Bass guitar techniques
Bass guitar techniques are methods or approaches used by bassists when playing bass guitars. Sometimes techniques are used to produce a particular sound, which is best suited for a certain song or style of music. In the early days, bassists often used techniques to emulate the sound of acoustic upright basses. However, as music and the role the bass diversified, new techniques were developed to meet the new needs and explore new sounds.
Non-fretting hand techniques
Plucking or pizzicato is the most common bass technique. It involves striking or plucking the strings with the fleshly parts of the thumb or non-fretting fingers. The resulting tone may approach the sound of an upright bass, depending on the amplification used. Influential Motown bassist James Jamerson played with only his index finger (dubbed "the Hook"); however, many bassists use a combination of fingers.
A pick (or plectrum) produces a more pronounced attack, for speed, or personal preference. Bass with a pick is primarily associated with rock and punk rock, but players in other styles also use them. Picks can be used with alternating downstrokes and upstrokes, or with all downstrokes for a more consistent attack. The pick is usually held with the index and thumb, with the up-and-down plucking motion supplied by the wrist.
There are many varieties of picks available, but due to the thicker, heavier strings of the electric bass, bassists tend to use heavier picks than those used for electric guitar, typically ranging from 1.14 mm–3.00 mm (3.00 is unusual). Different materials are used for picks, including plastic, nylon, rubber, and felt, all of which produce different tones. Felt and rubber picks sound closer to a fingerstyle tone.
Palm-muting is a widely used bass technique. The outer edge of the palm of the picking hand is rested on the bridge while picking, and "mutes" the strings, shortening the sustain time. The harder the palm presses, or the more string area that is contacted by the palm, the shorter the string's sustain. The sustain of the picked note can be varied for each note or phrase. The shorter sustain of a muted note on an electric bass can be used to imitate the shorter sustain and character of an upright bass. Palm-muting is commonly done while using a pick, but can also be done without a pick, as when doing down-strokes with the thumb.
One prominent example of the pick/palm-muting combination is Paul McCartney, who has used this technique for decades. Sting also uses palm-muting, but often without a pick, using the thumb and first finger to pluck.
Strumming is a common technique on guitar, usually for playing chords. Chords are not used that often by electric bass players. However, in some styles, bassists may sound "double stops", such as octaves with open strings and powerchords. In Latin music, double stops with fifths are used. Lemmy of Motörhead often played power chords in his bass lines. but it is not a commonly used technique for bass.
Slap and pop
The slap and pop method, or "thumbstyle", most associated with funk, uses tones and percussive sounds achieved by striking, thumping, or "slapping" a string with the thumb and snapping (or "popping") a string or strings with the index or middle fingers. Bassists often interpolate left hand-muted "ghost notes" between the slaps and pops to achieve a rapid percussive effect, and after a note is slapped or popped, the fretting hand may cause other notes to sound by using "hammer-ons", "pull-offs", or a left-hand glissando (slide). Larry Graham was an early innovator of the slap style, and Louis Johnson is also credited as an early slap bass player.
"Spank bass" developed from the slap and pop style and treats the electric bass as a percussion instrument, striking the strings above the pickups with an open palmed hand. Victor Wooten popularized the "double thump," in which the string is slapped twice, on the upstroke and a downstroke. A rarely used playing technique related to slapping is the use of wooden dowel "funk fingers", an approach popularized by Tony Levin.
Bernard Edwards sometimes used a technique he called "chucking" to pluck the bass strings with the forefinger of his right hand, in a manner similar to how strings are plucked with a plectrum.
In chucking, the thumb supports the forefinger at the first joint, as though using an invisible plectrum. With a flexible wrist action, chucking facilitates rapid rhythmic sequences of notes played on different strings, particular notes that are an octave apart. Chucking is distinguished from plucking in that the attack is softer with a sound closer to that produced by the use of fingers. Chucking allows a mix of plucking and finger techniques on a given song, without having to take up or put down a plectrum.
The fretting hand—the left hand for right-handed bass players and right hand for left-handed bass players—presses down the strings to play different notes and shape the tone or timbre of a plucked or picked note. One fretting technique is a finger per fret, where each finger in the fretting hand plays one fret in a given position, giving the advantage that full chromatic scale of over an octave and a half can be played with no up-down wrist movement.
A player can use the fretting hand to change a sounded note, either by fully muting it after plucking it, or by partially muting it near the bridge to reduce volume, or make the note fade faster. The fretting hand often mutes strings that are not being played to stop sympathetic vibrations, particularly when the player wants a "dry" or "focused" sound.
