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Some Thoughts on the 1-2-3-4 Fingering System for Double Bass

Four fingers
Photo by ramzi hashisho

For as long as there have been bassists, there has been debate about what fingering system to use. While most players today use a three-finger technique (1-2-4, or the Italian 1-3-4) some suggest a four-finger technique, especially in the middle positions (i.e. between D and G on the G string).

One of the main arguments for using a 1-2-3-4 system in this area of the bass is that the string length beginning at this point on the bass (and therefore the distance between notes) is the same as that of a cello. Since cellists use a 1-2-3-4 fingering system with this string length, then bassists should be able to do so as well. There are, however, some differences between bass and cello playing to consider before we commit to this fingering system.

There are the obvious physical differences of the instruments, of course. For instance, bass strings are thicker than cello strings, more pressure may be required to press our strings to the fingerboard, our fingerboard is wider, our string spacing greater, etc. However, it is not these issues of instrument construction or setup that cause me the most concern. It is rather the difference in how we hold our arm/hand in relation to their body in these “middle” positions, when compared to cellists in their lowest positions.

As mentioned above, the distance between chromatic tones in the lower positions of the cello is the same as on the bass starting around D on the G string (4th position). However, when a cellist plays these notes their hand is held close their shoulder/head. A bassist, by contrast, will generally be holding their hand much lower than this when in 4th position. As a result, the bassist’s hand will be addressing the string, and coming away from the player’s body, at a slightly different angle than the cellist’s. This difference may seem minor, but it is significant.

Put simply, it is easier to stretch in the low positions of a cello than it is to stretch in 4th position on a bass. Want to test it? Try it for yourself. You can feel the difference.

Try this:

  • Hold your left arm/hand as you would in the low positions when playing a cello (check a video if you are unsure of the placement)
  • Stretch both first and fourth finger as far as you can. Pretend you are trying to play a large interval between the fingers on the same string.
  • Now slowly move your hand/arm into the position where you would be holding it if you were in fourth position on a bass (1st finger D on the G string)

As you do this, you will feel a tightening on the back part of your hand. The difference between a cellist’s hand/arm angle in first position and a bassist’s in 4th position is the cause of the extra stress you feel on your tendons.

For this reason, I suggest caution when using a 1-2-3-4 chromatic fingering. That is not to say that a bassist should never use a 1-2-3-4 fingering system. There are certainly times when it is the best choice. However, to avoid injury, and also improve intonation with this system, I suggest the following when using 1-2-3-4 chromatic fingerings, even in 4th position or above:

  • Don’t hold a stretch, especially 1-3 or 1-4
  • Release the fingers not in use
  • Unless you have exceptionally large hands, or a very small bass, pivot the hand when using this system.

I don’t use a 1-2-3-4 fingering system very often, but when I do I follow these guidelines. If you decide to use a 1-2-3-4 fingering in 4th position and above, consider doing the same. My experience has been that doing so will both improve intonation and help the player avoid potential injury.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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Share your thoughts

Splendidanomaly

Splendidanomaly

I really haven’t had any hand issues as a result of using a 4-finger system. That said, after doing so for 4 decades, the distance between my pinky and thumb on my left hand is now considerably larger than on my right!

Art Araya

wish i had known this years ago!

Dean Wise

To be honest, this is something I never even considered, I just naturally gravitated to the 1-2-3-4 technique. I use it in all positions, that’s how my brain works now. That said, I have very large hands and I’ve built up a lot of muscle in my left hand over the last 30+ years.

Daniel Corrigan

I used to use this system on a half size however non on 3/4 size I rely on pivot shifts.

Gregg

Funny I was thinking about the fingers I use today while playing. Normally I just play as comfort dictates.

that bass guy

that bass guy

I use 124, even on electric and I use “thumb” position a lot in the lower positions. If you have a large bass like I do and big enough hands, I find thumb position a very workable solution. I can comfortably play with my thumb on the first C# on the G string, which give me a comfortable reach up to the F or even F#. BTW: I find this works as well on electric bass as well. I wouldn’t recommend 1234 in a blanket statement on bass playing because there’s just too much variance in instrument size.

Nicolas Boudreau

Nicolas Boudreau

Are you talking about a chromatic decent Bening hard usine your four fingers chromaticaly.?

I juste font see how it cam hurt you , unless you havé realy small hands. From my experience, it facilitate The mouvement up and down the neck, in Amy place on the neck , from the G string to the E and from the low F on the E string to the high F on the G. It gi es you speed , accuracy and i must say tha it improves my tone and accuracy, and it makes every position changes easier. I’am a big advocate of the 1,2,3,4 technic. It’s a bit of work to master, but it is worth it i thé long run.

Ariane Cap

1, 2, 3, 4 on the electric all the way. I have very small hands. I am very conscious of staying relaxed and not putting any necessary tension anywhere (not in the fretting fingers, nor the thumb, shoulder or anywhere else, down to the breath). Upright: 1, 2, 4 and then the thumb. I like whipping out the thumb for wide stretches of chords on the six string, too. I think the most important thing is to decide for and then stick with a system and to think about fingering carefully. Staying relaxed and not working any harder than needed is key.

Pete

Pete

I hate to sound cruel, but I think this is the the most irresponsible article on bass I’ve ever seen. Debate? What debate? We all risked injury to our fingering hands when we began playing bass in the first place. None of the muscles or tendons used were stretched or in shape to play from the get go. Didn’t all our hands hurt a little in the beginning? One just needs to keep practicing and stretching. Most of us can play 4 fingers harmlessly, with the possible exception of children and adults with very small hands. If you can slide up with 3 fingers, you can slide up with 4. I think players don’t use that pnky because it’s the weakest and least coordinated finger. Keep practicing, it took me a couple of years as a kid to incorporate my pinky. I’ve been using 4 fingers up and down the neck for almost fifty years and my hand is fine. I believe a good exercise to incorporate the pinky IS the 3 finger method, but 2,3,4. Don’t use your index finger. That will strengthen your pinky without stretching it too far in the beginning. Slide like you would 1,2,3. It will also increase your coordination. There are safe finger and hand stretching exexrises you can do as well.

    Donovan Stokes (Author)

    Hello Pete, Obviously I disagree with your assessment. However, you may be thinking of electric bass and not double bass? On electric 1-2-3-4 is my preferred fingering.

Donovan Stokes (Author)

Hello,
I would remind everyone that this is a bi-weekly column about Upright Bass. It is that instrument to which my comments are addressed.

D

aggrokragg

aggrokragg

I originally learned using the 1-2-3-4 method, and didn’t have any issues, although I have large hands. However, I recently picked up a Hal Leonard book to provide myself some more formal training, and they stressed the 1-2-4 method. I’m noticing that after “re-training my brain” I’m more comfortable with 124 below the 5th fret, but 1234 works fine above it as I’ve previously been playing.