I get so stoked when I receive your emails and comments about Bass Survival 101! Lately there have been countless requests for a lesson on improving your finger-plucking technique. (Note: I do not want to offend any left-handed bassists, but to make things easier, I will refer to the plucking hand as the "right hand".) As many of you know, if you do not have a well-developed right hand fingering technique, your road to mastering the bass will be fraught with frustration and flubbed notes. On the other hand, if you spend time honing your plucking technique, you will find that hard this will become easier, and the impossible will become possible. What I am telling you is that it is a valuable investment of time to work on your right hand skills.
Although there are several ways to pluck the bass, I will focus on the most common technique - the two-finger, alternating, technique. This technique is simple in concept: You use your index and middle fingers to strike the strings, and you always alternate between the two. Novice players rarely have trouble with the two-finger part of this technique, but they sometimes struggle with the "always alternating" part. The reason that you should always alternate between the index and middle fingers is because it sounds smoother and allows you to play faster. Some bassists like to "rake" the strings when they are playing from the higher pitched strings down to the lower pitched strings. (Raking is a term where a player uses one finger to play down all the strings.) While this may seem economical, it is often
hard to play cleanly and it can be hard to control. Think of this: When you are running down the stairs you would never think of using your left foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, left foot, left foot, etc. Not only would this slow you down, you would probably fall down! If you just dedicate yourself to consistently alternating, you will play with more agility and control.
When using the two-finger technique, you can anchor your thumb in one place (Figure 1), have a moveable anchor (Figure 2) or use a free-floating technique (Figure 3). Anchoring your thumb in one place is very popular because it gives you a point of reference that never changes. Hard rock and metal players like this technique because the anchor gives them more power and helps them play as they leap around the stage.
The moveable anchor technique still gives you power, but it helps to keep the strings that you are not playing quiet. When you are playing the E string (or B string for your fivers out there) you anchor your thumb on the pickup or thumb rest. When you play the A string, you move your thumb so that it rests on the E string (keeping it from vibrating and adding noise). When you play the D string, you then rest your thumb on the A string. (Some people will rest their thumb on the A string, but will let the side of their thumb touch the E string to keep it quiet (Figure 4). This moveable anchor technique is perfect for the studio because it keeps the sympathetic vibrations under control.
The free-floating technique is not widely used, but those who employ it are ardent supporters of it. Basically, you do not anchor your thumb to any point on the bass and allow your hand to "float" over the strings. Proponents of this technique like the freedom of it, but will admit that they can play with a lot of power.