Exploring the Value of Slap Bass

Louis Johnson

Louis Johnson photo by Lioneldecoster

Q: I get so excited with seeing and hearing amazing slap bass playing. However, I’m wondering how many eggs to put the “slap basket.” I have tried a couple of different books and videos and have finally settled on Louis Johnson’s DVD from 1984. I am still working on the first lick and able to play it, but not at light speed like Louis does. I can keep it clean and funky at about 160 BPM, and thus ask myself is there really value in playing at the speed demonstrated in the video. I have found much value in the video lesson in that my slap technique is already better with other songs I have learned.

A: I have to start this one by reminding everyone that I can’t slap to save my life. Many people think that I do slap because of some of my rhythmic and percussive right-hand techniques, but slapping was never comfortable for me, so I never pushed it earlier in my development. If anything, I just took slap patterns and applied them to a fingerstyle way of playing and using the thumb.

I think most professional and working bassists might agree with me here: The type of slapping that wows on Youtube or at the NAMM show is not the type of slapping that that gets you hired. That kind of dexterity, speed and rhythmic fortitude is impressive and surely fun to pull off, but I think most band leaders prefer somebody more in line with Louis Johnson, Will Lee or Chuck Rainey.

Victor Wooten has really raised the bar with regard to what is possible, but he’s also inspired a multitude of unhireable bassists (in my opinion) who forgot to work on how to support the band and only ever worked on crazy fills, licks and burning fast slap lines. Please, don’t get me wrong there. Victor knows very well how to play a supportive role, and he’s one of my favorite players. By no means do I mean that as a stab at Vic. He’s one of my favorites but not because of his 32nd note triplet slap licks, or his two-handed tapping but, rather, because he makes everything feel so good when he plays bass. He’s a phenomenal musician and a phenomenal technician/showman. I’ve seen too many bassists and students who forgot the functional bassist part of that equation in their studies.

Marcus Miller or Louis Johnson might be my reference for how to give the people a show while still supporting the band and make everything feel right.

My advice is to not worry about speed. Work on your time, feel, control, subdivisions and employing a proper technique. It has to sit right and feel good before it can do anything. The speed will come naturally as a result of the good work you do, and you will be a much better bassist for it.

As with many of my columns, it comes down to what kind of bassist you want to be. If you want to be a supremely hirable bassist as opposed to a supremely impressive technician, than take my advice and work the fundamentals. Keep working those Brothers Johnson tunes. Feel free to learn a few crazy licks, too! Just don’t obsess over the licks and neglect the meat-n-potatoes if you really want to work with other bands. Check out and learn some slap tunes & licks by Will Lee, Vic, Marcus, Larry Graham, Nick Beggs, Les Claypool, Richard Bona, Etienne Mbappe, Bootsy Collins, Nathan East, Mark King, Meshell Ndegeocello, Stuart Zender, etc… Experiment with different styles and techniques. Check out Abraham Laboriel and the way he slaps but also incorporates an almost Flamenco guitar type of strum. Steep yourself in the history and development of the technique.

I think you’ll be glad you did in the long run. Just ask yourself… is this lick or line about the pocket or the show-off factor? Focus on the pocket 80-90% of the time and have a little fun with the licks and fills on the side.

I realize that I went on a bit of a tangent here, and to answer your specific question, which was on how much to focus on the slap thing, here’s my take. I think it’s definitely a worthy exploration and will surely give you another perspective on what you can do with a bass line. It also gives you another trick in the bag. Most bands just expect that bassists can slap. I get the funniest looks when I have to say that I can’t slap (but I can fake it reasonably well by over-plucking).

The decision on whether or not to focus on it would be made after exploring it fully for a while. If you enjoy it, go for it! If it doesn’t feel like you or just doesn’t jive with your thing then move on.

Have fun and explore all techniques and methods. Your voice is partially the culmination of all of those things that you explore in some depth (as you develop). If you like it, do it!

Readers, what’s your take on the subject? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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. Louis

    Tried slap, many times and it’s not for me, quite frankly when I first heard it in the 70’s I thought it went it’s course and would fade to slap heaven. I leave the banging to the drummer. .As it turns out I would rather play funk finger style.