The fretting hand can add vibrato to a plucked or picked note, either a gentle, narrow vibrato or a more exaggerated, wide vibrato with bigger pitch variations. For fretted basses, vibrato is always an alternation between the pitch of the note and a slightly higher pitch. For fretless basses, the player can use this style of vibrato, or they can alternate between the note and a slightly lower pitch, as is done with the double bass and on other unfretted stringed instruments. While vibrato is mostly done on "stopped" notes—that is, notes that are pressed down on the fingerboard—open strings can also be vibratoed by pressing down on the string behind the nut. As well, the fretting hand can be used to "bend" a plucked or picked note up in pitch, by pushing or pulling the string so that the note sounds at a higher pitch. To create the opposite effect, a "bend down", the string is pushed to a higher pitch before being plucked or picked and then allowed to fall to the lower, regular pitch after it is sounded. Though rare, some bassists may use a tremolo bar-equipped bass to produce the same effect.
In addition to pressing down one note at a time, bassists can also press down several notes at one time with their fretting hand to perform a double stop (two notes at once) or a chord. While double stops and chords are used less often by bassists than by electric guitarists playing rhythm guitar, a variety of double stops and chords can be performed on the electric bass. Some double stops used by bassists include octaves. Chords can be especially with effective on instruments with higher ranges such as six-string basses. Another variation to fully pressing down a string is to gently graze the string with the finger at the harmonic node points on the string, which creates chime-like upper partials (also called "overtones"). Glissando is an effect in which the fretting hand slides up or down the neck, which can be used to create a slide in pitch up or down. A subtle glissando can be performed by moving the fretting hand without plucking or picking the string; for a more pronounced effect, the string is plucked or picked first, or, in a metal or hardcore punk context, a pick may be scraped along the sides of the lower strings.
The fretting hand can also be used to sound notes, either by plucking an open string with the fretting hand, or, in the case of a string that has already been plucked or picked, by "hammering on" a higher pitch or "pulling off" a finger to pluck a lower fretted or open stringed note. Jazz bassists use a subtle form of fretting hand pizzicato by plucking a very brief open string grace note with the fretting hand right before playing the string with the plucking hand. When a string is rapidly hammered on, the note can be prolonged into a trill.
In the two-handed tapping styles, bassists use both hands to play notes on the fretboard by rapidly pressing and holding the string to the fret. Instead of plucking or picking the string to create a sound, in this technique, the action of striking the string against the fret or the fretboard creates the sound. Since two hands can be used to play on the fretboard, this makes it possible to play interweaving contrapuntal lines, to simultaneously play a bass line and a simple chord, or play chords and arpeggios. Bassist John Entwistle tapped percussively on the strings, causing them to strike the fretboard with a twangy sound.
Techinques in various styles
Popular music bands and rock groups use the bass guitar as a member of the rhythm section, which provides the chord sequence or "progression" and sets out the "beat" for the song. The rhythm section typically consists of a rhythm guitarist or electric keyboard player, or both, a bass guitarist and a drummer; larger groups may add additional guitarists, keyboardists, or percussionists.
Bassists often play a bass line composed by an arranger, songwriter or composer of a song—or, in the case of a cover song, the bass line from the original. In other bands—e.g., jazz-rock bands that play from lead sheets and country bands using the Nashville Number System—bassists are expected to improvise or prepare their own part to fit the song's chord progression and rhythmic style.
Types of bass lines vary widely, depending on musical style. The bass guitarist generally anchors the harmonic framework (often by emphasizing the roots of the chord progression) and laying down the beat in collaboration with the drummer and other rhythm section instruments. The importance of the bass guitarist and the bass line varies in different styles of music. In some pop styles, such as 1980s-era pop and musical theater, the bass sometimes plays a relatively simple part as the music emphasizes vocals and melody instruments. In contrast, in reggae, funk, or hip-hop, entire songs may center on the bass groove, and the bass line is usually prominent in the mix.
In traditional music such as country music, folk rock, and related styles, the bass often plays the roots and fifth (typically the fifth below the root) of each chord in alternation. In these styles, bassists often use scalar "walkups" or "walkdowns" when there is a chord change. In Chicago blues, the electric bass often performs a walking bassline made up of scales and arpeggios. In blues rock bands, the bassist often plays blues scale-based riffs and chugging boogie-style lines. In heavy metal, the bass guitar may perform complex riffs along with the rhythm guitarist or play a low, rumbling pedal point to anchor the group's sound.
Jazz and jazz fusion
The electric bass is a relative newcomer to the world of jazz. The big bands of the 1930s and 1940s Swing era and the small combos of the 1950s Bebop and Hard Bop movements all used the double bass. The electric bass was introduced in some bands in the 1950s and it became prominent during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rock influences were blended with jazz to create jazz-rock fusion.
The introduction of the electric bass in jazz fusion, as in the rock world, helped bassists play in high-volume stadium concerts with powerful amplifiers, because it is easier to amplify the electric bass than the double bass (the latter is prone to feedback in high-volume settings). The electric bass has both an accompaniment and a soloing role in jazz. In accompaniment, the bassist may perform walking basslines for traditional tunes and jazz standards, playing smooth quarter note lines that imitate the double bass. It is called a walking bass line because of the way it rises and falls using scale notes and passing notes.
