger system in the lower positions mandatory. Did you start your bass journey on electric, and then add the acoustic to your arsenal? Resist the temptation to play electric fingerings on the double bass. Using all four fingers, sometimes called the one-finger-per-fret system, will not work in the lower positions on a standard-size double bass. There are extended fingerings using all four left-hand fingers once you move up to the D through F on the G string, but those are exceptions to the basic Simandl fingerings.
Example 1 shows the double-bass fingering for the Bb major scale, the first scale that Simandl introduces in his method. Double bass players often use open strings, while electric players might choose the more homogeneous sound of a fretted A, D, or G. Note the fingering for the Bb major scale: 1 and 4 on the A string (the notes Bb and C); open, 1, and 4 on the D string (the notes D, Eb, and F); and open, 2, and 4 on the G string (the notes G, A, and Bb). This is Simandl from the beginning— use the exact fingerings, and don’t convince yourself that any other electric bass fingerings might provide an easier shortcut.
Example 2, the F major scale, mirrors the fingering of the Bb major scale, this time starting on the low F on the E string. Note the fingering for the F major scale: 1 and 4 on the E string (the notes F and G); open, 1, and 4 on the A string (the notes A, Bb, and C); and open, 2, and 4 on the D string (the notes D, E, and F).
One complaint many double bassists have about Simandl is that the lower positions demand more strength than the upper positions. Simandl instructs his students to start with the most physically demanding area of the bass. Contemporary Rabbath, Vance, and Suzuki bass methods suggest students move quickly into the middle range, and even thumb position. But Simandl and his disciples know that the money notes live in the low end.
Example 3 departs from the fingering pattern of the F and Bb scales, which both begin with the 1st finger. Simandl presents the G major scale starting with the 2nd finger on the low G on the E string. Note the fingering for the G major scale: 2 on the E string (the note G); open, 1, and 2 on the A string (the notes A, B, and C); open, 1, and 4 on the D string (the notes D, E, and F#); and open G at the top of the scale.
In Simandl’s world of fingerings, the Bb and F major scales, since they start one half-step above the nut, are in half position. The G major scale is in 1st position. Example 4 is a mini-étude using the Bb, F, and G major scales. Pay attention to the changing key signatures, and use the exact fingerings prescribed, lest the ghost of Franz Simandl haunt you. If you are playing electric, note that the tablature indicates which fret or open string you should play, but you should use the double-bass fingerings as they appear in the notated line.
On electric bass, the 1–2–4 fingering system might provide some relief if you find that you are over-stretching and strained in the lower positions. However, a working knowledge of Simandl fingerings is absolutely essential if you are honing your doghouse chops. Next month, we’ll look at Simandl fingerings for some of the harder scales. Until then, think low and slow!
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