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What Fingers Do You Use?


Chip Stewart
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Another thread got me thinking about how I use my fingers when playing the bass guitar. On my right hand I use my index and middle finger to pluck the strings. I rarely use a pick.

 

On my left hand I use my 2nd and 4th fingers ~70% of the time. I use my 1st finger ~20% of the time and my 3rd finger ~10% of the time. I play in a folk band and most of my bass lines are variations of the root and the 5th. As an example, in the key of G I'll put my thumb on the neck at the third fret which also positions my 2nd finger at the third fret. Most songs are a variation of I, IV, and V, which in the key of G is G, C, and D. For G, the root is 2nd finger/4th string and 4th finger/2nd string while the 5th is 4th finger/3rd string. For C, the root is 2nd finger/3rd string and 4th finger/1st string while the 5th is 2nd finger/4th string and 4th finger/2nd string. For D, the root is 4th finger/3rd string while the 5th is 4th finger/4th string and 1st finger/1st string. As you can see, the 2nd and 4th fingers are doing most of the work. The 3rd finger is used for bass runs and chords outside of the I, IV, V structure, but not nearly as much as the other three fingers.

 

In the other genres that people play, what is the breakdown of finger usage? It will be interesting to see the techniques the different genres employ.

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I'm a rock player. Mostly classic rock, some jam band stuff, and I've toured with a reggae/soul/Louisiana funk group.

 

Mainly, I use all four fingers on my left hand, usually one per fret. Cuts down on having to move up and down the neck. That's important to me because I sing a lot, and can't seem to consistently land on the fret I need to if I'm not looking.

 

On my right hand, I use first, second and third fingers as required. I tend to use my index finger a lot, sometimes to the point that it starts to hurt, so I go to just 2 and 3.

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Bear in mind that I'm a guitarist who noodles around on bass so I'm not really representative: Right hand index and middle. I've also been working on wearing a thumb pick for instances when I want to use a pick and I want it to be handy (pun unintentional). I grip it like a regular pick when I'm playing. Left normally index, middle and ring.

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Regardless of how you use your hands, fingers, combinations, picks, etc. remember to practice playing songs, not only practicing chromatic exercises, warmup routines, etc.

The outcome of your shedding should be in the proficiency you develop on the instrument to play music, sweet basslines!!! I have had many students who are good technicians, yet fall short when taking that technique to actually playing songs, basslines, and during live performance being able to execute the bass timbre and efficiency they are striving to achieve in their bassline performance. The deal is to practice playing music!!!

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I'm like Issac. I use a finger per fret and when I work out doing finger exercises I work all my fingers equally. Nothing worse them stumbling over a weak finger when you need it to be strong.

 

I can see where playing specific songs, with specific bass parts can cause some fingers to be used more then others. The question is are you only going to play those songs the rest of your life? What happens when you play a song that requires all 4 fingers to be used?

 

This is why its important you set up a practice regiment that not only gets all your fingers working physically so the muscles develop evenly, but your brain connections that tell those fingers what to do are equally working on all cylinders. You may not use them all on certain songs but you should try and work them in to show off your skills and break the monotony so you don't get board silly. Even if its only using a different position on the neck using the same notes.

 

 

On my right hand it depends on the song. Some require one finger, two, three or four and I even use a pick too. Some song endings and crescendos can sound great playing a full chord for that extra loud punch so I may pick all 4 strings at the same time.

 

I rarely use my pinkey on a bass because I play 4 string basses but I have used it when I have my thumb anchored and do a rake or arpeggio type thing. Much of this goes back to my acoustic guitar picking and Spanish guitar flamingo strumming stuff I used to do. I'd train myself to use all my fingers. On bass however it can be physically challenging because the strings are thicker and My hands are older now so its a matter of pain vs efficiency. I do like using my two fingers for fast playing whenever possible. If its too fast I may switch to a pick.

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Left hand: I generally try to stick to the one finger per fret rule, however I find myself using my pinky more than my ring finer.

