Bass Lesson 4: Plucking

Develop your own technique

Plucking the string is a relatively new technique, for in classical music, as you know, the bow is used almost constantly. You only have to watch the ‘elegant’ way classical bassist pluck the string with one finger, to realize that plucking is completely underdeveloped in classical music. In jazz, new techniques are developing all the time, and if you search the internet, you’ll find a lot of different solutions presented by my colleagues.

In the last century, amplification was a serious problem, so most bassist were mainly interested in making as much noise as possible. To achieve this, they usually hit the strings as hard as possible with two fingers at the same time. Some romantic, orthodox jazz bass players still think this is the only way to play the bass, and they believe that everybody who plays differently does not really understand the nature of the instrument. I totally disagree with this viewpoint: I’m very glad that we bass players don’t have to play this way anymore, now the biggest amplification issues have been resolved, and we can choose for a more musical approach to the instrument.

Most bassists develop their own plucking technique. That’s probably not such a bad idea, considering all the nonsense that is being broadcast about this subject. It took me years to discover that it’s better not to listen to the following advice: after plucking the string, you should let your finger come to rest against the next string. Chances are you play this way, for this method is very, very popular, though I don’t really know why – maybe because in the beginning, it seems easy. If you play this way and like it, that’s great, but please realize that you may be holding yourself back terribly.

1. The less resistance you encounter when plucking, the more relaxed, easily and fast you can play. Touching the next string means that you encounter resistance. This costs time and strength. Not touching it means your finger can complete it’s swing much easier and faster and initiate a new movement more quickly. It’s very important that you learn to move your fingers as relaxed and freely as possible. Of course, it will take some time to change your technique, but oh boy, you’ll reap enormous benefits!

2. You make a sound when you touch the next string. It’s difficult to hear that this is so, but I can assure you this is true. This has an effect on your sound: you sound less clear. If you don’t mind that, go on playing the way you do, but if you want to sound as clear as possible (I do), it’s time to change your technique. You’ll be surprised how much better you sound when you’ve done so!

Some bass players believe that it’s only possible to have a powerful sound if you pluck in the traditional way. This is utter nonsense. You’re tone will definitely get more powerful when you don’t touch the next string.

The way I play you can’t really call plucking. My fingers swing over the strings, only just touching them. My tone is getting more powerful and more full by the day, it’s really a very big difference, compared to my playing with the traditional technique. My acoustic bass, which really is not a superb instrument, sounds like a very good bass nowadays. And I can play at least five times as fast as before, which is a very nice result!

Maybe you will find this page interesting.