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I'm a beginning bass player with a couple months' lessons under my belt. I haven't gotten far along enough yet to solidify a playing style, so I'm still able to change my habits if I want to. I was wondering what the pros and cons are of the various places you can rest your thumb while playing bass and how they affect playstyle (if at all). I'm going to divide my question into sections about what I've heard and what I currently do to make this a little cleaner to read.

Pickup

I'm currently taking lessons and my teacher told me to start out resting my thumb on the pickup, which seems to be a fairly accepted standard. Keeping my thumb upright seemed to help me keep my picking technique cleaner in regards to holding my fingers straight.

I've been perusing a lot of information online, and one thing that I came across some months ago (I can't find the link, apologies) was someone saying that in the long run, this can be detrimental to your electronics. He said that over time, the sweat and oil from your skin can end up messing up the electronics in the pickup which would result in them needing replaced. However, I don't have enough knowledge or experience to be able to make a judgment call on the validity of this statement. Has this ever happened to anyone? Is it really a valid concern?

Strings

I've recently started resting my thumb on my E string while playing. I lowered the action on my bass, so it helps to keep it dampened. Should I be moving my thumb down to the A string when I pluck the lower strings? Is it okay to keep it on the E or should I go back to the pickup?

Thumbrests

I've also read online that some people mount separate thumbrests on their guitars. What are the advantages/disadvantages of this?

Basically, what the advantages/disadvantages of these methods (or any others I have missed)? Is there any accepted "right/proper" standard? Are certain methods of play used more in certain playstyles (i.e. blues/metal/jazz/etc.)?

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6 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Aside from playing guitar, I've also played bass in several contexts from funk, soul, fusion, rock, and metal and also teach bass, so I'd like to humbly offer my opinion. There is no "right" technique. Although resting on the pickup is popular, there are also plenty of exceptions. If you check out bass legends like Gary Willis and Stanley Clarke, you'll notice they have remarkably different ways of resting their thumb. Also depending on the bassline, bassists might use multiple strategies, often shifting back and forth from the pickup and to the strings in the course of one song. Further, some bassists "float" - they don't rest their thumb on anything at all! Right hand technique is often a hot topic of debate, but these are all different schools of thought with the same goal: Achieving the most efficient right hand technique with minimum tension, and trying to overcome the difficulty of crossing strings while reducing unwanted noise. As long as you and your teacher are working on that, it's "valid".

If you've only been playing for two months, I say follow your teacher's advice and spend most of your time on the pickup for now. The point is to stick with one method for the meantime, and use that to learn the fundamentals of music and rhythm. As your experience on the instrument advances, you'll be able to make better judgements on how to adjust your technique to suit you best.

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Thanks for your answer! With all of the information out there, it's kind of hard for a beginner to disseminate what's valid and what isn't, what's BS, and what's not. –  FallenAngelEyes Apr 15 '11 at 17:37
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I agree with halmony that there is no "correct" way to do this. Different pro players do it differently, all with great success.

As far as your question whether the pickup is harmed by resting your thumb on it, I would say for the most part no. Most pickups have a chrome or plastic cover over the actual coil for protection. The worst case scenario is that after a period of YEARS you could do some damage. In that situation it is easy and cheap enough to replace the pickup. The main thing is to find a playing style that works best for you.

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Thanks for commenting on the pickup concerns. Like I said in my comment above, it's hard to determine what info is BS and what isn't when you're a beginner and there's a million opinions out there to hear. –  FallenAngelEyes Apr 15 '11 at 17:38
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In the end it is a personal choice.

Many bassists rest their thumb on the pickup, and as others have pointed out, damage to the electronics is not a significant risk.

Some basses don't have a suitably positioned pickup for resting the thumb. That would prevent you from doing it! This is one reason a player might choose to fit a thumb rest, in the position their pickup was on the instrument they learned on.

I naturally rest my thumb on the bottom E string, and use my thumb to pluck that string. It's a bad habit that I'm striving to let go of, because it means that notes played on the E string take on a different tone, from being plucked by a different shaped object, at a different angle relative to the pickup. And, the thumb is less agile than the fingers, so to play fast figures on the E string, one needs to get one's fingers there.

The "floating thumb" style, where the thumb moves to the string below the one you're currently plucking, muting that string might be considered an advanced technique -- and many good bassists don't bother with it -- but you might decide that now (before you're set in your ways) is a good time to get into that habit.

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While I agree that there is no "right" way to position your plucking hand, I would recommend learning how to use the "floating thumb" technique. The reason is that if you can learn to "adapt" your thumb to float around the strings depending on which string you are playing, you can pretty much position your plucking hand any which way you want on the fly (locked on the pickup, muting strings, switching from slap/pop position back to plucking, etc.).

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One thing I have not seen mentioned, and merits a word or two, is plucking, or picking, the strings in different area's between the neck and bridge. Closer to the bridge, more treble, closer to the neck more bass tones. When moving around will also affect your thumbrest strategies which leads into not one technique is the right way, all the techniques are however and when ever they work. Your teeth can work also!

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I would personally recommend the floating thumb technique and combining this with plucking with the second and third phalanx of your fingers (top 2 sections). This way you can move your hand around anywhere for different tones. Another couple of reasons why this is good are that it means that your finger attack is consistent as well as muting the other lower strings- which in my opinion is very helpful if you decide to play extended range basses later on. The floating thumb technique also allows you to play any bass you pick up your way instead of having to adapt to the potentially new pickup position

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