  2. To be hierable… Try all techniques… Even… THE PICK! Yes, you know.. That litle piece of plastic you can steal from guitarrists…

    • Bob

      The guitarist’s piece of plastic is too flimsy. You need a man’s pick, big thick and firm, to play bass.

      • Graph Tech Tusq Standard .88mm pick sounds phenomenal with my Warwicks and its also stiff enough.
        I also use 2mm dunlop picks, and I primarily play finger or thumb style

        • As a dominantly fingerstyle player, I thought I would need a big ol thick pick and got myself a pack of 2mm big stubbies. I found I liked the .88 and they hold up surprisingly well.

          As for the slap technique, I never got into it, but it’s something I want to dabble into for fun. I think as bassists, we should try all techniques available and maybe we might find something new along the way? I’m fascinated with how innovative people can get with their instruments, but for now I’m quite content with being the meat n taters of a band.

  3. Bob Cleary

    great answer!

  4. I’d have to agree with Damian wholeheartedly. I can use a little thumb, and a few pops here and there, but it’s not my thing, and licky-tricky slap lines have never been requested, at least from me on any gig or recording session I’ve been a part of. I love to listen to guys who own it like Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten, but sometimes it’s cool to just admire from afar, and just do what I do, which is all fingers.

  5. John Adham

    I don’t slap my bass, out of principal. I’ve done it, I’ve plucked strings, pinched them, used a pick, used fingers, even thumb, yada, yada, yada. Slapping is a gimmick. It’s like being a one trick pony at the circus. I’ve played both guitar and bass for many many years, and I couldn’t care less about such a technique. All bass players seem to want to learn how to slap and you know what, they all sound the same after a while. It’s like shredding for a guitarist. It’s a useless endeavor unless there is musicality to it. The most important essential as a musician is doing what the bass player is supposed to do, BE HALF OF THE RHYTHM SECTION and BE THE MERGE/BLEND BETWEEN DRUMS AND GUITAR. Slappity/tappity is just one aspect of playing bass. Also, the most important essential is if you can’t groove with the whole band, then your techniques and gimmicks are useless. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

    • Sean Rose

      I agree completely. Slapping is fun to watch and if you’re naturally good at it it’s a great tool to have to pull out from time to time. In my personal experience I have worked consistently precisely because I focus on playing what’s needed to support the band. I have been hired over players who have much flashier technique and can play amazing solos for hours at a time. It’s only now after playing professional for 15 years that I’ve really started to get a hang of playing faster flashier solos. This only came about because it became interesting to me and developed naturally. It wasn’t something I forced. But for years I worked every night by just keeping it simple and in the pocket and paying what feels right!

    • Greg D

      Slappity-tappity? I spent an afternoon learning the ride out on Al Jarreau’s “Love Is Real” and just knew the singer was going to love it! My excitement built as we came to that section of the song. I thought, let it rip! About a bar and a half into it, she stopped the band and said, “could you please not do that slappy/poppy stuff? I don’t like that.” I worked with her for six weeks more and realized it was a terrible gig.
      The guy that showed me how to do it said, “it will take a month or more of practice, and then when you think you’ve got it, you take it to the stage and realize you’re gonna need another couple weeks at least.
      Listen to Marcus on Bill Withers’ and Grover Washington’s “Just the Two of Us” before referring to it as Slappity/tappity stuff. Or, Patrice Rushen’s Forget Me Nots, if you wanna pocket..

  6. Using slapping technique/s is something that I took the time in my beginnings of learning bass to have as a tool in my bassist toolbox but it’s only that for me. It sounds cool but is HELLA cliche’d for bassists so I only use it from time to time. You go into a guitar center or whatever local music store & you can be GUARANTEED to hear some bassist slapping away on an amp on 8 inside the store trying to look & sound cool. It’s a cool technique but bassists tend to over due it on the regular. Finger style playing is much more expressive to me.

  7. Steven Lohring

    It’s nice to be able to know how to do it and add it to your arsenal just like using a pick. I don’t slap much but I do a lot of muting which sometimes gravitates into short snap n’ pop phrases depending on the style of the song.

