14

Before I played bass I played guitar, so when I started to play bass I naturally used a pick. Eventually I learned how to finger pick and now typically use both picking techniques interchangeably as a bassist.

I would like to know though what are the pros and cons of each technique and if there are certain styles of playing where one technique is more appropriate the the other.

  • 1
    No one seems to have mentioned it, but it's also pretty genre-specific. For some reason in metal especially a lot of bassists use picks. I would guess its the faster/more consistent attack you get with a pick. I use my fingers 90% of the time though. – Charles Sep 21 '14 at 22:29
  • 1
    According to commandment #6 "Thou shalt not ... honk with a pick when thy fingers are the way of the truth" :) i.imgur.com/dJSDK4q.jpg – Hilmar Apr 1 '15 at 13:54
10

+ Pick

Perhaps the most relevant advantage of a pick is that you can do palm mute, which is pretty useful on bass (in fact rather more useful than on guitar).

IMO that's about it, though! As far as the string-plucking itself is concerned, a pick has no real advantage over good finger technique. Some points that pick-proponents tend to make include

  • "It's more powerful" – no. Well, an untrained finger will certainly have trouble getting near the power of a pick wielded by a metal guitarist, but with proper apoyando technique you can easily get as loud as with a pick, or indeed louder. It's no coincidence that the instrument that needs most force – double bass1 – is almost never played with a pick2.

  • "It's faster". Again, it's perhaps easier to achieve a fast tempo with a pick without much practising, but a well-coordinated three (or even two) fingered pattern can go quite as fast as could possibly useful in the bass range. (However, you might say palm mute puts the border of what is useful quite a bit higher, so at least indirectly speed is a point in favour of pick.)

  • "It has more definition / harder sound". Sure, if you haven't calluses on your fingers and pluck feebly along, it'll sound pretty undefined, but once again this goes away with better technique: when playing as loud as most bassists do, most of the attack / treble content comes from the strings colliding with some of the frets, more than you get from a pick (doesn't apply to fretless of course). When you have a bit of nails on the right hand, you can "blend them in" for some extra pick-like attack on quiet notes where the strings wouldn't hit the frets. If there's a way in which a pick is "cleaner", it's that it doesn't give a strong "thud" when the finger hits the next lower string after apoyando plucking.

  • "It's less painful". Well... there's a point here, you will get blisters when doing fingerstyle bass, no way around it3. But once the calluses are thick enough, you're fine.

  • "It imposes less constraints on the lines you play". I don't think so – both up-down and finger alterations can sometimes get in your way, but if you anticipate the difficulties you can always find a way that works fine.

+ Fingers

  • Much more subtle & versatile variation of dynamics and sound character. Soft notes will really sound soft, not just thinner, accents will stick out more notably. You can at any time utilise slap/pop techniques for plenty of attack, or angle the fingers for a really warm "soft" sound (without necessarily sacrificing low-end volume).

  • More polyphony possibilities. Fairly obvious, but not all that relevant for bass.

  • Better silencing options. In an alternating finger pattern, there's always a finger available for making notes a really precise staccato (left-hand only silencing works pretty badly on bass, you need to use all fingers so no harmonics remain).


1Double-bass pizzicato is a bit different from E-bass technique, but the argument holds.

2Though contrabass-balalaika is played with a "plectrum": a shoe-sole! Hardly suitable for anything more complex than a crotchet bass line.

3Hm, Tim says otherwise. Allright... you will get blisters/calluses if you play entire gigs with pick-like-attack fingerstyle, no way around.