 

Right: Index and Middle mostly. If it's a fast line and/or highly repetitive line, I will get my ring finger involved. Still working on that consistency though.

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I am equally comfortable with fingers (right hand index and middle) or pick. I can use my thumb, but rarely do. I'm not great at slap bass. My biggest challenge is my relatively short fingers. Because of them my left hand technique is somewhat dependent on what bass I happen to be playing. I like (and try to stick to) the one finger per fret, four fingers / four frets approach, but if it's a big chunky neck down near the nut and full 34" scale length, sometimes it's just too much. I can't play it for very long before my hands start cramping up. When that happens, I can switch to a three finger left hand approach... but because I've been pretty selective about my basses, I usually don't have to.

 

My main bass is a 1989 Ibanez SR1100. It's full scale, but it has a very slim neck. I also have a couple of shortscales - a Rogue VB-100 violin bass and a Squier Bass VI. The 30" scale is a lot easier on my hands. I don't mind playing full-scales; they've been my main instruments for most of my life... but I do have to be pretty picky about getting a neck profile that works with my hands. That's less of an issue with a shortscale.

 

Oh, I did remember something that's a bit weird about my right hand technique. When playing with a pick, whether on guitar, bass, mandolin - whatever - I tend to hold the pick using my thumb and a combination of my index and middle fingers, and sometimes with just the thumb and middle finger. When I use the thumb and index finger exclusively I occasionally find my longer middle finger hitting something unintended; it's a non-issue if I incorporate the middle finger into the pick grip. Of course, that makes it harder to do combination pick and fingers technique with the right hand and I'd like to get into trying to do a bit more of that, so it's a habit I may have to break.

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Left hand, one finger per fret - though since I have such a short curved pinky i'll often cheat and just use the first three. Right hand I'm a bit strange --- I've found that I can actually play alternating fingers more smoothly using index and ring fingers rather than the more conventional index and middle.

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Right hand I'm a bit strange --- I've found that I can actually play alternating fingers more smoothly using index and ring fingers rather than the more conventional index and middle.

 

I don't do that, but I could see how it might be more comfortable for some people. My right hand index finger is noticeably shorter than the ring and middle fingers, which are closer in length to each other and more even than the index and middle finger... I get around that by angling my hand slightly relative to the strings so that the index and middle fingers hit more evenly when playing with those two fingers.

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I'm in the same boat as Phil...I've got big broad palms but short fingers (finding gloves is pure torture) so the 1-per-fret technique is really difficult. As a result I've developed bad habits that I'm hoping to break. I've taken some time off playing and hope that when I return I can start with fundamentals that develop my hand and finger strength and dexterity.

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^^^ You may be a candidate for a short scale bass.

 

My fingers are thin but medium long. I'm able to get a long stretch playing a precision without a problem with one fret per finger.

Thing is I'm not playing bass every night like I used to and it takes allot of power in the hands to properly play the instrument.

 

I'm also 57 now and the arthritis kicks in after a few hours of hard work. That wouldn't be so bad if my hands would heal faster.

Seems like the older you get the longer it takes to heal up. I used to be able to play 5 hours a night, get up the next day and do it all over. Now it takes 2 or three days to heal.

 

The thing is I still drive myself to play hard like I was young which only complicates things. You drive yourself past the warning signs and then you really start hurting yourself. Bruised finger tips on the left hand and blisters on the right.

 

I get around it by using slightly lighter gauged strings on the long scaled bases. I have two long and two short scale. I mostly play the short scale recording because they have less string inertia and I can get more notes within a phrase without chopping notes.

 

I really been digging the Hofner Ignition Club bass I bought several months ago. It only cost me $200 new and after doing a little touch up work on the frets and getting the higher end Hofner bridge for it, its really sounding great. I can play it for hours and have much less fatigue and my fingers aren't so chewed up with the flat wounds I'm using.

