Right Hand Technique for Bassists: Expanding Your Finger Patterns

Right hand

Q: How do I improve my playing by using the three-finger technique and yet maintain the groove with my thumb?

A: Something I’ve come across with many students is a preconception of how they want to use their thumb. With some students, this has actually stood as an obstacle to their growth. I think this is primarily because they become focused on one application of the new finger and (subconsciously) limit their own capacity to utilize the technique.

For example, they may focus on simply wanting that Garrison/Feraud type ‘machine gun’ 16th note ability. This requires focusing on only playing with four fingers on one or two notes and running scales at blistering speeds up and down the neck. Or they may focus on using the thumb in a double thumping way to play faster triplets or 16th note licks and fills but only ever work on those fast triplets and 16th notes.

Running scales and fills that foster these are great ways to develop a part of a technique, but I believe that a larger part of the picture is neglected and, therefore, the players abilities are limited to using a technique exclusively for solos and fills, which should be the smaller percentage of a bassists arsenal.

I believe that it is more useful to simply consider the additional digit in question as just that: another digit to develop and to focus on muscle memory – not just for sone type of lick or fill – but to develop the ability to use that finger in any context just as fluidly as you do your (current) primary plucking fingers.

For example, when I started to realize the usefulness of the thumb, I decided that I wanted my thumb to be as dexterous and able as my index and middle fingers. So I began to really focus on every way in which I could utilize my thumb. The first step was to simply focus on the mechanics and tone.

To do this, you need to pay attention to the sound you’re getting from playing with different parts of your thumb, as well as the attack and the variance between your thumb and other fingers.

Sit on one note and close your eyes and try to get your thumb to sound like your index finger. Do this slowly on one note, not just using one stroke pattern, but mixing up the pattern so you don’t limit yourself to one fingering.

Next, focus on developing muscle memory. For me, that meant I used my thumb in place of one or the other of my fingers for months, until I got more comfortable using it. I played everything with just my thumb and index finger, just as I would my index and middle fingers. I practiced tunes I knew, practice walking, arpeggios, scales, licks I already knew – everything that I would play.

Once you find you’re comfortable, you’ll want to vary it some more. Take the same approach as before, but replace your index finger with your thumb (combining your thumb and middle finger into your playing). Focus on various finger patterns to make sure that you don’t lock yourself into only one way of doing things. You can do this while practicing scales, and also in broken 3rds and 6ths, to force you to skip strings. When you do, pluck each note twice, then three times, then four times, then five, and so on. This will force you to get comfortable starting with any finger as the line dictates. If you do this, I’m betting you’ll find yourself grow quite comfortable starting with your middle finger as with your thumb or index finger as a result.

Continuing this kind of practice with chord shapes and various finger plucking patterns, like a fingerstyle guitarist might. Try more arpeggios, different melodies, grooves and always try to play them with different right hand plucking patterns.

Another idea here is to take a finger pattern that is uncomfortable (say, Thumb, Middle, Index, Middle) and work it on one note until it is a tad less awkward. Then try and develop a groove or line that utilizes that pattern and then play that over and over again until it starts to feel comfortable. Now take that line or groove and move it through the changes to a tune in the Real Book (which forces you alter it in ways which might not have come to you naturally). This is a great way to develop mastery of a technique and further your ability to make it work for you in a more musical way.

As a result of all of this, you’ll likely find that you’ll be turning your current technique into a true multi-finger technique. Your right hand will become quite efficient as you naturally use whatever finger makes the most sense to use for a note, without having to conform your lines to a limited technique.

This kind of focused attention to versatility pays off big time in your ability to play the music and not the “licks”. Many of us spend hours trying to figure out how to fit square pegs into round holes, i.e.: our licks – which we can only play in one way – to the music, which may not align with that one way we’ve practiced the lick.

With everything (especially every new thing) you practice, always try to consider the myriad of ways you could apply or approach it. If it’s a scale, don’t just play it the way you know it. Think of new ways, starting with a different finger on the left hand, playing each note an odd number of times, using a different plucking pattern and so on. This approach will make you infinitely more versatile as a player and technician.

Readers, what is your approach to building your right hand technique? I’d love to hear from you. Please share in the comments.

Photo by Haags Uitburo

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. ???

    it’s so hard to understand and to practice ^^.

  2. “play the music and not the licks” — enough said! Great contribution!

  3. Wow — are you NOT using your ring finger?? I’ve been using mine for years, but never thought about adding my thumb for regular notes. I use index, middle, and ring. It helps that I have a VIA 6# finger exerciser that I use for dexterity, blows away the old Gripmaster exercisers. Amazon: $7.53, model 13103-music-black, ASIN B0026RHFR6.