I’m always on the look out for new things to learn to expand my playing and allow me to express myself more independently on the instrument. So at Christmas, I was excited (I don’t say surprised, because we usually get the emails of “What do you want this year?” nowadays) to get a copy of “Right Hand Drive,” by bassist Damian Erskine. Once I got home, I opened the book, grabbed a metronome and dove in.
The basics of the method are actually pretty simple. Unlike the right hand technique that we are all used to (where the index and middle fingers hit the strings while the thumb anchors the hand on a pickup), Erskine’s method involves you using the thumb much like the index and middle fingers. You hold your hand more like a classical guitarist would, which allows the thumb to move freely. Any anchoring you do at this point can be done either by resting the arm on the bass body, or by using the pinky.
The book itself is laid out easily and simply, with rudiments designed to help you ingrain the technique into the muscle memory before adding more advanced skills on top of it. I strongly encourage you to take the time to dive into these rudiments and play them ad nauseum; it will only help you to absorb the technique. Honestly it took me a good four months of playing with the book and forcing myself to use it at gigs before I had that “Aha!” moment where it all clicked and just happened. From there, it takes more work to play in the traditional right hand style.
A couple things I discovered while working through the book (in full disclosure, I’m still not done. I wanted to spend as much time on the basics to get them down before going to the advanced section), which have made this technique all the more valuable for me. First, the hand position allows very quick shifting from slap bass to fingerstyle to palm-muting. As a theatre musician, there are times when I have to make technique changes on the fly, and the Erskine method has made my job of quick transitions that much easier.
Secondly, you can still use a lot of other advanced right hand techniques with this method. I regularly use my ring finger on my right hand when playing fast passages, and that immediately worked its way into this technique. For someone that uses the upstrokes of their fingers, that’s very easy to incorporate as well. With the hand position, I feel you’re far more open to experiment and incorporate whatever you want into your playing. At church, I’ve been playing a lot of “hybrid slap,” where you’re using your thumb to play regularly, but then I can pop a string here and there for effect. With the traditional right hand position, that wouldn’t be possible.
“Right Hand Drive” is a new, inventive way for us to look at the role our right hand plays in the bass context. By using the thumb instead of treating it like an anchor, it unlocks a new level of expression, fluidity and motion. Combine that with the ease of switching from slap to fingerstyle to palm-muting, and for me it is an invaluable skill I’m glad I have taken the time to learn. And lastly, Damian is a stand up guy that is very easy to talk to (either by email, or find him on twitter at @damianerskine), and responsive. You can’t go wrong.