Slap Bass and Indian Slap Bass, the Evolution… Many changes occurred in making and playing the Bass Guitar during the last century. ‘Slapping the bass’ is considered to have begun in the 1920’s on the Double Bass. On double bass it refers to the technique which is a more vigorous version of pizzicato, where the strings are plucked so hard that when released it bounces off the fingerboard, making a distinctive sound. Smacking the strings with all four fingers of the right hand also makes a percussive sound.
On Electric Bass Guitar
“Slap bass” is referred to percussive playing technique in electric bass as well, that the style sounds and looks percussive rather than the usual fingering of notes. Slap bass is more technically called “slaps” and “pops”. In the slaps, the bassist uses the bone of the thumb joint to strike the lower strings near the base of the guitar’s neck. In the pops, the bassist uses the index and middle fingers of the plucking hand to snap the higher-pitched strings away from the body of the bass, causing them to bounce off the fret board; this produces a prominent buzzing tone with a sharp attack and more high-frequency vibrations than in plucked bass.
Double Bass player Bill Johnson, is considered by many as the father of slap bass. The methods developed by Larry Graham followed by Louis Johnson are nowadays practiced by a majority of electric bass players around the globe. Some bassists use fingers instead of the thumb to do slapping. Abraham Laboriel, Sr. developed a technique of using the thumb to pop the strings while his other four fingers slap the strings. Bassist Victor Wooten uses a double thumb technique, where he slaps the string when the thumb goes downward and pops when it goes upward. This gives him extra speed to play so that it sounds like a drum-roll on the bass guitar. Tony Levin created a similar drumming sound by using a hard surface on the fingers to strike the strings, which was named ‘Funk Fingers’. Funk Fingers are kind of small drumsticks strapped to fingers. To get a metal slap tone, bassists usually use their nails to hit the strings. Doug Wimbish also plays slaps with his fingers other than thumb.
Some of the double and electric bass players who are notable in slapping the bass are Bill Johnson, Pops Foster, Wellman Braud, Chester Zardis. Milt Hinton, Kim Nekroman, Scott Owen, Alcide Pavageau, Lee Rocker, Amy LaVere, Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clarke, Jonas Hellborg, Marcus Miller, Stuart Hamn, Les Claypool, Mark King, Kai Eckhardt, Mike Gordon, Flea, Fieldy, Brian Bromberg, Gustavo Dal Farra and the list goes on and on. A close watch of these bass players reveals that each and everyone has very distinctive styles. Similarly, every musician whether he is professional or amateur has his distinctive methods and techniques hidden inside. What matters is to develop it with proper training and self-motivation.
Since the acceptance of electric bass guitar in Jazz Music and subsequent revised applications of the technique since 1940’s, slap bass has been increasingly attracting music lovers all over the World. When funk music became more popular, slap bass has been subjected to various experimental playing techniques. Slapping is applied in most of the music genres since the 1960’s especially in funk, disco, jazz, pop and world music fusion.
During the changes in the music of the West, fusion music was silently having its own innovations. One of the inevitable instruments of India for fusion music has been Tabla. Bass players succeeded in blending the slap bass with Indian percussion instruments due to the similarity in the slap tones and sound of tabla. Jonas Hellborg and Kai Eckhardt adapted a different approach to the slap to blend it with Indian Classical music.
Tabla Style Technique and Myself
Even from the beginning of my bass playing career in 1986 the tabla/mridangam style technique was more convenient for me than the usual slap method. This may be because I had some training in the Indian percussion instrument mridangam, application of this technique on the strings was easy for me. In the early 1990s, when I could not get a slap tone due to inefficient pick-ups and guitars available at that time, I was forced to use hard plastic pipe pieces on the forefinger and middle finger to get the tone while playing like a tabla. That was a success as far as tones were concerned, but the playability was comparatively poor. In those days the music genres I used to play in bands did not require slap bass, so I had to keep that idea aside after experimenting for few years. In the early days I did not have enough access to the world outside India, but in one of the videos of the great Abraham Laboriel I heard him say, and I am paraphrasing, that, “What is important is the sound that is produced and not necessarily how the bass is played.” Those words really lit the fire inside me; therefore I decided to move ahead with this unconventional style. Later on I was also encouraged by the words of some of the greatest names in the bass world… Jeff Berlin, Bootsy Collins, etc.
Indian Slap Bass is playing the Bass Guitar just like the Indian classical percussion instruments Tabla or Mridangam or Kanjira. It is played by hitting the string with the index finger and hitting with middle and ring fingers held close together. This is not complicated because strings are hit like two drum sticks: One stick is the index finger and the other stick is the middle and ring fingers held close together. The exercise to begin is hitting the last string with forefinger (F) first and then with the other two fingers, middle and ring (MR). To be precise, the fingering is F-MR-F-MR | F-MR-F-MR for 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4. Later the playing is reversed to MR-F-MR-F | MR-F-MR-F. It is done with the left hand finger on the 5th fret of the last string. After making it comfortable by doing it for few days, the same is to be played on the other string, holding the left hand finger on the 3rd fret. The sound created when the string is hit with MR fingers is slightly different from the sound created by F finger. Many different methods/exercises can be worked out to get playability and to avoid the problems caused by crossing the strings, fingers and notes.
I have been experimenting and promoting this method single handedly for years. I am so happy that it has many fans across the World now. Many young bassists are willing to learn it. I am sure that if someone practices this technique for one year, he will be able to do it well.
It works perfectly not only with funk, jazz, blues or rock, but with heavy metal also. Since the two fingers can distinctly produce clear 16th notes on the same string, it fits with metal music. It can also be blended beautifully with Indian classical music. I am sure that the next generation of musicians will find the potential in its application in future music to come.
My intention is to popularize ‘Indian Slap Bass’ across the World. There are so many good bass players in India. But the majority of people still have to become familiar with the instrument Bass Guitar, which makes my task challenging. So my task also includes popularization of bass guitar in India among the masses.
Jaya Kumar Kerala Varma –aka- Jayen Varma, known for developing Indian Slap Bass lives in India, the land of many amazing Musicians and Music genres. It took three decades for him to prove the World that Tabla/Mridangam finger technique can be applied on Bass Guitar. In 2008 The Registry of Official World Records (Record Holders Republic) USA&UK declared him the Fastest Bassist. Visit online at www.jayenvarma.net.