  8. Jason

    Great direction from a master!

  9. Michael Rich

    Slapping is just a firework technique the first problem I see is it is not explained for what it is… a drum rudiment. Second no one ever talks about hand position once you have these undet your belt speed is not an issue you can do 3 2nd notes with no effort

  10. James J Jennett Is It

    Even the funkiest slappers sound daft on their own. When it gets too fast, it stops being funky. Has to work with a drummer. Done right, you can straddle the rhythmic spheres of drums and bass like Godzilla, but there is a fine line between master bass and mastur….

  11. Barry Irwin

    I could not agree more with what you are saying Damian.The first and foremost consideration to becoming a bassist is to play a supportive role.To understand what the bass is and its function in music.That,will allow you to become a bass player.Not jamming on one chord with a bunch of loops,or slapping out of context slap patterns as a way to becoming a bassist.There is so much more information that needs to be understood before even considering going down that path.
    If that rhythmic aspect so much appeals to you,why not learn to play drums.It will certainly help you a lot more when playing in a band.
    Recently Stuart Clayton’s transcription of a Marcus Miller tune Cee Tee Eye was posted.Now there’s a tune to learn how to play and you will learn to slap as well if you study it.If its too above your head then there are plenty of other examples as Damian mention above by other bass players.Back in the late 70’s lots of bass players were banging out Jaco’s riff’s and grooves but it did not make them better bass players as it was not required on their gigs but rather on Jaco’s.Too this day you can hear people trying to play like Jaco but never will.The same goes for Victor Wooten or any of so many great players out there.Victor most definitely was influenced by guys who slapped before him but he brought his own bag to the table and that’s what great bass players do.
    Back in ’77 I went to Berklee and the year prior to that my band was playing “Spain” and a lot of the then current fusionish stuff.I thought “great” when i get to school my teachers will help me to be up there with all those guys.Instead I was told that if you want to be a good bass player or maybe become a great player you will have to study the masters.That being Paul Chambers,Charles Mingus,Ray Brown etc.Well to be quite honest I have not gone beyond that stage of bass playing.Maybe a drop,but not much.So that is where my head still is when it comes to learning to play bass.
    There are people like Wooten,Steve Bailey,Victor Bailey,Brian Bromberg too many to mention that have transcended that learning by doing there own thing but each and everyone of those guys can sit down and play the hell out of bebop.Recently No Treble posted Vic Bailey playing a Coltrane head yet he replaced Jaco in “Weather Report” to another extreme he also played with Madonna.Steve Bailey played with Dizzy Gillespie.What I’m trying to say is the chicken came before the egg,and I don’t mean the Chicken that Jaco played!
    To me sitting and playing in a great band and digging whats going on is so far superior in feeling than any emotion i would feel playing a slap solo or any solo for that matter.Its not about my ego but the music.The sum of the parts and the name of the game is music, and I want to be a good musician not just the bass player.That encompasses the study of Rhythm,Harmon,and Melody.
    Think of that first and you may be able to have a stable home life raise kids have less than 3 wives and need not resort to vice.Otherwise you could end up playing your slap solo with your hat on the sidewalk to people that will mean absolutely nothing to you.Pay your dues first.There’s time for everything when you are young.
    Don’t get distracted by flash.That is here and gone tomorrow,but learning to play music is forever.

  12. Well other than occasionally using a thumb and pop every once in a while, I don’t play slap. And even though I started playing with fingers, I’m predominantly a pick player, I find it more expressive for solos, and I like the tone aswell. But both fingers and pick are wonderful and useable, I never found slap very usable in a band setting, but rather as a drum n bass thing, but still very cool. But whichever way you play, keep rumblin!

  13. I play in an R&B/Funk cover band, and for the type of tunes that we play, slap style is a necessity! On any given gig, I’ll use a pick, palm mute, slap, and/or use my fingers depending on what’s called for in the given tune. I’ve found that the more tools that you have in your tool box, the better equipped you’ll be for any situation. I resisted slap for a long time, until I was asked to play a tune that didn’t sound right playing it any other way. The lesson that I learned then was that you should learn as many techniques as you can, so you can be prepared when those situations present themselves.

