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The (following) questions came from analyzing my plucking hand technique. Consider playing 16th notes on one string with two fingers. It is accessible for me to play 8th notes with one finger (especially with index finger) in 140 - 160 bpm tempo for quite long period of time without too much tension in my hand. But I can't play 16th notes with alternating fingers in this tempo. Short outbursts are doable (something like da-ga-da-ga-Da) but that's all I can do. So, I wonder why does this happen? Why can I play dissected components of the technique but can't properly alternate fingers in fast tempo? Is it psychological (neurological) barrier? Or maybe muscular movements from alternating fingers motion differ considerably from muscular movements from one finger plucking motion, so my dissection of the technique is not really sensible?

I know almost nothing about human's anatomy, so I can't comprehend the medical literature on this matter. But there's got to be some articles about this stuff for ordinary musicians. Or if you know who Troy Grady is maybe there's some guy who's done similar research for bass plucking technique?

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    I’m voting to close this question because it's strictly a physiology question. To fit this site, OP needs to demonstrate that the issue only arises when playing guitar.
    – Aaron
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 17:52
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    @Aaron, but physiology and instrumental techniques are always strongly related, isn't it? There is a lot of literature of anatomy/physiology of piano playing for example. And these book are usually written by people who can more or less play piano. Because the reason for this literature is strictly pedagogical - based on understanding of physiology pedagogs develop practice methods, make them more effective.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 19:08
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    @Aaron, I'm not trying to be rude and stubborn like a mule, but I still believe that this question is 100% about 'practice or performance technique'.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 20:14
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    I don't have time for a full answer right now, but I'm 99% certain it's your recovery from each finger stroke that is holding you back. Improper recovery always slows us down, and even more particularly, it's something that we can overcome in short bursts, but when you can't sustain a speed it's usually a clear indication that recovery is incorrect and you are building up a recovery deficit that stops you after a certain number of notes. Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 21:28
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    I've now written a complete answer. It is long, but I hope you will both take the time to read all of it and also consider devoting perhaps a month to working on the technique I've outlined in the answer. If you're not already playing as I've described, I believe it will help with both speed and consistency. Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 3:45

8 Answers 8

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Start relaxed
  2. Touch the string to start preparation
  3. Push very slightly on the string
  4. Stroke from the big knuckle (do not curl the finger) - Prepare the next finger at the same time
  5. 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.

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    +1 it's all about practicing a lot with maximum awareness - this video explains the concept from the very beginning.
    – moonwave99
    Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 16:23
  • Thank you so much for this detailed and very helpful answer. I've tried your recommendations for a couple of days and, yes, I see where to focus my attention. I used floating thumb right hand position from day one (and this day was 16 years ago), so it wasn't an issue for me. But in order to prevent any wrist arching I angled my right hand in the neck direction (it's kind of similar to the Gary Willis's approach). This position naturally (at least for me) leads to curly fingers. And this form of fingers, I think, led me to focus my attention /will /brain signals on the fingertips.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 15:45
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    I started your recommendations extremely, ridiculously slow (there's the famous Adam Neely's video about speed where he explains why this should be done; although all of my 3 bassoon mentors taught me that, so it is a widely known method, but for self-taught musicians it could be a revelation). I straightened my fingers as much as I could without arching my wrist and focused my will on big knuckles. Yep, this did the trick. After 2 days (and 3 hours overall) of slow practice I tested this position on high tempos. One measure of 16th notes in 150 bpm - no problem.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 15:47
  • Yes, a little bit sloppy, but I see now where to go and what to hone. I already have a bass with low action, but my touch is not super light, so it's surely possible with this approach to play in high tempos with good dynamics and with tone which has this plucking flavour to it.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 15:47
  • I've done some transcriptions of Jeff Berlin and Dave LaRue bass parts where they play short (2 - 3 notes) 32nd notes runs in 100 - 105 bpm, this notes are not slurred and not raked (it's possible to hear that with the modern transcribing software). I thought how the heck do they do it? I tested this hand position on 200 bpm, and yes I can play da-ga-da-ga-Da in this tempo.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 15:48
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(Disclaimer: I'm a violinist, not a bass player or a doctor.)

But "yes and yes": Yes, there are barriers that have more to do with the brain than the fingers, and yes, it (might?) be that alternating two fingers presents more physical challenge than the sum of its parts.

First, the nervous-system stuff: A big part of learning to play well is simply getting our fingers to act "on cue." I was just in a concert yesterday in which the harpsichord part was rather embarrassing, just because the player couldn't even out his triplets into three equal notes and they kept bunching up in funny places.

Sometimes there are physical limits to what we can do—yesterday, the tempo was just too much for him—but this is a learned skill. Insofar as we are capable of playing a rhythm at a given tempo, we can also train ourselves to do it with more rhythmic accuracy.

