the online magazine for bass players

Search Menu

Bass Technique: Shifting and the Feeling of Lightness

Accurate shifting is extremely important on an upright bass. It may even be the one technique we use the most often. Most other string instruments can play a few two-octave scales without shifting, while we can play a grand total of zero, even if we “pivot.” Despite how often we must execute flawless shift, for many it is a point of weakness.

Not only is shifting an area where we may use needless tension, but if we are going to play an out of tune note, it is most likely to be one we shift to.

In my experience, if someone isn’t light when they shift, they probably aren’t terribly accurate either. Given the prevalence of shifting when playing the bass, I would advise that we make all our shifts as light as we can. Here are a few drills to help you in this quest.

Drill 1

Our shifts should be light and easy, especially as regards thumb pressure. The hand should, in fact, release during a shift. To encourage this, we might practice our shifts in the following way.

  1. Play the last note before a shift
  2. Release both your thumb and the string entirely.
  3. Drop your hand down by your side, completely away from the bass. Completely release all the muscles in your hand and arm. Keep everything loose.
  4. Slowly raise your hand back to the neck, placing your finger lightly on the string at the last note you played. Do not, however, press the string down. Keep your arm and hand loose, free and light.
  5. While maintaining a feeling of lightness in the hand and arm, shift to the destination note. If it is a downward shift, let gravity do most of the work.

Drill 2

When you feel you have mastered Drill 1, try the procedure without dropping your arm to your side. As such:

  1. Play the last note before a shift
  2. Release both your thumb and the string entirely.
  3. Release all the muscles in your hand and arm as much as possible while keeping it in position. Keep everything free and loose.
  4. While maintaining a feeling of lightness in the hand and arm, shift to the destination note. If it is a downward shift, let gravity do most of the work.

Drill 3

When you feel you have mastered Drill 2, modify the procedure once more, as such:

  1. Play the last note before a shift. Keep your arm and hand as loose and free as you can while playing this note, without adversely affecting intonation or tone.
  2. Release your thumb and release the pressure on the string to a harmonic-like level. Keep everything free and loose.
  3. Make the shift while maintaining harmonic-like pressure on the string. Continue to strive for a feeling of lightness in the hand and arm while shifting. If it is a downward shift, let gravity do most of the work.

You can do any, or all, of these drills at any point in a piece where you are having shifting issue.

If light shifting is a larger issue for you, I would suggest doing Drill 1 while shifting between a great variety of notes, as an etude. Once this mastered, I would suggest doing first Drill 2 and then Drill 3 during your scale practice. Once Drill 3 is mastered during scale practice, it should carry over into your general performing with only a little mental attention.

If a problem still crops up here and there, you can always use any or all of the three drills with a specific shift which may need a bit of help. However, once you have mastered Drill 3, you should have little problem recreating a sense of lightness during a shift.