When looking at bass guitar techniques, we absolutely must take some time to explore slapping and popping. This is an extremely powerful and unique sound that you can get out of the instrument, vastly different from fingerstyle or using the pick. When done correctly it is very percussive, punchy, and can give either a very clear pitch or more percussive muted sound based what you do with your left hand.
While it is an old technique on acoustic bass, the bass guitar version of slapping and popping became more well known in the 60s and 70s funk. It soon became an often used color, branching into many different styles and situations because of its effectiveness. You hear it pop music, all over R&B, soundtracks and more. Funny enough, one place you have almost certainly heard the sound is the show “Seinfeld,” the soundtrack of which is dominantly the slap-bass sound (even though it is most likely a keyboard imitation of a real bass guitar.)
The technique has evolved dramatically over the years, with some players making advanced slap techniques their signature sound. We will look at some of these musicians and their particular approaches a bit later.
Slapping: The Basics
The fundamental element of slapping involves striking the string with the side of your thumb, turning your wrist. Getting the basic motion down can take some practice, especially when we start talking about hitting only the string you want to play with no other extraneous noises.
Just as with finger style playing, where you hit the string will affect the tone greatly. Both for sound quality and proper tension, slapping is generally done by striking closer to the fingerboard. This gives fatness to the tone and fundamental pitch, which balances nicely with the sharp trebly nature of slapping. I cannot think of any examples of slapping near the bridge, if the physics of the instrument really even allow it.
Once the side of your thumb sounds the string, there are different options. You can pass through it so that your thumb rests on the string below, or bounce your thumb off of the string immediately. There are different sonic and technique reasons for doing one or the other, and you will see different players with their own approach to this. It is worth paying close attention to.
While there are all sorts of extended effects and tricks after this, hitting the string with the side of your thumb with the “downward stroke” is the basic building block of the slapping electric bass technique. In fact, Marcus Miller, one of the best slap players in the world, seems to use primarily the downward thump.
Players like Victor Wooten strike through the string and often hit again with an “upward stroke.” This allows for very fast rhythms and economy of motion, though it is impossible to say it is superior.
What is the Popping Bass Guitar Technique?
Popping is a great compliment to the thumb slapping sound, and is created by lifting the string up and then letting it snap back against the fingerboard. It creates a very percussive, sharp attack that tends to really stand out as a rhythmic accent. Players tend to use the sound for extra emphasis, or as part of a rhythmic phrase.
Slapping and popping tend to go together, as there is a similar tonal quality to them. Physically the two work well together, if you think in terms of a guitar pick, thumb slapping often being the down-stroke and popping being the up. Players have developed this to sometimes incredibly fast speeds and rhythmic variations, creating very intense sonic and rhythmic effects.
Great Players Famous for the Slap/Pop Technique
There are more great bassists than we can name here, but here are a few legendary slap/pop players that are absolutely worth checking out:
Larry Graham – definitely one of the grandfathers of some uses of the technique that are very common today. He is known for his work with Sly and The Family Stone as well as his own band, Graham Central Station.
Louis Johnson – First call sideman on countless recordings as well as his own projects, including The Brothers Johnson.
Marcus Miller – Unique slap style and an extremely complete all around musician.
Stanley Clarke – A virtuoso bassist on both acoustic and electric, who makes effective use of these techniques.
Victor Wooten – He has elevated some of these sounds and techniques to a new level, and has some rather dazzling solo performances that make extensive use of slapping and popping.
To Learn More
If you want detailed video instruction on how to play slap/pop, as well as use it in a musical way with other musicians, you might want to check out the complete Teach Me Bass Guitar Course.
Filed under: Bass Guitar Lessons
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