This can involve practicing with a metronome, and practicing various rhythms. But one step is simply getting used to moving your fingers in the first place, and exactly the fingers that you want, at the time you want. This can be harder than we think. For the fingers of the left hand, I have a favorite exercise for violin that could probably work on bass, by Demetrius Constantin Dounis:

  • Place each finger on a different string
  • Lift your first finger (keeping all the others down), then put it down again. Repeat a bunch.
  • Do the same thing with each finger, one at a time.
  • Now take pairs of fingers, like say 1 and 2, and alternate them. Leave 3 and 4 down, but let 1 and 2 take turns being on the string. The moment 1 lands, 2 pops up, etc.
  • Now the hard part. Take non-adjacent fingers and move them together at the same time. Like, lift 1 and 3 while 2 and 4 stay down.
  • And now the hardest: let the pair 1 and 3, and the pair 2 and 4, take turns. Raise 1 and 3; the moment you lower them, 2 and 4 pop up.

Since these are motions we don't normally make, it's surprisingly hard at first to figure out which neurons to fire to move which muscles. But it's important, since "all these fingers" go into "all those chords." And the more you practice it the easier it is.

Similarly, I'm guessing on your right hand, your first finger (index) gets a lot more plucking action than your second finger. There could be physical challenges here (second might actually be weaker, has less mechanical advantage), but it's also less used to playing right on the beat. Maybe give it some rhythm practice of its own.

Now, to the physiological considerations: Again, I'm not a doctor, but it makes sense to me that there could be a difference between plucking 8th notes with either finger, and alternating 16th notes with two fingers (even though each finger is still just "plucking 8th notes"). When you alternate fingers, then when finger 1 goes to pluck, finger 2 is still "returning from a plucked motion." Simply observing: When I move one finger, it does make a difference how the neighboring fingers are oriented. When I try making a plucking motion with first finger, with my second finger relaxed (more or less in line with the palm), and then compare it to the same motion but with my second contracted, as if it were "already plucking," I can perceive a difference in the muscles of my forearm. It makes sense that this can add tension throughout your forearm. Similar issues face a pianist practicing a trill, etc.

The only advice is that that always accompanies physiological practice concerns:

  • Avoid any unnecessary tension. Sometimes we might unconsciously or sympathetically tense muscles that are not contributing to the motion. Consciously relax them.
  • Don't push it. Muscles can be trained, toned, and strengthened, but targeted practice can also simply give you performance injuries; ask Schumann!
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  • Sometimes I wish i'd concentrated on exercises like this when I was younger. I can rub my tummy & pat my head, & swap hands on demand. I can do the Vulcan 'Live long & prosper' & also its 'opposite', both centre fingers together, outer splayed… and swing between them on demand without moving the outer fingers… but I can't play 16ths at 150 bpm without a pick :\
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 18:15
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There's some anatomical 'weirdness' [I'm not a doctor, run with me] with the 3rd [ring] finger, where the tendons/nerves are wired in such a way that true independence is not possible.

Simple, well-known trick. Put your hand on the table with your middle finger bent under, then lift your ring finger…

enter image description here

This, however, never really impacts finger independence in bass playing.
All it needs is practise.
Once you have that, add the ring finger & play your 16ths with three fingers, maintaining a good 4/4 feel. That's fun.

tbh though, at 150 bpm, I can barely drum my fingers on the table in 16ths, let alone play. I'd be getting the pick out at that speed.

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  • That is not the reason why index + middle finger is limited though. The reason for this is that this way you cannot use hand and wrist and get all movement from your fingers.You can test this out if you close all but one finger, try to keep your hand and wrist as still as possible (not moving at all is very hard to do, but you get the idea) and try to play with that one finger while only moving the finger. You’ll suddenly be much slower. But you can also alternate pick with your finger to get such fast 16ths.
    – Lazy
    Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 10:11
  • @Lazy - emphasis on 'I'm not a doctor' right there in the opening line.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 18:26
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So, I wonder why does this happen?

Very simple. You didn't practice enough.

Why can I play dissected components of the technique but can't properly alternate fingers in fast tempo?

Again, you didn't practice enough. Hint: use a metronome to gradually speed up your practice. It takes time.

Is it psychological (neurological) barrier?

Only if you are allergic to practice.

Look, every musician who has gone through the beginner stage to something better with a teacher will have had the experience of being asked to do something "impossible" by their teacher only to discover that with mindful practice it becomes less impossible over time and years later appears trivially easy.

After I'd been learning to play the violin for about a month my teacher asked me to prepare an old Scottish folk tune "Bunesan" (aka "Morning has broken" by Cat Stevens). It starts with a 3-note cross string slur with the 1st and 3rd notes played by the same finger on different strings.

"Impossible!", I told my teacher. "No worries. So play it detache" he replied. Well, it was written as a slur so I was going to play it as a slur. I ended up moving up into 3rd position and stretching out with my 4th finger to a nominal 5th finger position so that I could play those opening 3 notes as a slur on one string. I found that 4-5th finger stretch very difficult but not "impossible" like the cross string slur and produced something passable for the next week.

