Ask Damian Erskine: Light vs. a hard touch

Q: I like your style because from my point of view it seems that you’re very comfortable playing the bass (seems light touch in both hands) but the sound you get is very punchy which I associate with playing hard. So here comes the question: Do you play mostly hard or light with your right hand? And with the left hand? Is there any benefit in fretting hard except for making hammers and pull-offs?

A: Thanks for the question! I have always had a fairly light touch. Primarily, because the lighter your touch, the easier it is to play fast passages. That said, I do vary my touch depending on the sound I’m going for. If I want to get that punchy (or choked) sound, I’ll play hard or, at time, very hard. But if I’m looking to play with finesse and speed, I tend to play very lightly. If you set your action very low, it doesn’t take very much force at all to get that choked sound of the string hitting the frets (associated with playing very hard). I’ve been raising my action just a bit lately because I think the notes ring truer if the strings are given the space to really vibrate. I’m trying to find that sweet spot. The one that’ll allow me to play light enough to be dextrous and not have to work against my bass but also with a height that allows me to play fairly hard and let the notes ring strong and true.

A side benefit to a light touch is that you are much LESS likely to hurt yourself or over-work the muscles. If you have to fight your instrument to play each and every note, you will exhaust your muscles and possibly damage them in the long run.

Basically, I try and keep my action low enough that my left hand can maneuver with ease and it’s easy to play but also high enough that I can pluck a note hard for effect without it choking out or buzzing.

When I was a kid, I didn’t know any better and I was learning Teen Town and tunes like that with my action jacked WAY up (never thought to adjust it!). When I finally got a nice bass (which had a nice set-up) I was amazed at how easy it was to play fast and articulately without any effort. That was when I got into experimenting with string height and pickup height.

Many people forget about the right hand and how effective the pickups can be (hence the invention of the ramp) at delegating how much you are forced to “dig in” with your right hand. Admittedly, I’ve gotten to a point where I’m fairly dependent on a light touch and shallow playing surface with my right hand in order to really play the way I want to play.

I often encourage people to do what comes naturally and is comfortable as everyones physiology is different. However, if you’re having pain, difficulty playing or difficulty developing facility, it would be good to re-evaluate your technique.

Try lowering your action a bit and raising your pickups so there is less room under your right fingers when playing. The lower your action, the more you’ll be forced to lighten your touch. You can also experiment with thumb position and the angle of your arms (where your bass sits on your body has a LOT to do with ease of motion in general).

Honestly, I never thought much about this stuff. Luckily, my body always adjusted in such a way as to make it easier to play and my techniques developed naturally out of necessity (learning difficult music and fast passages forced me to change the way I approached the instrument physically). A lot of people I have taught over the years have developed some bad habits and it can be hard to re-train yourself, but when it comes to pain or the ability to play the instrument, it is often worth the trouble. There is no real benefit that I know of to playing hard. Your only fighting your body and your instrument (in my opinion).

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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