  14. Al Gates

    On original material. Listen to determine where and if slap could be introduced. Louis Johnson’s style has so much syncopation in it. That’s the beauty of his style. And it’s paired so beautifully w/his StingRays.

  15. Slapping is no less valid a technique than playing with your fingers or a pick. The music will tell you what is required and there are plenty of ways to be unmusical as a bass player that doesn’t involve slapping.

    I always see all kind of slap haters but people need to remember not to blame and write off an entire technique for somebody you heard making bad musical decisions while using it.

    The best slap stuff to check out is the stuff that gets used in actual songs. Great examples have already been listed but for further stuff: check out a track like “Glide” by Pleasure to learn something that’s challenging. Check out “Pow” by Larry Graham/Grand Central Station for something fast and constant. Check out “Sumthin’ Sumthin'” by Maxwell to hear what Mike “Funky Ned” Neal laid down (one of the best, tastiest bass lines, ever).

    I spent a lot of time learning all the extra stuff in addition to the fundamentals because it came easy to me. I would tell you that for 99% of the stuff you do, that stuff isn’t important…unless you just want to learn it to know how to do it and even then…you’ll probably never use it.

  16. Well, I guess I’ll need to abandon my Level 42/Primus concept band!!! Just kidding; Damian I feel is right on the money.

  17. We are in a very different time. When I learned to play, the song came first, pyrotechnics was for the jam session. Today, it seems to be reversed. Slap was and is a novelty trick for me. I am amazed by the guys who are monster slappers, but Stanley Clarke is the benchmark to me. He does it all and well. Musicians like Stanley or Vic or even back to Bernard Edwards, always put the song first….probably why I admire them.

  18. Enrico Hendro

    slap…it is a good technique…personally I tend to use slap as my last resort

  19. David Gotteri

    I don’t see what the problem is that people have with slap technique? It’s just that, a technique, a way to get different sounds from the bass.

    I play mainly 70s rock, but on one song, slapping the line gives a brighter rhythmic attack that really works with the drums… in that song. Rest of the time it’s fingers. Occasionally I’ll use a pick, different sound. Don’t see what the problem is?

    We should spend less time auto-judging any technique/piece of gear/sound/whatever and enjoy EXPLORING THE INSTRUMENT. it’s music. If the music is honest and heartfelt, people will hear and listen. Your average listener couldn’t care less and wouldn’t know if it was slapped, plucked, picked, was your ampeg, your 1974 Precision with custom everything, or a $40 garage bass. They just want to hear it, and if they like it, they will listen more.

  20. Erix

    It is quite trendy these days to bash slap bass. Slap is one of the techniques you have to know. I think it is important to really apply all known fingers and picking techniques (hammers, pull off, dead notes, harmonics, left hand muting, palm muting…) to slap to make it as rich as your other styles. Something I often try is to slap a fingerstyle bass line and the opposite (play with fingers a slap riff). Something that works very well is to introduce a short slap sequence in the middle of a fingerstyle bass line: it suddenly brings a new kind of sound and energy (see a recent video by Scott Devine about that). Slap can be used in all styles, even in very quiet and slow tunes, ballads, etc. it is not reserved to “extreme funk” with machine guns triplets.
    By ignoring slap you just miss something in your arsenal.
    I started to play in the 80s with a pick, then fingers. I had difficulties with slap, then someone gave me a trick that helped me starting to slap. It certainly dépends on people but to me slapping the bass is now very pleasant from a physical perspective, when you find the right movements (what my friend Frank Nelson, a great bass player and teacher, calls The Perpetual Slap Movement), you will experience something like a trance.
    Last, I’d like to recommend “Ultimate Slap Bass” by Stuart Clayton, that is probably the best slap bass method.

  21. John Shaughnessy

    “Victor Wooten has really raised the bar with regard to what is possible, but he’s also inspired a multitude of unhireable bassists (in my opinion) who forgot to work on how to support the band and only ever worked on crazy fills, licks and burning fast slap lines.”

