12. The most important bass playing techniques
Even if you're just starting out, it is a good idea to listen closely to your heroes. While their level of playing may seem awe-inspiring and perhaps a bit intimidating at first, keep in mind that they, too, were once beginners just like you. Maybe they even started "lower" than you, because you can now buy a good-sounding bass for a relatively small amount of money. It used to be a rare exception for a young beginner to be able to start out with a somewhat decent instrument. Even if you're a rock musician, it's a good idea to check out some jazz players. Jazz bassists tend to have amazing chops!
In the beginning, you will probably find it difficult to achieve a good tone, because you need a lot of strength in your fingers to assert the right amount of pressure on the strings. But don't worry: There's nothing wrong with playing only one note per bar at first, or playing just quarter notes or eighth notes. Play the bass note of the chord that your band mates are playing. If they're playing an A major chord, for example, you play the note A, in the fifth fret on the low E string. Just roll with it and have fun!
In the beginning is the groove...
Right from the start, you should try to support the groove of the band with your playing. By this, we mean the overall sound and feel of the group. Many beginners make the mistake of concentrating too much on themselves. But a band only sounds good if everybody listens closely to everybody else. Listen to what the others are playing, especially the drummer. Drums and bass are the foundation of every band! For example, pay attention to th rhythm of the bass drum.
As a bass player, you should also make a habit of learning scales and chord structures. After all, they contain the notes you need for your bass lines!
Pizzicato (Finger picking)
The most common style of playing on the bass is pizzicato (finger picking). Watch any bass solo by the band The Who. Their bassist John Entwistle is a true master of this technique. But who knows — maybe you can become just as good!
On bass, finger picking is done a bit differently than on guitar. While the strings are mostly played with the fingernails on guitar, most bassists use the whole fingertip.
Playing with a pick (plectrum)
Using a plectrum is another popular technique. It is mostly used in rock, hard rock and heavy metal, but can also sound great in funk styles. For example, watch bassist Bobby Vega on YouTube - wow!
Special bass picks are available, which are larger and more robust than their guitar counterparts. Hard picks deliver a strong attack, while softer picks produce a more rounded, fuller sound. The techniques for practising are the same as on guitar. Just like on guitar, it is useful to practise upstrokes just as much as downstrokes.
Another technique which is still very popular is slapping (slap bass). The player uses his/her thumb to strike the strings, which produces a very punchy, percussive sound. Some funk bass players reach amazing speeds with this technique. Slapping requires a high level of accuracy.
In addition to striking the strings with your thumb, you can incorporate accents by pulling on strings with your index or middle finger, for example an octave above the slapped note. Watch players like Marcus Miller or Wojtek Pilichowsky, they are among the best slap bass players.
But beware: If you slap on every song, you will eventually make your band mates mad. A slow blues or ballad demand a much more restrained style of playing. This goes to show that you can never have enough techniques at your disposal!
The fingering on the fingerboard is a very individual issue. Every good teacher will advise you to develop an exact technique that incorporates all four fingers, with the thumb placed behind the neck for support. The strings should be depressed with the fingertips as vertically as possible.
In practice, these rules are interpreted freely, even by professionals. Especially on stage, many bassists tend to reach around the neck with their thumb, because this allows for more control over the instrument. While it makes complicated runs harder to play, it can make "rocking out" much easier. So the rule of thumb is: While it is important to develop good technique, nothing is set in stone and individual approaches can also lead to success.
So, how does a bassist practise? Firstly, different scales in all positions. What you play when playing your band's songs depends on the style of music. Two main styles can be distinguished: legato and staccato. Legato playing is characterised by notes that are connected to each other. This style is used in jazz, but also in rock, for example in ballads. In staccato playing, the notes are separated. This style is often preferred in funk and heavy rock. Between the two extremes, there is a wide range of "somewhere in between", and your personal preference can often lead to an individual style, with which you can then make a name for yourself.
As a beginning bass player, you should never try to play as fast as possible, but as accurately as possible. A metronome or a drum machine can help you keep time when practising at home.
If you're not taking bass lessons, it is a good idea to buy a good book or DVD. Besides fingerboard diagrams and traditional notation, they often contain tab style notation. The four lines stand for the four strings of the bass. The vertical lines do not stand for the frets, but for the bars!
The numbers on the lines tell you in which fret you need to depress the string. "0" denotes an open string, "3" means 3rd fret, "5" stands for 5th fret, and so on.
One thing is certain: there is no substitute for real face to face lessons with a good teacher. If you're on a short budget, even a few lessons with an experienced professional may be enough to get you on the right track and ensure that you don't run into some common beginners' mistakes.
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