In a jazz setting, the electric bass tends to have a much more expansive solo role than in most popular styles. In most rock settings, the bass guitarist may only have a few short bass breaks or brief solos during a concert. During a jazz concert, a jazz bassist may have a number of lengthy improvised solos, which are called "blowing" in jazz parlance. Whether a jazz bassist is comping (accompanying) or soloing, they usually aim to create a rhythmic drive and "timefeel" that creates a sense of "swing" and "groove".
Contemporary classical music
Contemporary classical music uses both the standard instruments of Western Art music (piano, violin, double bass, etc.) and newer instruments or sound producing devices, ranging from electrically amplified instruments to tape players and radios.
The electric bass guitar has occasionally been used in contemporary classical music (art music) since the late 1960s. Contemporary composers often obtained unusual sounds or instrumental timbres through the use of non-traditional (or unconventional) instruments or playing techniques. As such, bass guitarists playing contemporary classical music may be instructed to pluck or strum the instrument in unusual ways.
However, contemporary classical composers may also write for the bass guitar to get its unique sound, and in particular its precise and piercing attack and timbre. For example, Steve Reich, explaining his decision to score "2x5" for two bass guitars, stated that, "[With electric bass guitars] you can have interlocking bass lines, which on an acoustic bass, played pizzicato, would be mud."
As a soloing instrument
The bass guitarist sometimes breaks out of the strict rhythm section role to perform bass breaks or bass solos. The types of bass lines used for bass breaks or bass solos vary by style. In a rock band, a bass break may consist of the bassist playing a riff or lick during a pause in the song. In some styles of metal, a bass break may consist of "shred guitar"-style tapping on the bass. In a funk or funk rock band, a bass solo may showcase the bassist's percussive slap and pop playing. In genres such as progressive rock, art rock, or progressive metal, the bass guitar player may play melody lines along with the lead guitar (or vocalist) and perform extended guitar solos.
While bass guitar solos are not common in popular music, some artists, particularly in the heavy metal, funk, and progressive rock genres, do use them. In a rock context, bass guitar solos are structured and performed in a similar fashion as rock guitar solos, often with the musical accompaniment from the verse or chorus sections. Bass solos are performed using a range of different techniques, such as plucking or fingerpicking.
In the 1960s, the Who's bassist, John Entwistle, performed a bass break on the song "My Generation" using a plectrum. This is considered one of the first bass solos in rock music, and also one of the most recognizable.
Funk bassists such as Larry Graham began using slapping and popping techniques for their solos, which coupled a percussive thumb-slapping technique of the lower strings with an aggressive finger-snap of the higher strings, often in rhythmic alternation. The slapping and popping technique incorporates a large number of muted (or "ghost" tones) to normal notes to add to the rhythmic effect. Slapping and popping solos were prominent in 1980s pop and R&B, and they are still used by some modern funk and Latin bands.
When playing bass solos, rock and metal bassists sometimes use effects such as fuzz bass or a wah-wah pedal to produce a more pronounced sound. Due to the lower range of the bass, bass guitar solos usually have a much lighter accompaniment than solos for other instruments. In some cases, the bass guitar solo is unaccompanied, or accompanied only by the drums.
Pedagogy and training
The pedagogy and training for the electric bass varies widely by genre and country. Rock and pop bass has a history of pedagogy dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, when method books were developed to help students learn the instrument. One notable method book was Carol Kaye's How to Play the Electric Bass.
In the jazz scene, since the bass guitar takes on much of the same role as the double bass—laying down the rhythm, and outlining the harmonic foundation—electric bass players have long used both bass guitar methods and jazz double bass method books. The use of jazz double bass method books by electric bass players in jazz is facilitated in that jazz methods tend to emphasize improvisation techniques (e.g., how to improvise walking basslines) and rhythmic exercises rather than specific ways of holding or plucking the instrument.
Footnotes and references
- Vazquez, Jaime. "Bass Lines by Jaime Vazquez – Adventurous Bass Playing Part II". Bass Musician. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
- "Nile Rodgers Digs Deep in Reddit AMA". Rolling Stone.
- "BBC Four - Guitar, Drum and Bass, Series 1, On Bass... Tina Weymouth!, Nile Rodgers, Jerry Barnes and Jack Stratton on Bernard Edwards". BBC.
- "Funk It Up Like Nile Rodgers". Guitar Player.
- Nile Rodgers (2011). Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny. Spiegel & Grau. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-385-52965-5.
- "Bernard Edwards "Chucking" Bass Technique". Bestbassgear.com. May 5, 2015. Retrieved February 17, 2019.
- "Left Hand Techniques for Bass Guitar". Johnnycoxmusic.com. April 30, 2014.
- Interview by Ronen Givony, from the sleeve notes of Steve Reich, Double Sextet/2x5, Nonesuch Records (2010).