Now, more than 3 years later, what was once impossible or even very difficult is trivial. The reason is many hours of related practice in the meantime.

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    I am not a beginner, I can play a lot of stuff on a bass guitar. I was a professional bassoonist in my 20's - 30's. So, I guess I know a little about practicing. I asked a question about some extremities of bass guitar playing. Because there are a lot of pro guys who can't play 16th lines in this tempos (Scott Devine or Ed Friedland, for example, said it themselves and they practiced most of their lives before they said it). But some people can play this stuff. So, I'm curious what's the reason.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 19:39
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    I strongly disagree with this answer. More practice is not a universal solution. Proper practice and proper technique are critical for higher levels of musicianship. Practicing improper technique can actually decrease one's level of musicianship. On the other hand, learning and practicing proper technique can unlock musicianship that we might have thought we could never achieve. Simply recommending more practice is potentially dangerous for the musician. Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 21:26
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    @ToddWilcox I have a speech I give students: "You've heard 'practice makes perfect.' That's a lie. Practice makes permanent. Practice something wrong, you just get better at doing it wrong." Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 22:03
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I think all the answers here have good ideas and ways of strategizing and practicing through this. But you could also try coming at it from a different angle.

There's a trick I've seen used in some YT videos to drastically increase speed of passages by turning even 8ths into 16th "scotch bonnets" and then squeezing out the gaps. Poof! You're now playing 16ths.

You could try a similar trick. Play the even 8ths with the index finger that you know how to do but add a second note with the middle finger just after, almost like an arpeggio. Then you can work on moving the middle note relative to even 8ths. There's a whole spectrum from scotch bonnets through even 16ths and into swing 16ths.

I think going straight for the skill to move the middle note where you want it ought to be a more powerful tool, and give you the ability to play even 16ths as a side benefit.

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  • It's interesting. I tried some kind of this trick intuitively (I called it a 'flam' using drummers' slang) but didn't find a way to make it consistent. Could you, please, give me a link to this YT clip if you have any recollections about its name?
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 22:59
  • I'm afraid I'm not finding it right now. I thought it was related to Suzuki violin pedagogy but my searching isn't yielding any results. Commented Nov 24, 2022 at 16:08
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Frame challenge: Use more fingers.

I haven't seen (m?)any bassists use the two-finger walking technique for high-tempo playing. It's common to incorporate some percussive techniques, left hand technique (ghost notes), and multi-finger techniques. One such example of multi-finger technique can be seen in the below video (Unleash the Archers, "Awakening"), which uses the double thumbing technique plus two fingers to pluck the strings.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/gqUPGa15Oto?start=330

More details on double thumbing below (Victor Wooten lesson video). The essence of it is to pretend your thumb is a pick. Once you have that down, the first example is essentially an exercise in hybrid picking.

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    Hm, I like jazz and fusion, and all the great bassists that I know, like and want to play some of their tunes use two fingers (yes, I know about Gary Willis, but he uses his ring finger only for string crossing, I use this too). Three fingers on one string just don't sound that good like two fingers. I spoke about it with Stuart Clayton (who is a great bassist/educator from the UK), he can play with three fingers (because of Billy Sheehan of course) but he switched almost entirely to two fingers because of the sound and the feel of it.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 22:36
  • 4-finger Matt Garrison technique and varieties of slapping are completely different story. They have different sound, flavour, articulation and feel to it. Victor Wooten uses his two fingers for plucking and can play some crazy stuff with them too.
    – Nick Sm
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 22:39
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It is in fact quite simple, the reason is that playing with two fingers is not like playing with one plus getting second finger, but they are different. The reason is that if you play with one finger you will be able to use your hand or even your wrist to assist the movement, reducing the actual amount of movement your finger needs to take. On the other hand with two fingers you need to keep your hand still as you get two contrary motions in the hand at the same time, and thus you need to get all the movement from your fingers. Thus for example playing the string with one finger but on both directions can go much faster than two finger.

This also means that it is vital to train to both get faster fingers and to improve your technique so you use only as little finger movement as necessary.

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If I needed to play almost tremolo, I'd be incorporating all four fingers, to make things easier.

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    My little finger's too short to do that :\
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 17:30
  • @Tetsujin - is that a good reason to delete? Others have normal fingers. I did state if I.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 18:39
  • I never hinted it wasn't a decent answer, merely that my hands are the wrong shape ;))
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 18:40
  • By “all four fingers” you mean pinkie, ring, middle, and index? My first thought is “how?” And then, “how could the pinkie possibly articulate quickly and effectively?” If you mean three fingers plus the thumb, I can see that. Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 15:41
  • @ToddWilcox - either. I'm happy using pinky, ring, middle and index, while keeping thumb out of the way. Recovery time is then enough for pinky again. Bit like while you're waiting impatiently for someone, tapping on a table. Yes, thumb can be involved, it's just not what I tend to use. That comes out to play in other parts, notably slapping - although I sometimes use middle and index for that. Call me strange...
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 16:04

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