Classical guitar players can play quite fast using just their first two right hand fingers. Although it is true that the fastest tremolos are played with three fingers, I think it's very likely you can get faster with just the two by refining your technique.
It might be tempting to think that classical guitar and electric bass technique must be different, and that a technique that allows speed on classical guitar must be slower on bass - perhaps due to the thickness, mass, and/or tension of the bass strings. I just finished a semester studying classical guitar and playing electric bass for two different classes, and I've found that classical guitar technique works great on bass, because the pickups and amplifier mean we don't have to displace the bass strings hardly at all compared to playing forte on the classical guitar.
My point is, the thing that slows down classical guitar right-hand technique is incorrect recovery from the stroke. The right hand should be in a position that merely relaxing the fingers after they stoke places them in the correct place to begin the next stroke. Once the rest position of the hand and fingers is corrected, the thinking for the stroke should be to prepare, play, and then relax. There should be no use of the extensor muscles to extend the fingers back to rest position. They should return to the initial position when the flexor muscles are relaxed.
I suspect the difference you experience when adding a second finger is that the use of the extensors for one finger is fighting the flexors of the other finger. This is why it is critical to not use the extensors for the return to starting position.
In order to correct your technique, you must slow way down and drill on correct technique so slowly that every motion can be made correctly. You should find that when you have drilled enough with correct motion and technique, the only thing required to speed it up is the will to do so. If you start to allow your fingers to play faster and they reach a speed limit that is not surprisingly fast, it means you need to slow down again and refine your technique. Let me be clear: the development of the proper technique should be expected to take on the order of months, although you should hear and feel improvement in days to weeks. Excellent technique is a lifetime's work, but quite effective technique only requires a reasonable amount of patience and discipline.
You probably already have an acceptable right hand position. One way to check and achieve a good position is to have the bass in playing position (not too low if using a strap) and with a relaxed wrist and fingers, simply bring the right forearm around from behind the bass to rest on the upper edge of the bass body. The right wrist should be slightly farther away from the plane of the strings than the biggest knuckles of the right hand.
Next, rest the right thumb on the string just below (in pitch - above in space) the string you want to play. Again, you may already be doing this. When playing scales with this technique, you'll want to practice moving the thumb as you switch strings. It sounds much tricker than it is.
Your hand should be at such an angle that if you look down at it, your thumb is between your eyes and your fingers. In other words, you can't see all of your fingers behind your thumb. You also want it so you have to just slightly extend your middle finger in order to touch the string adjacent to the one your thumb is resting on.
A complete stroke is three parts:
- First, prepare by extending your index finger towards the bass until it's resting on the string you will play. Once you're touching the string, you want to extend just slightly more to apply a small amount of pressure on the string.
- Second, execute the stroke itself by activating only the largest knuckle at the base of your index finger to pull the finger back towards the palm of your hand. Don't pull the finger all the way to the palm, just pull until the string is released, and maybe slightly farther.
- Third, relax the index finger so that it returns to the initial position without any muscle contraction to locate it there. If your fingernail brushes the string you just played as you relax, you may need to adjust your hand position and/or be careful to relax all muscles at the same time. A very slight, brief contraction of the tip of the finger can be made and shouldn't slow you down very much.
That is how to effectively execute a single stroke. The only additional ingredient to perform alternating strokes exactly like that with the index and middle fingers is to synchronize the preparation of each finger in the correct way. As soon as one finger executes the stroke (step 2 above), the next finger prepares (step 1 above). It takes some very slow practice to train the fingers for this action. The other thing that takes some patience is that when done properly at slow speed, the preparation of the next finger should immediately mute the note after the previous finger has played it.
Once you can prepare so instantly after a stroke that the resulting notes are of an extremely short staccato nature, you will essentially have the correct preparation technique.
Things to keep in mind - almost a mantra that you can say out loud or focus on when learning this technique:
- Start relaxed
- Touch the string to start preparation
- Push very slightly on the string
- Stroke from the big knuckle (do not curl the finger) - Prepare the next finger at the same time
- Relax the finger that just stroked
As mentioned above, this technique should unlock your fastest two-finger playing. Your fastest three-finger playing would use the same technique, with the added complication of preparing a third finger after the second finger strokes. I'd say adding the third finger is more than twice as difficult as getting the first two to work together in this way. Also the third finger does have physical differences in that it has tendons joining it more closely to the second finger, while the first is more independent.
One more note: Ideally you would be able to play rest and free strokes at the same speed. I believe it is easier to bring free strokes up to speed and you don't need to mute the lower string because your thumb will be on it. Some players feel like rest strokes are easier to bring up to speed. I would suggest getting the alternating stroke-preparation concept down using free strokes and then if you feel like free strokes are quite awkward, you might try with rest strokes instead. I find with rest strokes, my fingers can't as easily relax to the proper position. This is partly because I'm still developing my technique fundamentals.