When you first start playing the electric bass guitar, figuring out what to do with your right hand can be a bit of a challenge. How you pluck or hit the string is a major determinant of tone, but improper technique can also make playing bass a lot harder. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to play bass: as long as it’s comfortable and sounds good, you’re doing it right! The most important thing to keep in mind, as a beginner, is to remain flexible and adaptive. You might generally prefer one particular approach, but what works for one song or genre (or bassist) might not work for another, so it never hurts to mix it up! Here are the most common right-hand bass techniques and their variations:
Finger-Style: Finger-style technique is the most traditional (and perhaps the most common) playing style used by modern electric bassists. Players use the fingers on their right hand to “pluck” the bass strings. Some purists insist this is the only way to play the bass, though there certainly are many genres of music which better lend themselves to picked playing. Finger-style is used in nearly any genre or style of music, including jazz, r&b, funk, and rock.
Here are some variants/nuances of finger-style play:
- Playing while alternating between index finger and middle finger (sometimes adding the ring finger for even quicker playing). This is very useful; using only one finger is limiting and only works when playing at a very slow tempo.
- Floating thumb
- Playing with the index and/or middle finger, resting the heel of your palm on the instrument and letting your thumb “float.”
- Thumb resting on the E String
- Playing with the index and/or middle finger while the thumb is resting on the E string. The thumb is moved to “float” (as above) when playing the E string. This allows you to mute the string so it doesn’t vibrate while you play other strings.
- Thumb on pickguard/pickup
- Playing with the index and/or middle finger while the thumb is resting on the pickguard or pickup. Note that most modern bass guitars do not have a pick guard. This method is very comfortable, but somewhat limiting.
- Thumb plays bass note
- Playing the E and/or A strings with the thumb while the index and middle finger are used to pluck the higher strings. This is similar to finger-style guitar playing, and is utilized infrequently by bassists. It can, however, be quite useful.
Pick: Some bassists prefer to use a guitar pick to play the electric bass. Usually a wide, heavy-gauge pick is used to play the bass because basses have much thicker strings than guitars. Due to its similarities to guitar picking, bass players who use a pick often (but not always) play the electric guitar as well. Picks are commonly used for faster and heavier music, like punk, hard rock, and metal. However, there are many exceptions to this. Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, for example, uses a pick. Picks give a sharp, controlled “attack,” which gives a brighter sound. It’s important to get in the habit of alternating your picking (hitting the string from the top, and then the bottom, rather than just strumming down) to allow faster playing.
Slap Bass: Slap bass technique can be difficult for beginning players and is usually taught once a student has reached an intermediate or advanced level of play. It is most commonly used in funk and funk-rock music (bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Victor Wooten of the Flecktones are well-known for their slap bass prowess). Generally, slap bass players spend most of their type playing finger-style while using slap for only part of a song, though there are some exceptions. The bassist uses their thumb to “slap” the bottom notes while “pulling” the upper strings with their other fingers, resulting in a rhythmic pattern of “thuds” and “pops”. A good example of this technique is the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s 1989 cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”.
- Practice with an amp. When your bass isn’t plugged in, you have to hit the strings a lot harder, which affects your technique.
- Watch players you admire. You can learn a lot from videos and watching how other people approach the instrument.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you’re stuck, you might want to look into getting bass lessons with a professional.