In this bass technique lesson I will explain what I think makes up good fretting hand technique. It's not the right way, but it's one good way and what many bassists aim to do.
As with plucking hand technique, you want to strive for a relaxed hand, a clear and consistent tone, and the use of efficient motions. This takes some time to develop. Try to focus your awareness on these different points as you play. Eventually they will become unconscious. Go slowly, be patient, and practice...
On bass your fretting hand fingers are numbered:
- 1 = index finger
- 2 = middle finger
- 3 = ring finger
- 4 = pinky finger
Keep your fingernails trimmed. It's not as important in your fretting hand as it is in the plucking hand, but long nails can get in the way.
Avoiding Hand Injuries
Once again, you need to remember musicians are prone to getting hand injuries. Keep your wrists straight.
Pay attention to pains. Your body is telling you something. Your fingertips will hurt a little in the early stages. This is normal. You should never have shooting pains in your wrists. Always change your practice routine gradually. Don't jump into playing 12 hours a day. You can hurt yourself.
Fretting Hand Arm Positioning
Let your arm hang relaxed at your side. Avoid tension in your shoulder.
Don't rest your elbow on your leg when you practice sitting down. Your leg won't be there when you stand up!
Fretting Hand Thumb Placement
Place your thumb on the middle of the back of the neck. Do not let it hang over the top of the neck. Proper thumb placement will make it easier for your fingers to reach notes on the fretboard.
Your thumb should point towards the ceiling. Your thumb should be straight and the pad of your thumb should be flat against the neck.
Your thumb is there to help your fingers press the strings against the fretboard. Keep your thumb behind your 1st and 2nd fingers for the most efficient support. Don't move it off to the side.
Don't Touch the Underside of the Neck
Your palm should not be touching the underside of the neck. There should be a pocket of space there. More friction against the neck may slow you down, and you may accidentally mute your highest string.
Most bassists use a one-finger-per-fret position. That means your fingers will cover a span of 4 frets on the fretboard. That doesn't mean your hand should be straining to make that stretch all the time. Remember - relax! Stretch for the notes as you need them assigning one finger per fret over a four-fret span. After you've been playing for a while, you will know when you must stretch and when you can relax. Most of the time you should be relaxed.
In my opinion you should never use two adjacent fingers to stretch over more than one fret. For example, playing frets 1 and 3 with fingers 1 and 2. This will increase the risk of hand injuries. You can use those fingers, but rather than stretch you should shift your hand over a fret. This way you are using a natural movement of your arm vs. an unnatural stretch of your fingers.
Stretching is Tricky
Getting used to the 4-fret span is always awkward in the beginning. It may even seem impossible at first. It's not. Many people think their hands are just too small, but they're not. I've seen very few students whose hands were too small for the one-finger-per-fret technique. With practice it will happen. Try it for a couple of months of real, solid practice. If you still can't do it, try using a three-finger technique -- use your first, second and fourth fingers. You will end up doing a lot more shifting to make up for using one less finger.
If something is a big stretch for you, try practicing it higher on the neck (nearer the bass guitar's body) where the frets are closer together. Once it is comfortable on the higher frets, try gradually moving it lower to stretch your fingers.
Use First Finger's Pad More Than Tip
Do not stand on your first finger's fingertip. Use the pad of your first finger to press the string against the fretboard. This will make it easier to lay your first finger flat against the strings--an essential part of muting.
Press fingers 2, 3 and 4 with whatever feels most natural. Depending on the length of these fingers, you may use more of the tip or more of the pad.
Muting with 1st Finger
Always keep your first finger laying flat against the strings to help mute them. Let your 1st finger gently touch the strings without pressing them down.
When this technique is combined with good muting technique in your plucking hand, you will have very good control over muting all strings.
Fretting Hand Finger Placement
This is very important. Each finger should press as closely behind the fret as possible without being on the fret.
Move your finger towards the bridge until you get to the fret. You should only see the metal of the fret in front of your finger. Don't press right on top of the fret.
The reason you do this is because this spot is the least likely to make unwanted bass fret buzz or muffled notes, and it requires the least amount of pressing.
Another important point: always press with the least amount of pressure possible while still making a clear tone -- no buzzes or muffled notes. Any more pressure is just a waste of energy. It is much like a sprinter doesn't stomp his or her feet on the ground while running.
The closer you press near the fret, the more lightly you can press. Test just how little pressure you need for a clear tone and never use more than that.
A light touch will increase your agility later when you play faster, and your hand won't tire or cramp during long playing or practicing sessions.
A common tendency is to fret harder as you pluck harder or play at higher volumes. Don't press any more than needed.
Keep Your Fingers Close to Strings
The further away your fingers are from the strings, the longer it will take for them to press down a note. Try to train your fingers to hover right above the strings. This requires a lot of mindful practice.
Beginning bass players tend to let their fingers fly off the strings when they're not pressing a note. Don't do this. Hover.
Don't Bend The Strings
Avoid bending the string when you press down. Beginners often do this. This will change the pitch and make you sound out of tune. That's not good!
Press the string straight down against the fretboard.
With consistent practice you will slowly develop thicker skin on the pads of your fingers. It is normal for your fingers to feel tender in the beginning, or if you haven't played bass for some time. This will go away. Stick to a regular practice routine and you will develop calluses which make playing more comfortable.