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Lesson: Fingering strategies for the upright bass

Lesson: Fingering strategies for the upright bassThe upright bass is a physically challenging instrument. I’m not trying to say we’re tougher than our treble-ended friends, but when was the last time you saw a violinist shift three feet at a time? The size of the upright bass means we have to be very efficient in how we approach playing music, especially if you are going to be playing for a long gig or concert.

I am fortunate enough to have a fantastic bass teacher, who is also an author for the American School of Double Bass, and has developed multiple fingering strategies to help you move efficiently across the neck. I’m going to explain them here from my perspective as a cross-over player (someone who came from over a decade of bass guitar playing to the upright) and hope that they help you as much as they have me. These are applicable in any musical setting – jazz, classical, bluegrass – you name it!

These positional strategies are based around the closed hand Simandl style fingering. Remember to think of these as guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, they will not apply 100% of the time but as a framework will help you choose the best fingering. Also my explanations are only my interpretations of these rules and how I personally apply them.

  • Have at least two notes per position. As an add on to this, rests and open strings also count as a note and thumb position does not count. This makes sense from an efficiency perspective in that you will be moving your arm less.
  • If a melodic gesture ends on a stable beat, shift on the mobile beat or vice-versa. This is to help avoid gaps in the phrasing due to the shift. A melodic gesture can be any coherent phrase or a passage of notes before it changes direction. In 4/4 time beats 1 and 3 are the stronger stable beats, so you should always try to avoid shifting over notes that are played at either place. Likewise if a melodic gesture ends on a mobile beat you should shift on the stable beat. The whole point is to maintain a continuity of phrasing. You do not want your melodic phrasing to be punctuated with gaps due to large shifts. In more lyrical playing this will not strictly apply.
  • Use lowered number fingers (1 and 2) when possible, especially for lyrical playing. Use the second finger for “money” notes. Shaping your hand around the second finger gives you the greatest pivot range for getting up or down a half step. Also the first and second fingers have greater strength and independent control compared to three and four, so you will have greater control of your vibrato and also the most consistent tone. In my experience your hand is less likely to fatigue using one and two more compared to three and four. In thumb position you may use one and two exclusively with the thumb for lyrical playing.
  • Avoid using the same finger across two strings except when alternating between those strings. This is a tough one to accept for a bass guitarist – what do you mean I can’t bar a perfect fourth? Your tone suffers. It’s better to use one and two on both strings, the size of the strings and the higher action mean you have to seriously clamp down to depress two strings fully with one finger. Ultimately it’s not worth it and will just wear your hand out. Bass guitarists you may as well accept that bar-style fingerings do not apply for the upright until you get some serious chops.
  • Avoid playing two or more open strings in a row. This has to do with the resonances of the upright and tone quality. If you finger a note you’ll be able to control the vibrato and also easily stop the sustain without risking a buzz sound. For resonance reasons you want each string except the one you are currently playing to be still. Remember you have to make the entire instrument vibrate properly to have great tone, this is harder to control if you still have strings ringing when you move .
  • In a scalar passage play at least two notes on a string before crossing to a new string, a rest also counts as a note. This is the string-crossing version of the first strategy. Again it is good for keeping consistency in your phrasing.
  • If practical using fingerings that cross adjacent strings rather than skipping them. Again for consistency in the phasing, skipping over a string (such as from A to G) can put gaps in your phrases just because of the time it takes to get from one point to another. The neck of an upright is wider than a bass guitar and it is curved. Moving from one string to another in the right hand involves moving your entire arm at the shoulder, it is not nearly as quick as switching strings on the bass guitar.
  • In lyrical playing avoid open strings and open-hand fingerings, opting for more shifts. This will give you better tone control and vibrato, a big part of shaping the notes and getting the expression necessary for lyrical playing.
  • In fast playing use less shifts, more open strings, open-hand fingering and travel the shortest distance possible. You’ve got to get it out! Pull out all the stops and focus on the absolute best way to play the passage. Fast playing on the upright requires us to be as technically efficient as possible, that’s the joy of playing a humongous instrument.
  • In general you may use an open string if a note is shorter than a beat. Back to the vibrato and tone control. With open strings you only have the bow to use in shaping the note, it’s always better to have both the bow and the left hand together to shape the tone.
  • You can use the closed hand technique for almost all slow to moderately fast passages in the neck register. The neck register is from the joint to the scroll. The closed hand positions are also good for your hands since your third and fourth finger share a tendon – you might as well work with nature. You also always have the option to pivot up and down a half step within any position.
  • Use open hand techniques in extremely fast passages, when you want a passage free or portamanti (clean), when a passage hovers around a third or to revers the stable beat/mobile beat arrangements of shifts. Open hand technique is faster once you are practiced with it, you gain a finger! You can see some great players using open hand technique to fly through passages.
  • Use the thumb position in the “thumb position” register or down to the first harmonic. It’s all about what works for you. In the higher register thumb position definitely makes the most sense. If you’re new the upright I’d make sure you are comfortable with the instrument before you start working on the high positions – the intonation is more difficult and it’s a very unnatural feeling at first. The moral of the story is that you don’t have to limit thumb position to the upper octave areas if it’s more comfortable or convenient to play a passage a little lower with it.
  • My suggestion would be to take your favorite jazz standard or a classical piece you’ve been working on and write out as many different fingerings as possible. You should be able to make at least three. Try playing each and evaluate them based on the strategies listed above. You’ll be amazed at how much of a difference the proper fingering can make in your playing! Also you may find certain passages or melodies require different things. One jazz lick may be better shifting on one string, while another may be better crossing strings. It’s all about experimentation and discovery.

