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Alternate Fingering And The Plucking Hand

Welcome back, folks! Last time around I took a momentary departure from purely technical subjects to introduce to you the importance of melody. Moving forward, I hope that you will remember to make even your technique building exercises musical. Once you get past the initial challenge of executing each exercise without repetitive mistakes or mis-fingerings, go out of your way to try and make the exercises sound as musical as possible. A great player can make even the most mundane phrases or exercises come to life by playing in an expressive or emotional manner. Even a simple major scale can be made to sound lyrical by doing such things as altering dynamics, loosening the time feel by allowing the pulse to ‘breathe’, or even altering your technique to vary your tone across the phrase.

In this installment, we will get back to the pursuit of increased dexterity and endurance, and we will focus this time on the plucking hand. One approach that will help to refine your right hand technique is the strict use of alternation with your picking fingers. Just as when you walk down the street you alternate your feet (left, right, left, right), the same approach can be adapted to your plucking fingers (1, 2, 1, 2, etc… or 2, 1, 2, 1, etc…). For those of you that use a pick exclusively, this approach can be adapted just as easily; the only difference is that you will look at your picking upstrokes and downstrokes as corresponding to the movements of the 2 plucking fingers, 1 and 2. Alternation is important because it evenly splits up your right hand workload evenly amongst your picking fingers, thereby making your picking more efficient and promoting economy of motion. Regardless of whether you use two, three, four (or more!) picking fingers, alternation is a key concept that will help you to be more proficient.

For the exercises in this installment, remember that you are to alternate your plucking fingers without any deviation, whatsoever. This will most likely require some very focused attention; I have found in the past that sometimes the best way to monitor your consistency is to practice in front of a mirror or with your eyes focused on your plucking hand. Keep in mind that our momentary concern with alternating perfectly is only a practice routine tactic designed to maximize the effectiveness of these drills. The idea is that the consistency and confidence we develop in the shed will work its way into our performance playing automatically. Let me stress that IT IS NOT IMPORTANT that you alternate perfectly when you perform on a gig or play a set of tunes. The intention is to build more headroom into our performance potential so that we are not at all hindered by technical limitations. Your goal should be complete freedom in spontaneous musical expression.


Example 1

When you practice alternation exercises, try to avoid “raking” as you move from higher pitched strings to lower. Raking is when you “brush” from the last note played on a higher string to the first note played of the next lowest string, resulting in the same finger being used to play 2 or more successive notes. (See example above)

Although it is a useful technique on its own, try not to use it at all when you are working exclusively on your alternation. This way you will develop full independent control over both techniques, and subsequently choose the best method for the job in various performance situations. Keep in mind we’re not trying to eliminate raking from your technical repetoire, just developing an independent skill through alternation.

Practicing Using Permutations

One great way to develop your alternation is to practice exercises that involve moving across the strings using deliberate, challenging movements. A very simple approach that can be developed further into more complex examples involves the use of fretting hand fingering permutations that assign one finger per fret. Using a one finger per fret approach in a closed position, we can come up with 24 different fingering permutations that we can use to practice our alternation:

1-2-3-4
1-2-4-3
1-3-2-4
1-3-4-2
1-4-2-3
1-4-3-2

2-1-3-4
2-1-4-3
2-3-1-4
2-3-4-1
2-4-1-3
2-4-3-1

3-1-2-4
3-1-4-2
3-2-1-4
3-2-4-1
3-4-1-2
3-4-2-1

4-1-2-3
4-1-3-2
4-2-1-3
4-2-3-1
4-3-1-2
4-3-2-1

Note: The numbers in each permutation correspond to the fingers on your plucking hand. Numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 represent your index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers, respectively.

Okay… Let’s get started! We will play through every permutation while moving across the strings in both ascending and descending directions. Let’s go over how we would approach practicing through each of these…

To begin with, place your fretting hand at a median location on your neck, for example, in 5th position. (5th position is where your left hand first finger is lined up with your 5th fret.) Now simply lay your fretting hand fingers on the neck so that you are in a one finger per fret position. (see above)

Exercise 1

Our first permutation will be: 1-2-3-4, which we will play using the basic hand position shown in figure 1. Keep in mind that your plucking hand fingering needs to alternate 1-2-1-2-1-2, etc. without deviation until you complete the permutation across all strings and back. This is demonstrated in exercise 1 above.

NOTE: If you are playing a bass that has 5 or 6 strings or more, extend these exercises so that you are playing the permutations across ALL of your strings, both ascending and descending.

The next permutation, 1-2-4-3, is illustrated in exercise 2 on the next page.


Exercise 2

Now that the basic approach has been shown to you, practice playing through each of these permutation exercises with a metronome or drum machine, making use of strict 1-2 alternation with the plucking hand and a smooth legato feel with the fretting hand. For each permutation, first choose a moderate tempo that is slow enough for you to play the exercises perfectly. I would suggest only increasing tempos only after you can play all 24 of the exercises without any errors in execution or fingering. Here are some suggestions for target tempos:

starting tempo: 60 bpm
target tempo: 120 bpm
practice duration: 30 min

These are merely suggestions to get you started, based on an average beginner’s level of technical ability. Feel free to change these to suit your own level. However, if you need to either slow down or speed up the targets, do so in a manner that allows you to play correctly and still be challenged.

Some final points to consider:

-Pay strict attention to what your plucking hand is doing as you work through these. It is easy to deviate from a steady 1-2 alternation with the plucking hand if you do not keep your eyes focused on it.

-If you are having trouble putting both hands together at first, focus on only one hand at a time, paying strict attention to the problem areas. Work them out one component at a time, and then slowly bring your two hands together, playing broken down versions of each permutation and then gradually building. For example, don’t try to play across all four strings until you can successfully and consistently play over one.

-In case you haven’t guessed already, you should ultimately be able to lead with either finger if you want to be effective with this technique. Most of us who have worked on this in the past may already be in the habit of starting with the same finger each time we begin to alternate. However, this will eventually expose some limitations when we start to get into more challenging passages that require changes in our fingering.

Until next time, practice hard and have fun!

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