Exploring the Value of Slap Bass
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.