 

It sounds as fat as a long scale but its allot easier to get to notes. The Gretch is a short scale too. I've always had some issues playing it with my fingers. I've tried dozens of different strings and deem to get the best results with Boomers, but the low E has always seemed a bit flabby.

Changing the frets helped quite a bit and I can move on it well, but The Hofner's string tension is a little tighter. The tail piece lengthens the strings about an inch and that seems to make the difference.

 

I think the best bass for playing with 2 fingers high speed was the vintage SG bass I used to have. That neck was in between a short and long scale and the round neck was very fast action. The Playability was great for both hands, Its just too bad that bass's bridge pickup sucked. The neck was a single coil and the bridge was a Humbucker. When you turned both up it sounded out of phase. If I still owned it I would have kept the bridge and found something else for the bridge.

 

I do have a build that's got fast action. I used it allot in my last club band. I bought a unused Washburn neck and a three piece precision body. I put a single EMG in the middle and it nailed the Doors music the band was playing. I could play LA Woman with two alternating fingers picking the strings and not miss a note. The neck is thinner and shaped like a Jazz bass neck. The tone doesn't sound great recording direct but it sounded great live. I may eventually add a bridge pickup but its not on my priority list.

 

I do record with the precision too. Its is tough to maneuver on if you don't spend some time playing on it. The string spacing for the right hand forces me to really grip the strings with an attitude to play octave chords. Its gets those long sustains and nails the classic fender fret slap tones too. I'm not real good at fret slaps. I have my own way of pulling out on the strings instead and letting it snap back against the fret.

 

The Precision its actually very midrangy tracking direct compared to all my other basses. It blends well with allot a vintage music but doesn't produce those sub lows like other bases do unless I add lows electronically. My short scale Gretch on the other hand is the deepest, likely due to the shorter scale having lower string tension.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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True, I may be a candidate for a short-scale, but haven't played any that were impressive, and probably have all the basses I've ever wanted anyway. Namely my treasured 4003, my MIA P-bass, and my L-2500. The the 2500 could go, but it would be a tough sell. In short, I'd rather have to work at playing a bass I love, than have an easy time with one that doesn't sound right to me....

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Four fingers on the left hand. Pretty much have to.

 

On the right hand (picking), I mostly stick to index and middle finger, but use a pick for some songs where it makes sense. For some tunes, I'l sneak in the ring finger and go semi-Entwistle. Occasionally I'll have a song that has either a fast repetitive line, a tricky pass, or octaves, and for those I'll use my thumb and fingers, almost classical guitar style instead of slap. It's just easier for me to get a consistent sound that way, and it tends to freak out the bass players in the audience.

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It's kind of weird, I have short hands and fingers too. But I have better luck with a wider, full scale neck. Maybe just because I was initially associated with a Fender P bass? It's too awkward with a skinnier neck, squishing fingers too much, and I tend to reach too far with right hand and miss strings.

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Right Hand (I am right handed) = 90% first and second fingers like would be expected, but 10% adding that ring finger for an occasional flamenco-ish triplet or something.

 

Left Hand (fretting hand) Spent most of my gigging life playing 5 strings, so mostly used the first three fingers, with the pinky seeing a little action when needed.

 

I cannot really "thump" or slap - I kind of rebelled against using those techniques because of the time I grew up playing (in the 80's and early 90's) Slapping or "popping" seemed to be the mark of "whether or not you knew how to play the bass" - but none of the music I was really into called for slap bass, and it seemed to me to be the mark of "whether or not you wanted to show off" - kind of like the equivalent of guitar tapping, which was popular at the time as well. I know I got at least ONE great gig in the last cover band I was in because their previous bass player slapped and popped all over every song, regardless of genre - the guy was well known as being "a good bass player" - but the band was much happier with someone holding down the bottom end, locking in with the drummer, and singing backup than slapping and popping all over tunes that had no call for it.

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I'm still not following. Such basic four-string basses as Jazzes and Precisions have very different neck widths and profiles, but that has never affected how many fingers I use when fretting. How does it do so for you?

Edited by isaac42
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