Plucking Patterns: Right Hand Exercises for Bass

Q: You covered playing chords on the bass and going beyond the roots. I use chords a lot when I compose/write and when I practice different things. I often find myself short when it comes to rhythms and different strumming patterns over the chords. Do you have some good ideas for strumming patterns?

A: The rhythm you use is one of the more personal aspects of one’s playing. You’ve heard it before, but there are only 12 notes at our disposal (for most of us, anyway). The individuality and “voice”, I believe, really comes through with regard to tone, technique, phrasing and your time-feel (pocket).

I’d venture to say that the more versatile your right hand is with regard to rhythm and finger independence, the more you’ll have to say and the more articulately you will be able to speak with your instrument. Same goes for harmony and melody.

If you are wanting to develop articulation with regard to chords, you’d most certainly want to incorporate your thumb in addition to your index and middle fingers (and ring and pinky!).

Essentially, you want to maximize your finger independence. Many of us get locked into one way of plucking (and, far too often, one tone, one dynamic level, etc.). Ideally, we want to be able to use our plucking fingers in any combination of fingerings and with a rhythmic vocabulary that allows us to incorporate 1/8’s, 1/16’s, triplets, metric modulations, and so on.

Now, for ways to work on it:

I’ve always found it incredibly helpful when practicing any kind of technique, to apply that technique to a harmonic exercise of some sort. I typically relate back to arpeggios and scaler exercises from school. This forces you to take the technique and apply it all over the neck, instead of just getting comfortable with something in one spot and approached from only one angle, this forces us to further open up the possibilities inherent to the technique.

There are almost an infinite number of ways to mix it up, but here are some ideas to get you going.

  1. Take a scale you want to work on.
  2. Set the metronome at a moderate or slow tempo.
  3. Decide on a right-hand fingering that you want to explore. Let’s go with THUMB (T), MIDDLE (M), INDEX (I).
  4. Start with hitting each note 3 times
  5. Start with 1/8th notes.
  6. Use TMI, TMI, etc. over each note in time playing 1/8th notes up and down the scale
  7. Once it feels relatively comfortable, switch to 1/8th note triplets/
  8. Continue to graduate the rhythms (1/8th -> 1/8th triplet -> 1/16th -> 1/16th triplets, etc…)

Once you can do this comfortably, you can switch it up in any number of ways!

Here are some ideas:

  • Play the scale in broken 3rds or 6ths (or any scaler combination!)
  • Change the fingering in every way possible so you don’t get locked into only one way of doing it.
  • Pluck each note a different number of times (this can be cool and hard! If we’re using a repeating pattern of 3 fingers (T M I) but we then pluck each note a different number than 3 times, we REALLY mix it up. Try to keep your 3 finger pattern going but pluck each note 5 times! 2 times, 4 times.
  • Mix up the rhythms to match the number of times you strike each note (1/8th notes = 2 times, triplets = 3 times, 1/16th = 4 times, etc.)

That’s pretty cool if you run the scale as you were: up and down, graduating rhythms, but now graduating the number of plucks per note based on the rhythm.

You can see that you can take a single, simple idea for an exercise and, if you really look at your options, flip it around and hit it from every angle, thus turning one exercise into a years worth of work. It’s really fun work, tho so just enjoy the process of discovery and exploration.

If you spend a good amount of time doing this kind of stuff, your right hand will really open up and allow you to do much more than you ever realized. Eventually, you just don’t have to think about your right hand. You just have to be creative and have the ideas and the hands will abide.

That’s the really hard part.

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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  1. Nathaniel Flick

    Great post and ideas as always! I’m still workin on your
    5ths exercises from the YouTube vid.

  2. JB Brière

    for my understanding, what are “scales in broken 3rds or 6ths” ?