    Playing the upright bass is a very fulfilling and challenging thing to do. One of the aspects I like the most about the instrument is that everyone has to adapt to it personally. No two people are going to play it exactly the same way and it is critical to really take the time to harmonize the instrument with your body. Some people play seated, other stand, some use a French bow, others a German bow (I’ve even heard of people holding a French bow in the German style), really it’s all about bonding the instrument to you and discovering what is the most comfortable and agile way for you to play. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a good teacher to guide you. Not only will he or she be able to pass on pieces of their musical expertise, they will be able to help you avoid injury and get in tune with the instrument.

Photo by Vyvyan Black

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Comments:

Chuck Holbrook says:

I have a Palatino VE-500 also. If you put a soft peice under the bridge, you can get a sheet at the material dept. at wal mart, it helps the tone alot.

Philip Wain says:

Thanks Even, I have some leads on a teacher already. I have three basses at home at the moment but all of them are fretless so less practical use for that looper exercise but I do find the looper extremely useful. I've played fretless for 20 years so I can usually hear when I'm in or out – my relative pitch is quite good but a reference tone is very useful.

Philip Wain says:

Thanks Even, I have some leads on a teacher already. I have three basses at home at the moment but all of them are fretless so less practical use for that looper exercise but I do find the looper extremely useful. I've played fretless for 20 years so I can usually hear when I'm in or out – my relative pitch is quite good but a reference tone is very useful.

Evan Kepner says:

Glad you've found this useful Phil! Yeah the thumb position and in some instances the bowing on an EUB is totally different than an acoustic. I have a Palatino VE-500, which I really like for certain things, but as I've gotten more and more into playing classical music I've found I need a way to emulate the body of the acoustic bass on the Palatino for my bowing to transfer. I haven't made any modifications yet, but it's something I'm seriously considering. The other perspective is just to treat it as a different instrument as well and work on yet another set of techniques to apply ;)

If you have a looping pedal or a basic home recording device I would definitely recommend recording your basic practice routines (scales, arpeggios etc) with a bass guitar and then playing along on the upright to make sure your intonation is solid. The other thing that I find useful is to think of navigating the upright finger board in small groupings – work in “pitch pairs” where you have two notes together wherever possible (including open strings and rests) before you shift. This accomplishes two things 1) you use your hand more for measuring the distances and 2) your intonation will be more accurate (and it will help you shift in the right spots).

Investing in an acoustic instrument is definitely a big step – I think starting on an EUB is great. My recommendation would be to find a good upright teacher before you make any purchases, they'll help you figure out exactly what kind of body positioning works for you, iron out any bad habits that could cause injury playing, and help you pick the right instrument for your needs. I won't say it's impossible to accomplish those things on your own, but an experienced teacher is worth the investment.

Philip Wain says:

Excellent lesson Evan and exactly what I needed as a recent adopter of upright. I'm going to work with these stategies for a while but even after an hour I noticed an improvement.

I still see to be happy playing perfect fourths with one finger, though I suspect that this might be because of the electric upright's relatively low action which I am working on raising and the strings I'm using are very thin gauge _ I want to replace those soon.

I've not mastered thumb position but then on an electric upright there is no body to speak of so it's not quite the same equation. I am torn between making a hybrid instrument sound/play it's best and trying to develop technique to eventually play/afford/find space for a proper upright bass

Thanks for this!