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A favourite target of criticism by all bass "professors" of merits – the thumb that is not neatly hidden behind the neck and is obnoxiously poking above the E string. | Photo: Artmaster
A favourite target of criticism by all bass "professors" of merits – the thumb that is not neatly hidden behind the neck and is obnoxiously poking above the E string. | Photo: Artmaster
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TOP 5 Bass Playing Techniques Forbidden by Academics

If only time would go back and I could be sweet seventeen again with endless energy and enthusiasm. I was starting to take bass practice really seriously at that time, spending many hours of practice routines and absorbing every piece of advice from experienced musicians. No fancy YouTube tutorials but procured bass guitar textbooks, and listening to a tape recorder. I got a lot of great advice, but I also held back unnecessarily when someone told me that "that's just not how to play" or "only amateurs do that" and other such pieces of wisdom. So today let's take a look at the TOP 5 bass-playing techniques forbidden by academics, which are surprisingly also used by professionals.

1. The poking thumb

A favourite target of criticism by all bass "professors" of merits. The thumb that is not neatly hidden behind the neck and is obnoxiously poking above the E string. I had to laugh recently when videos of MUSE's Chris Wolstenholm (playing the mega-famous riff from Hysteria), insane moves of Mohini Dey and finally some bass gem performed by Mr. Sting from The Police era popped up at me on social media somewhere in fairly quick succession. For all three bass personalities, the common denominator was just the proverbial thumb sticking out. Do they have bad technique? Did they skip lessons with a bass teacher? How on earth is that possible?

The simple explanation is that with your left hand positioned like that, your wrist is completely relaxed and, more importantly, straight. This is the most comfortable hand position on the fretboard. Yes, it has some limitations (especially for players with short fingers), but you don't have to worry about it at all and if you can mute the strings and play your favourite grooves so that they sound precise, feel free to relax and let your thumb poking from behind the fretboard. Your wrists and tendons will thank you.


2. One finger per fret

This is the basis of all bass guitar textbooks. A good bassist plays one finger in the appropriate fret. A very efficient and extremely economical method of fingering. However, if you play this way 100% of your playing time, your hand will tire very quickly and playing in lower positions (such as F) will be a decent fitness for the left hand. In this position you will also have a bent wrist (some even at a very acute angle) and stretching your fingers to the frets will cause your hand to stiffen after long playing.

If you are playing a simple eighth line or a basic groove with a kick drum, there is no need to have your fingers "on standby" all the time in a finger-per-fret style. Give your left hand a rest, straighten your wrist, bring your fingers closer together (about three frets) and most importantly –  relax your hand position so that you don't feel any tension in your tendons. Your horizontal movement across the fretboard will noticeably improve and you will be able to play longer without uncomfortable finger stiffness.

3. Bass too damn low

In my jazz period, which was dominated by six-string bass gods, I also suffered from a snobbish prejudice against players who kept their bass lower than their trouser waistband. I considered this holding of the instrument a sign of amateurism and limited playing skills. When I was at King's X concert, while I marvelled at the amazing music and charismatic vocals of Doug Pinnick, I still couldn't get over how low he kept his bass.

Of course, after some time of maturing and especially listening to Infectious Grooves and RHCP, when I discovered Robert Trujillo and Flea, my opinion changed radically. However, I still considered bass in a lower position on the band mainly as an image issue, where you look cooler on stage but pay for it with more limited playing possibilities. But I've recently realised that even that is actually an advantage.

In a recent interview, Tim Lefebvre (he made the last record with David Bowie, for example, an amazing player and bass persona) said out loud what I've thought for years but was almost afraid to say. By putting your bass lower and really limiting your excursions to higher positions, you actually focus on the essentials when playing bass lines. You play naturally so that you're able to get it right even with the bass at your knees, and you place more emphasis on rhythm, tone quality and phrasing instead of too many notes in the groove or an overabundance of licks and frills that a conveniently placed bass from the waist up tempts you to do.  


4. Pick

Even in the 21st century, this tiny triangular piece of plastic has major detractors among bassists. The pick belongs to the guitar world and a "true" bassist plays principally with their fingers. Yes, I confess, I too belonged to the camp of the orthodox and purity of play defenders of the finger bass world, where the world is still right. I've even diligently practised finger techniques that actually mimic the speed and sound of a pick... just to avoid it at all costs.

It's funny to think that we even address such trivialities as whether playing with a pick is a transgression against some unwritten code of a "real" bass player. The pick is just one of the really many techniques one can use to play the bass. And it has a clear place not only in rock, metal and punk, where it is extremely useful for mastering the articulation of extremely fast riffs. You can play any genre with a pick, as long as it fits and as long as it inspires interesting phrases. That's what's great about alternating playing techniques, they send you in a different direction each time. Try playing the same simple groove with your fingers (typically alternating between index and middle finger), slap, pick, and then maybe strum with just one finger or thumb. You will see (and more importantly, hear and feel) a very different concept of timing and a shift in phrasing just by changing the pluck of the string.

5. Horizontal chaos

Don't be afraid to abandon your favourite vertical frets (so beloved by fans of finger-per-fret fingering) and start travelling more around the fretboard. Relax your left hand, straighten your wrist and don't squeeze the strings so much (you'll be surprised how little force is actually enough to successfully play a note at the fretboard). As you become more mobile in the horizontal direction, your playing will begin to sing more. You'll also discover more colours for playing individual notes in different positions on the fretboard.

Last but not least, you'll also have to concentrate a lot more on your playing, because when you suddenly jump up two octaves from G on the third fret on the E string to G on the seventeenth fret on the D string, you can get pretty sweaty. You're probably thinking that it's ridiculous to move around the fretboard like that when everything can be played comfortably within the same position and using the old familiar finger-per-fret system. However, loosen up on the mobility of your left hand and use more slides and vibrato for more melodic, juicy-sounding bass lines that are not only fun to play but also fun to watch from a spectator's perspective.

Tagy TOP 5 bass techniques

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Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.