    This quote should be posted at the top of every bass forum – and I actually wrote a book on slap bass playing.

  22. Pit

    Not for me. Funk is not my thing, never was.
    I pick the string at a slightly more “scooping” angle very rarely as gimmicked sound in breaks.

  23. Bob

    I’d say just do it for the fun of it. You can try pushing yourself to go harder and faster, but remember how to play with a band too! More modern pop music and especially indie music incorporate slapping and popping a lot more than “traditional” rock music. One example is Maroon 5, but the bassist does not go on 32nd note solos, just one slap and one pop here and there to move the song along. In any case, I would do harder and faster slapping just for the fun of it, even if it never gets used live.

  24. Slapping is just a tool.

  25. I love sitting there and having a good spank occasionally and sometimes try and work it into my sets, but I normally find no matter how good I get it in practice I never seem to get it quite right on the night…wah…

  26. Like all bassists, I taught myself slap early on to sound cool, however since then, now I’m a bit wiser, that seems to be all I’ve found it useful for – as an easy way to show off to people who don’t know anything about bass playing. Non-bassists are easily impressed by someone who can lay down a basic open-string octave funk slap groove in E minor, but musically I find I’m way more satisfied when I’m playing subtler, more musical basslines fingerstyle. By all means learn slap if it makes you happy, but slapping DEFINITELY doth not make a bass player.

    • Fa_Graf

      I can’t understand alla these slap haters… I play very supportive slap basslines with my band… I love the sound and the percussive feel I can give to the song, but I also like using the pick, fingerstyle, palm-muting, and if I could I would use a knife, or a shelf or a cat if that’s the way to obtain the right feel and sound. I never show-off, I’m not a soloist, I can’t play a solo and I never will, but I do a lot of slap to support the bands I play with, nobody’s impressed by my basslines but by the way I groove. I’m sure I’m not the only one here…

      • barry irwin

        Fa I don’t think any of these bass players hate slap.Its merely the point of how much emphasis one should put into it it as a study when learning to play bass.I think that’s the point.Slapping is a very relevant technique and has been around for a long time and certainly has a place in bass playing.Its more the relevance it has when learning to play bass.Young guys learning to play bass are blown away by slapping and I have been too,but how much relevance does it have in actually being a bass player?I,m sure most guys agree that time can be better spent learning your scales,the neck of your bass, arpeggios,studying harmony,articulations etc.and when you have all that together then venture into slap/tapping what ever you want with all the vital information you have attained.In the end its all about what sounds
        best for the piece,and I,m sure even people that aren’t slappers will slap if it means playing with other good musicians.

  27. Szecsei

    Mastering this technique takes a fair amount of time. The Alex Sklaverski slap bass video helped me a lot. It breaks down every little trick from the basics to an adnvanced level, and does that slowly (which is pretty important). But there are also a few really funky cats on the internet who post various slap lesson videos and explain the technique and everything you want to know about it.
    As for the “egg/slap basket”, I think that you shouldt put as many slap stuff as you like in it. It’s your chice what you want to play in your free time, for your own fun.
    The other important thing is to keep it classy and tasty when playing with a band. What I mean is, you don’t wanna play machine-gun tripplets as a bass line for a Madonna ballade, or for over any other song which is not slap-oriented. Your bandmates will probably admire your technique, but most certainly will have second thoughts about it if you overdo it later.
    Listen to some of those great players out there, figure out their stuff, learn it, play it. But I think, the key thing here is that you should show off this stuff when you are supposed to do it. At the right place at the right time. Not in the middle of Riders on the storm. :)
    Last but not least, slapping is pretty hard in the beginning. Espically with a drummer. You simultaneously have to concentrate on his patterns and yours when you guys are jamming, and if you want it to sound really funky and not just messy noise. Developing a good feel to it also takes a couple of years. It just takes a lot of practice. I remember learning my first Louis Johnson bass line which the first time ended up sounding like total crap live. Give it time, and in the meanwhile keep it tasty. Yeah, and don’t forget to practice fingerstyle and picking too! :)