As I was posting some of my previous videos I started thinking that I should add a new one describing some of the right-hand techniques you’ve seen me using, so here it is.
When I was learning to play I was taught to place the thumb of my right hand on either a pickup or on the bottom string and then pluck the strings with my index and middle fingers. It’s a very common right-hand technique for the bass and one that I still use a lot (because old habits die hard). The downside of this technique in my opinion is that it doesn’t make enough use of the thumb. The thumb is probably our most versatile and dextrous digit, so some time ago I decided that my two finger technique wasn’t versatile enough for everything I wanted to play on the bass and I started working on some right-hand techniques that use my thumb more.
A simple way to use your thumb with the two finger technique is to use it to dampen and mute the lower strings. Damping is a key issue for bass players especially with the lower strings because they have a tendency to ring and create unwanted noise when we’re not using them. If you position your thumb so that it touches these strings when you’re not using them it will mute them and stop any unwanted noise coming from them. This is a simple adaptation to the technique that can make an important difference to your playing, especially if you have a low B string on your bass. It will involve some practice because you will need to get used to constantly moving your thumb as you change strings but if you’re conscientious about listening out for unwanted noise from your lower strings when you practice then it should become instinctive fairly quickly.
Now let’s change the technique altogether and get our thumb playing notes instead of just damping. The first thing we need to look at is how can we combine using our fingers and thumb. Example 1 is a simple demonstration of how we can play notes by alternating between playing with our thumb and our first finger. In the example T means play the note with your right-hand thumb and i means play the note with your right hand index finger. As you can see from the example we should be able to use this technique to play across strings as in bar one, on adjacent strings as in bar two and on the same string as in bar three.
The advantages of this technique over the two finger technique we looked at earlier are that it is much easier to play across strings using this technique because there is much greater independence (and physical distance) between your index finger and your thumb than there is between your index and middle fingers. I also find it much more natural to keep a constant tempo at high speeds and a third benefit to using this technique is damping, particularly palm-muting. When I use this technique I rest the palm of my hand on the lower strings near to the bridge to dampen them and stop any unwanted noise. In effect my palm is functioning in the same role my thumb was in the previous technique. If I want I can take this damping technique a step further and use my palm to mute the strings I’m playing as well. If you rest your palm on the string close enough to the bridge then you will still here the note you play but it will have a very muted and staccato sound to it, which is a very useful sound. It’s a good approximation to the classic Motown sound that James Jameson used to get by putting bits of foam under his strings in front of the bridge. Anthony Jackson is another great bass player who uses this muted sound a lot in his playing. Try playing through Example 1 both with and without the palm muting and then when you get used to it try applying the same techniques to other areas of your practice.
The next obvious thing to do with this technique is to start using more of the fingers on my right-hand. Example 2 is a demonstration of how to use your thumb, index and middle fingers to play chords, similar to the way a guitarist finger picks. (T, i & m = Thumb, Index and Middle)
You can also add your third finger (and even your little finger) to this technique especially if you’re playing chords that use more than just three strings. Again this is similar to how a guitarist would finger pick.
Another simple technique you can apply to playing chords is raking with either your index or middle finger or both. Example 3 is a demonstration of this technique.
You might think that the next logical place to take our right-hand technique would be to try and use our thumb and three fingers and then our thumb and four fingers. And you might well be right, certainly a lot of bass players have explored techniques using all the fingers on their right hand and I would encourage you to explore it as well as I have in order to find out what works best for you. However my personal favorite technique is a little simpler, I prefer to use my thumb with my index and third finger. I know this sounds a little odd because I’m not using my middle finger but after years of experimenting with three and four finger techniques I’ve found this one to be the most efficient for me. The best reason I can think of for this is because my index and third fingers are almost exactly the same length whereas my middle finger is a lot longer, so when I try and use those three fingers altogether, it works but it feels slightly less comfortable than when I leave the middle finger out. This technique has proved very versatile, it’s fast, it’s easy to cross strings, it’s easy to keep a constant rhythm even at high speeds without getting tired and it works well for both triplet and 16th note rhythms. Example 4 is a demonstration of how we can use this technique to play across strings in bar 1, on adjacent strings in bar 2 and on a single string in bar 3. (In this example T=thumb, 1=index & 3=third finger)
Once you’ve found a technique, or several techniques that work well for you then try applying them in all areas of your practice. For instance, Example 5 is a demonstration of how I might apply my technique demonstrated in Example 4 to practicing a C major scale.