Once again, I’d like to stick with the basics for this installment and take up where we left off last time around. In my last lesson, I went into the specifics of basic solid fretting hand technique; this time around I want to shift to the plucking hand. As you are probably already aware, it is the fine synchronization of the two hands working together that will really help you to get to the next level with your dexterity.
For many of us, the problem is not so much with our individual hand technique… Instead, our symptoms are revealed when we try and get the two hands working together in an efficient and more ‘automatic’ manner. Sometimes our attention is divided between the two hands in the practice shed, and we find that the idea of multitasking the fingers of both hands during technique drills become overwhelming. It is my hope that working through the exercises presented in these lessons will allow you to build enough muscle memory and ‘automation’ into your technique to free you from having to focus so much on the individual hands. My goal is to allow you to execute these challenges successfully, with both hands performing in total harmony!
Something I like to do with my students, regardless of their experience level, is to sit them down and analyze how their hands are working together on the bass. What I have found is that a lot of players have gone about as far as they can go given their current technical approach, because they might be limited by a particular stumbling block. To get a student working at the next level of competency usually only requires some fine-tuning.
Take a moment and think about the way you play right now. Are there some elements of your technique that you wish were better? Do you struggle with increasing your speed or playing cleaner? Does your hand position seem to change drastically, depending on what part of the bass you are playing on? Do you struggle with unnecessary tension when you play?
Over the years I have come to recognize some common problems and solutions with respect to hand technique. When working to improve, sometimes it is a good idea to focus on each hand individually. Each hand plays a different role in playing the bass; therefore, each hand requires a unique technical approach. We have already covered the basics of good fretting hand technique in our last lesson; now, it’s time to focus on the plucking hand as it applies to finger style playing. I will try to focus on some important concepts specific to the right hand that often cause problems for bass players.
Muting and the Movable Anchor
I think we can all agree it is a good idea to utilize some sort of muting method to keep strings quiet that are not being played. This topic causes a lot of problems for players, especially ones who are making the transition from 4 string bass to a 5 or 6 string or more. Keeping the strings that aren’t being played quiet is a challenge for the right hand because it is already preoccupied with the actual plucking of the strings. Many players try to depend on their left hand exclusively for muting tasks, but this approach can be futile during very complex or challenging passages.
In my opinion, the use of a “moveable anchor” is one of the most versatile and least restrictive solutions to this challenge. Most of us who play finger style already utilize some type of anchored approach using the thumb of the right hand. For example, some players place their thumb on a pickup or the body of the bass while they play in order to stabilize their right hand. Others might use a thumb rest or low string to accomplish the same task.
The concept of a movable anchor is similar, but instead of leaving the thumb in one place, this approach allows the thumb to ‘float’ or ‘follow’ the picking fingers back and forth over the width of the strings, acting as a mute in both directions.
An exaggerated example of this approach for 4 string bass is demonstrated in the following example:
Individual hand positions that correspond to the strings played in example 1 are illustrated in figures 2a-2d:
Figure 2a (E string)
Figure 2b (A string)
Figure 2c (D string)
Figure 2d (G string)
Note: 5 string, 6 string, and multi string players will add their extra strings to the range of this example, and carry through the same fingerings to each of their strings.
A summary of the basic approach is this: As your picking fingers move across the strings, the side or ridge of your thumb follows behind them, anchoring on those strings not being played and keeping them quiet. Let me state once again, however, that the previous exercise is an exaggerated example designed to show you the basic concept.
The most practical applications of this concept allow the thumb to “float” across the strings more, just keeping light contact, as opposed to rigidly parking on each string until you move to the next one.
There are several ways to implement this approach by simply changing the angle of the thumb; you’ll want to experiment to discover which method works best for you. Over the years I’ve come to settle on a version in which my thumb usually stays two strings behind my picking fingers, depending on what I’m playing.
Another benefit to using a movable anchor is that in addition to taking care of muting tasks, it also maintains a consistent hand position as you move across the strings. To explain another way, the actual ‘openness’ of your right hand remains the same regardless of which string you are playing. You’ll find that the more closed hand position used by this approach usually results in a greater comfort. Why? Try this test:
Completely relax your hands and watch what your fingers do… If you’re built like most people, you’ll find that they naturally curve into a more closed hand position. It actually takes a degree of strength to hold your hands completely open. Now think about how that applies to your right hand technique. With a stationary anchor, your right hand becomes more open the farther away your picking fingers get from your anchor. (See Figure 3)
A moveable anchor promotes a more closed right hand position across all strings, since you don’t have to ‘reach’ for the higher pitched strings.
Another approach that will help to refine your right hand technique is the strict use of alternation in 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 picking fingers (1, 2, 1, 2, etc… or 2, 1, 2, 1, etc…). Ultimately you should be able to lead with either finger if you want to be effective with this technique.
Alternation is important because it evenly splits up your right hand workload 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.