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In typical fingerstyle bass technique, you alternate between two fingers, always pulling the strings in the same direction, up toward your hand. In contrast, with picked bass you alternate pick direction, generally picking downward on down beats and upward between beats.

Lately I have been working on my fingerstyle speed so that I can play very fast and steady bass lines like “Na Na Na” by My Chemical Romance and “Stockholm Syndrome” by Muse with alternating fingers. I discovered that it’s much easier to flick my finger up and down like a pick than it is to alternate fingers like I’ve been taught, and I’m wondering whether that is actually a legitimate fingerstyle technique.

In fingerstyle bass, is it acceptable to alternate up and down like using a pick? Or is this a bad habit that I should avoid? If it’s legitimate, what are the pros and cons? Are there any well-known bassists who use or teach the technique?

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    If it sounds OK, and you can do it comfortably, then it's legitimate. – slim Jul 28 '14 at 13:17
  • It depends whether you want to follow what others have done or do your own thing. If you want an individual style, do things like that, which perhaps buck the trend. If you'd rather be a good mimic (perfectly valid!), best to research & copy what your influencers do. You can smack the bass with a banana if you like - Anything is legitemate if it makes a noise you like :-) – user2808054 Jul 29 '14 at 8:56
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That's how Geddy Lee plays, using one finger up and down. I think it's a good technique to learn, you can use it in certain cases. As others have already mentioned, it does sound different from two alternating fingers, so when you're playing something you have more options to choose from and your criteria won't only be "oh how can I play this with less effort?" but also "how do I want this to sound?".

  • All of the answers were excellent; I’m accepting yours because you touched on every part of my question. The only suggestion I have to improve your answer is to describe how the sound differs when you alternate up and down. When using a plectrum, upstrokes sound distinctly different from upstrokes, but I haven’t noticed such a difference when playing up-and-down fingerstyle. – Bradd Szonye Jul 29 '14 at 2:32
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    @Bradd - With practice, you will be able to play with a pick and discern no difference between up and down strokes. Or even be able to play so they sound the opposite way round. Not necessarily useful in itself, but pick control is. – Tim Jul 29 '14 at 8:46
  • Well, up-down with one finger will sound different if you have short or long fingernail for example (with a short fingernail you can make the downward strike sound just like the upward strike, and with a longer fingernail or a more horizontal position on the downward strike it will sound different, similar to using plectrum) – Chochos Jul 29 '14 at 15:44
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No reason why you can't do that. If it works, it works!

You will get a different sound than using fingers normally. But it won't be as clicky as a pick. Maybe somewhere in between. You'll probably find you'll wear away your finger nail pretty fast.

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After one has been playing for a while, one often finds that idiosyncracies have wormed their way in to playing styles. Any way that produces the desired effect HAS to be legit! There is no right or wrong, as long as it sounds good. Using a finger down and up will even vary from player to player, one with long and one with bitten nails.Try thumb/finger, finger/finger, pick/finger, so many different ways are used by so many different people.

I don't know of a particular bassist who uses your method of playing - it may be your unique technique.You may not even need your picking hand - lots can be played by hammering on, especially when a pint is waiting to be drunk !

Check out a video by Abe Laboriel - Beginning Funk Bass - to gain insight into many diverse ways of making your bass play.

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Famous jazz bassist Victor Wooten has been known to pick up and down with his thumb. He has published many educational materials over the years and hosts an annual Bass Camp in Tennessee. I do not know if or where in his teaching output that his thumb technique might be covered.

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You should be able to choose how you want to play your instrument. How it feels natural to you. As mentioned here Geddy Lee, and Wooten have their own techniques as for example James Jamerson would only use his index finger to play the bass (they called it the hook), and boy was he good at it. So it is really a matter of you deciding what is your main goal. Are you doing covers but want to have your own style? Or originals and have your own style? in this case i'd say be creative, bow your electric bass, pick it with a drum stick do whatever you feel like, experience in order to create your "voice".

I can share an experience i had once where a guy had a bass on a stand connected to an amp with a drumstick between the strings and the neck of the bass, he would hit the strings with another drumstick and would pull the first drumstick up and down to create sound effects. It was strange but he created his own "voice". So if this is the case go for it.

On the other hand since you are coming from guitar i would suggest that you should make an effort to learn the fingerstyle part as it will only enrich your play. Personaly i don't like how pick sounds. I used to play in a Punk-Rock band using fingerstyle. My go-to exercise everythime i feel rusty on my right hand i can't find it online so i'll just doodle it here:

I: INDEX || M: MIDDLE

Going upwards:

G:-I-M-I-M---------------------------

D:----------M-I-M-I------------------

A:-------------------I-M-I-M---------

E:----------------------------M-I-M-I

Going downwards:

G:----------------------------M-I-M-I

D:-------------------M-I-M-I---------

A:----------M-I-M-I------------------

E:-M-I-M-I---------------------------

Note that when you finish the downwards exercise you end up with an inverted upwards exercise so if you continue on doing it inverted you will end up with a inverted downwards to finally reach the first exercise again. Its a cicle. Do this repetedly with a metronome and you will see your fingerstyle improve reasonably. Also note that on the upwards exercise your finger on the 1st beat is always different and the downwards exercise your finger on the 1st beat is always the same.

Hope it helps. Cheers!

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