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Perfecting the Double Thumb Technique

Victor Wooten
Photo by Jason Scragz

Q: I’m hoping you can help me perfect my double thumb technique. I have a few questions:

  1. How can I improve the sound of the upstroke so that it sounds more like a slap as opposed to a ghost note?
  2. When I try the technique on the A string I always strum the E string on the way up, how can I stop this?
  3. What is the best setup for this technique, a high or low action? All the websites say a low action is best for slap but I cant get any note out of my bass when I slap with a low action, only the sound of string on fret.

A: Great questions! While I don’t actually employ the double-thumbing technique, I may have some insights based on my own experiences fine-tuning various other techniques.

For those that don’t know (of which, I’m sure there are few), “double thumbing” is the technique made popular by Victor Wooten in which you employ both down and up strokes with the thumb, thereby doubling the speed of your thumb.

Essentially, it works much like a pick. Victor wasn’t the first guy to do it, but he certainly brought it to new heights and made the technique extremely popular with up-and-coming slappers and technicians alike.

Let’s tackle these one by one:

Question #1: How can I improve the sound of the upstroke so that it sounds more like a slap as opposed to a ghost note?

This should be approached much like a drummer practices double stroke rolls on a practice pad. It sounds like you need to develop a little more control over your thumb dynamics with both the down and up stroke. Here’s what I’d recommend:

The first rule: practice this slowly until you get it sounding right and only then should you speed up. Speed up in increments (5-10 ticks on a metronome) and perfect this technique at all tempos.

Then, introduce dynamic markings in your playing:

  1. Initially, try playing each down stroke ranging from soft-normal in dynamics.
  2. Accent your upstrokes so that they are louder than your down-strokes Practice this for a while (slowly) until you can consistently accent the up-strokes (if you are playing 8th notes, you will be accenting the up-beats)
  3. Once you get a feel for that (at various tempos) start to introduce other rhythmic devices into your accent practice. Play triplets and accent every other strike, for example. This will force you to practice accenting both upstrokes and downstrokes!
  4. You can also play ANY rhythmic subdivision and practice accenting arbitrary (or pre-conceived) rhythmic phrases within those subdivisions.

If you practice slowly and with intent, slowly building upon your development as it goes, this should give you very good control over your strokes in both directions while also enhancing your feel and time.

Question #2: When I try the technique on the A string I always strum the E string on the way up, how can I stop this?

This will be harder for me to address without watching you play, but my sense is that you may want to adjust the angle of your strokes or that you may be moving your hands a lot more than is actually needed.

Again, start slowly – very slowly – and examine your playing position, ergonomics and the angle of attack. There is likely something in there that could use some fine tuning, but you’ll need to ascertain exactly what’s going on.

I would check to see if you are also accidentally strumming the A string when double-thumbing on the D string, for example, and be sure it isn’t exclusively and issue with the E string.

It may also have something to do with sympathetic vibrations, when a string starts vibrating simply because the instrument is vibrating or a certain frequency sets it off. If this is the case, you may just have to be aware of that string and mute it with one hand or the other on occasion.

Question #3: What is the best setup for this technique, a high or low action? All the websites say a low action is best for slap but I cant get any note out of my bass when I slap with a low action, only the sound of string on fret.

As with my recent column addressing the issue of high vs. low action, I would say that the issue of action is one of personal taste with regard to both tone and feel.

That said, most “low action” guys I know are finger-style players, while most “high action” guys I know play very aggressively (upright players who dabble in electric, aggressive slappers, old school “dig-in-and-thumpers”). Most guys who play with versatility (finger-style here, slap there, palm mute and so on) have a medium-type action. I expect that you would discover that a medium height would work well for you.

I would suggest that you have the action high enough so the notes sound the way you want, but low enough that it feels good to play.

A lot will also depend on your set up, the build-quality of the bass, the condition of the frets and other characteristics. I have students who have ridiculously high action and their basses still fret out and sound bad, simply because their basses are – welll, old, abused, warped junkers. Some are beyond repair and they won’t truly begin to play with subtlety until they get a bass that can be set up properly (or at least reasonably well).

If you have an instrument that is in decent condition (and it might be worth taking it to a professional for a good setup and evaluation) I would then suggest that you simply experiment with both string height and pickup height and explore the myriad of ways your bass can feel and sound under your fingers.

Hope that helps!

As always, I look forward to hearing from readers and their experiences. Have you perfected the double thumb technique (or similar)? What was your approach? Please share in the comments.