There are a large number of different sounds that you can get out of bass guitar based on technique: how you pluck or “attack” the strings. We are not talking about using different gear, different styles of strings or anything of that nature, simply the way in which the same string is plucked. Which finger you use (if you use them at all), what angle, where on the string, and other factors all influence the sound you get out of the instrument.
Here we will take a look at some of the classic ways to approach playing. If you are a total beginner, it is probably best to first focus on the style that produces the sound you like most, or is present in most of the music you like listening to. This will help give you motivation as you start to hear the sound you have always loved beginning to come from your own bass.
1. Fingerstyle As you may have guessed, this means using your finger(s), most typically your index and middle finger, to pull the strings upward. In the world of bass, the thumb gets its own unique sounds and has many unique approaches associated with it, so thumb playing is in a different category. “Fingerstyle” means the fingers, not the thumb or a pick, to play. This is probably the most common way to play the instrument, as you can get a wide variety of sounds out of this technique that work well for accompanying as well as soloing. For many players it is the most natural, and because two or more fingers can be used rather easily, it is quite versatile for playing anything from slow ballads to fast runs.
If you look up any bass playing on YouTube, the odds are very high you will see this approach implemented for some if not all of the song. Generally the hand is straight down, with the fingers perpendicular to the strings pulling upward. There is a lot of variety as to whether a player will alternate both fingers for the notes, use one or two only at certain times, or even focus on one.
The legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson used only his index finger, even for fast and intricate passages. The majority of players would use an alternating index and middle finger to play his lines. Using the two fingers alternating back and forth allows for much greater speed, and when this is developed, you can do everything from simple grooves to blisteringly fast runs and solos using this same approach.
You can also get quite a spectrum of different sounds using this same basic plucking approach depending on where on the string you pull. The closer to the fingerboard you pull, you will notice the sound gets a lot warmer, fatter, with less attack or punch on the note. A lot of times this approach is used for ballads, to emulate a darker more acoustic sound for jazz, and much more. Pulling closer to the bridge gets a brighter sound with a punchier attack, and also picks up a lot of the harmonics of the instrument. The further you go, the more exaggerated this quality gets. It is great for percussive funky lines, soloing, playing harmonics (more on that later) and much more. One of the most popular players who uses this sound a lot is Jaco Pastorious. It is highly recommended you check out his playing for a lot of reasons, but notice the punchy, clear sound he gets as he plucks the strings with his fingers towards the back of the instrument.
Bass Fingerstyle Exercises
One of the most important things to develop with fingerstyle playing is the ability to get a consistent sound across the different strings with both fingers. It is recommended to spend time with each finger on each string to develop this. Start with the index finger, and play a few notes on each string, starting from bottom to top and then reversing. Notice the differences in volume, attack, and sound quality as you move from string to string. Make any adjustments you need to make in order to keep it consistent. Then do this again with your middle finger, experimenting with whatever you need to do to get a uniform sound in terms of strength and clarity. Now begin to alternate between the middle and index on a single string.
Notice any differences between the fingers, often one will be louder than the other, have a brighter sound, be less full, and so on. Here is where more experimentation is in order to see what adjustments need to be made to smooth this out. There is no need to get obsessed with extreme uniformity, but you do not want to have an obvious drop in sound volume or quality between different strings or fingers. The Teach Me Bass Guitar course has several exercises with Roy Vogt demonstrating all of this on video which make for a valuable practice tool. We will continue this series with different ways of attacking the strings and different sounds you can get. Stay tuned.
Filed under: Bass Guitar Lessons
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