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The Lowdown with Dr. D.: Upright Slap Bass (Rockabilly/Psychobilly etc.) – Intro: part 1 of 3

The Lowdown with Dr. D.In my opinion, one of the more interesting things you can do on the Upright these days is Slap it! Beyond it’s hipitude, it is a legitimate technique, just like arco (bow) and pizzicato (plucked), and it can make you more employable if you master it. So let’s take a look at the technique.

What is Upright Slap Bass? (in case you don’t know)

We can broadly define Upright Slap bass as a playing technique that combines and fuses traditional plucking with percussive elements.

Where can we use it?

Everywhere! Well, almost. Upright Slap bass can be found in many places: Jazz (Milt Hinton), Country/Bluegrass (Kevin Smith), Tejano, Gypsy, and Americana/Roots music for example. It has it’s most prominent role, however, in ‘billy music, with Rockabilly and Psychobilly, (my favorite!) the most prominent subgenres.

In fact, Upright Slap bass is one of the defining elements of musical genres with ‘billy at the end of their names, and there are lots: Punkabilly, Gothabilly, Hellbilly…..Pandabilly (well..not yet). Upright Slap Bass is a must for this music. You just can’t have Horrorbilly without an Upright Bass Slapping, at least some of the time.

Understanding the technical terms

When looking to learn Upright Slap bass, you will discover that term meant to describe a technique can mean several different things, depending on who is speaking. Until now, there has been no standard terminology for Upright Slap techniques. I want to change that.

I have codified the terminology in a way that, in my experience, increases understanding, and makes learning and communicating easier. The definitions below cover the basic techniques.

Snap: Plucking the string by pulling it away from the fingerboard in a vigorous manner and allowing the string to hit against the fingerboard. The resultant sound should be a combination of pitch and percussion. Some players call this a “single Slap,” but this terminology can lead to confusion. The term “snap” indicates there is a pitched note involved, and differentiates it from the non-pitched “Slap” below. Classical players call this “Bartok pizz.”

Pluck: Plucking the string without any percussive or “snap” elements. Although standard jazz and rock pizzicato techniques are used, a “pluck” is often executed in a similar manner to the “snap”, (i.e. pulling the string away from the fingerboard) but with less force. This allows for quick changes between a “pluck” and a “snap.”)

Slap: Executed by hitting the hand (generally the right hand, although the left hand is also used) against the string with enough force to press the string, or strings, against the fingerboard. The resultant sound is percussive and generally un-pitched in nature. This is usually used as rhythmic element played between pitched notes.

Sub classifications:

Single Slap: a single hit against the strings and fingerboard

Double Slap: two consecutive hits against the strings and fingerboard.

When played at fast tempi, done in conjunction with a “snap,” some people call this a “drag triplet” and/or “gallup,” depending on the rhythm. We would term a drag triplet or gallup “Snap, double Slap” instead.

Triple Slap: Getting the idea?

****Performance note: At fast tempi the double and triple Slap will involve hitting the strings with various parts of the hand, including the palm, heel and fingers. It is important to keep your wrist and arm loose and to let the hand bounce naturally.

Left hand Slapping

Not that I need to tell you, but you can hit the strings and fingerboard with your left hand as well, either alone or in rhythmic combination with the right hand.

Knocking

This is a broad term, which serves as an umbrella for percussive techniques on the body of the bass. For example, knocking on the belly, hitting with the palm of the hand, tapping the back, etc.

As you can see, there are only a few techniques you need to learn to get to started with some slapping. You can learn the basics in an afternoon, and have the technique mastered in a very short order. Next time we will have a few etudes for learning and improving your slap technique.

Next: Part 2 – Starter tips and etudes