About the Plucking Technique Lesson
This is just one perspective on how to pluck the strings of the bass. As I pointed out in my article about bass technique, there is not one right way. But, there are better and worse ways. As a student of the bass you should seek as many perspectives as you can find. There are as many ways as there are players. Experiment with your own ideas, too. What follows is a combination of what I've learned from others and things I've discovered on my own.
I will explain the reasoning behind all the technique I show here. The reason is almost always that it sounds better. You should judge this for yourself. Another common reason for these techniques is it is more efficient and will be easier in the long run.
Unlike on piano and some other instruments which number your thumb, for bass your fingers are numbered:
- T = thumb
- 1 = index finger
- 2 = middle finger
- 3 = ring finger
- 4 = pinky finger
You will need to keep your fingernails trimmed short to avoid your nail catching the string. (Unless, of course, you like the sound of it.)
Relax Your Hand
Let your plucking hand hang limp. This is the natural shape of your hand. Keep your hand in that loose, relaxed shape as much as you can. There's no need for tension.
To develop plucking speed and efficiency, it is important that you use at least two fingers to pluck. Most people use their index (1) and middle (2) fingers and alternate them.
Using two fingers is half the work for each finger. Always do as little work as possible. Using two fingers is sufficient for most playing styles.
Work on consistently alternating your fingers 1-2-1-2 (or 2-1-2-1). It doesn't matter on which finger you start. It might be a good idea to be able to start on either one. Just don't use one finger for a while, then the other, or one finger by itself. It might seem easier in the beginning to use one finger, but you will quickly hit a ceiling and you will have learned a very hard habit to break.
Where to Pluck
You will discover the bass guitar has a wide range of tones depending on where, along the string, you pluck. Plucking nearer to the neck offers a fatter, warmer tone. Plucking nearer to the bridge of the bass provides a brighter, more percussive tone.
As you develop, you will become more comfortable with moving your plucking hand around to access these different tones. In the beginning, I recommend finding one place and staying there while you develop other, more important plucking habits.
How Hard to Pluck the Strings
You might imagine, when you hear a live show or listen to some more aggressive styles of music, that players are digging in and plucking really hard. They're not.
You don't need to pluck the strings very hard. In fact, when you do, it causes all sorts of bad things to happen like:
- It can make you sound out-of-tune
- Causes strings to buzz
- Slows you down
- It's tiresome
- Forceful repetition leads to hand injuries
Use an amp. It takes a light, small sound from your fingers and bass and translates it into a big sound. Think of your fingers like a spark and your amp and the sound system like gasoline.
If you don't have an amp, get one. It's very easy to learn the bad habit of plucking too hard by playing without an amp. You will plucker harder trying to hear yourself.
Let your amp do the work. Your fingers aren't amplifiers! Developing a light touch is a very important part of developing speed and accuracy.
Positioning Your Thumb
Place your thumb on the face (not on top) of your pickup closest to the neck. Let your thumb linger just above the E-string. You will see why shortly.
On most bass guitars this should put your plucking fingers in a central position between the neck and the bridge. You should get a good, all-purpose tone from your bass in this area.
Muting the Strings
Playing the bass requires about as much work keeping the strings quiet as it does getting the notes to ring out. Most of the time you only want one string ringing at a time. That means on a 4-string bass you have 3 strings to keep quiet. You can't just let open strings ring freely in the background. This will muddy up your sound and often create some unwanted dissonance. You should strive to have control over every sound that comes out of your bass. This requires you to develop a solid string muting strategy.
You will learn that both hands play a part in muting the strings. The plucking hand will mute any strings below the one you are playing. The fretting hand will mute any strings above the one you are playing. In the next lesson we'll thoroughly cover muting in the fretting hand.
Muting with the Thumb
Your thumb will be sliding down to help mute the E-string whenever it is not being played. To be efficient, you will want your thumb as close to the E-string as possible. That's why you want to keep your thumb on the face of the pickup. It will be much easier to slide your thumb down to mute the string. If you're on top, your thumb has to hop.
You only need to lightly touch the E-string to mute it. No need to waste energy pushing on the E-string.
When you pluck the string your finger should roll over the top over the string. Most beginners and converting guitar players have the tendency to pull out away from the strings. This results in a very thin, scratchy tone. You will get a meatier, bassier tone by rolling over the string. It is much like the stroke of a paintbrush. Your plucking finger should follow through towards your palm, or to rest on the next string below the one you are plucking.
After plucking a string, follow-through with your plucking motion letting your plucking finger come to rest on the string below. Letting your finger rest on the string below mutes that string. As you pluck using alternating fingers, one finger is plucking while the other one is muting. This is essential to keeping the strings quiet. Use this same motion for plucking on each string.
Yet More Muting...
As you ascend the strings (going from the fattest string to the skinniest) or skip strings, you will find you can't mute them all with these techniques alone.
There are a few solutions I show students. Let's look at them.
Ring Finger Muting
The technique I prefer for 4-string players uses your ring finger (3) to mute the A-string whenever you are plucking on the G-string. This is the only time you'll need it on a 4-string bass. Your ring finger (3) just needs to lightly touch the A-string to keep it from ringing. Placing your ring finger on the A-string every time you switch to pluck the G-string may seem awkward at first. With practice the motion will become automatic.
When you are plucking the G-string the muting will be as follows:
- E-string is always muted with the thumb (T)
- A-string is muted with follow-through plucking when plucking the D-string, or with the ring finger (3) when playing the G-string
- D-string is muted with plucking fingers (1 or 2) landing on the D-string
Wandering Thumb Muting
Another popular way of muting the bass strings is what I call the Wandering Thumb Method. Instead of leaving your thumb on the E-string, your thumb moves up the strings muting them. This is very useful to develop especially if you play, or plan to play, 5-string or 6-string bass.
Either string muting method is effective. You will have to decide which you prefer and stick with it. If you are just starting or trying to change some old habits, it will be strange and frustrating no matter what. Practice slowly and accurately. It will come.
When plucking the G-string with this method the muting will be as follows:
- E-string is muted with thumb (T)
- A-string is muted with thumb (T)
- D-string is muted with plucking fingers (1 or 2) landing on the D-string
Floating Thumb Muting Technique
Similar to Wandering Thumb, Floating Thumb Muting has you glide the side of your thumb across the tops of the strings rather than in-between. Since this allows you to mute many strings at once, it is ideal for you 5- and 6-string (+) players.
When you have more strings, anchoring your thumb causes your hand to have to reach too far for those high-pitched strings. Keeping your thumb in a natural, relaxed position and using it to gently rest on the tops of the strings is much easier and cleaner.
Bass Plucking Exercises
Now that you have an idea of what to do, you need something to practice! Follow the link below for bass plucking exercises which work on these basic techniques.
Remember to play slowly and accurately. Don't rush through this stuff. You use it in everything you play! You are practicing every song you will ever play.