  • Fretless gets the percussive sound from the strings hitting the fingerboard, rather than the metal frets. Never, ever got callouses from playing fingerstyle on bass.Maybe 30+ yrs are not enough! Comprehensive answer, though... +1. – Tim Sep 21 '14 at 20:25
  • Never blisters? Funny. But then you say fingers give a "smoother" sound... evidently we have a bit of a different approach to fingerstyle violence... — Indeed you can get pretty percussive sounds on a fretless with slap techniques – but not this kind of bright rattle as frets give you when just playing loud apoyando, rather the characteristic fretless growl (which is very unlike pick-attack). That's what I meant there. – leftaroundabout Sep 21 '14 at 20:40
  • having been in the same position as the OP and now interchanging finger, thumbstyle and slap, I think the real difference is in the amount of skill you need to use it well. A guitar player (presumably) already has skill with a pick and will have overcome the speed and 'getting in the way' and string skipping issues, so will get results faster using this when learning bass. Fingerstyle takes more work to get the same results, from that starting point. It took me years to get passable with fingerstyle and longer for slap - I still prefer a pick. – jammypeach Sep 22 '14 at 8:00
  • You can palm mute with your fingers by alternating your thumb and pointer – Kolob Canyon Feb 12 '17 at 22:08
  • @KolobCanyon true, but I find really difficult to get a strong and well-defined attack in that position, so the advantage of palm mute isn't fully exploited. I sometimes use thumb+palm-mute for very soft, almost subsonic throbbing, but that's about it. For more defined muted passages, I'll do the damping with my pinky or fingers of the other hand, but neither works as well as palm mute with a pick. — Well, since I play mostly fretless instruments (more often cello than bass) I don't have that much need for damping anyway. – leftaroundabout Feb 13 '17 at 0:00
8

They sound different, and the sound you want is going to affect your choice. Fingers are softer than plectrums, so give a softer, warmer sound.

With a plectrum you can use alternate picking to play fast patterns, but skipping strings is a bit more fiddly.

With fingers you can play two strings at once (not that many conventional pop/rock bass parts need it) and you can play fast patterns by using more than one finger.

Try both and see what works for you. You could find you use both techniques, depending in the song.

4

I play both, and when I pick up the guitar, out comes the pick, generally, but with bass, I've never used anything but fingers, and occasionally, thumb. I often wish I could play more guitar with digits.Strumming chords is more effective with a pick. That doesn't often happen on bass. The flesh of fingers gives a better sound on bass, as often it's a smoother sound that's required. If it needs to be punchier, there's always the option to slap and pop.

Is the pick going to give a faster rate of play? With four fingers on bass, there's plenty of speed available, if needed, as four fingers are 4 times one pick. Not that one has to play that quickly on bass.With fewer strings, the damping of unused strings is easier with bass, so having fingers spare to dampen seems to work more easily than it does on guitar. Holding a pick limits the available fingers to dampen.

As mentioned earlier, the sound is rather different, so there are occasions when the pick is the weapon of choice as far as tone and attack are concerned.With no pick in sight, on bass, there are the options to play 'normally', pop, slap, and other subtle ways to coax different sounds from a bass guitar, most of which are denied to you if you are holding a pick.

3

In my experience it is a little easier to lock with guitars playing with a pick, especially if you are playing metal which also tends to be very rhythmically straight. That, combined with the harder edged attack, makes playing with a pick slightly more obvious for that style, especially in the more modern sub-genres. Of course there are a lot of great fingerstyle players in metal, so it's not a place where you need to ignore it.

Fingerstyle is way better the minute you want to mute strings, as you always have a spare finger for that. That lends it to music where you want more space or more complex rhythms. I wouldn't want to try and play reggae or soul with a pick.

Fingerstyle also gives a much rounder, woodier, sound. I find that this typically cuts through better in a live situation - unless bass is the only instrument playing at any given point, most of the treble you produce is going to be lost among the other instruments who specialise in the mid-high tonal range. This is an important consideration because bass is very much an ensemble instrument and what sounds good when you're practising at home may well not be nearly as good with cymbals and guitars around to soak up that high end space.

So there are clearly advantages to both sides, but neither is entirely limiting to playing what you want to play- you can find great players who play fingerstyle or use a pick ( I would say fewer pick players, but Carol Kaye played on so many top flight records she probably balances out a lot of that ) so you can really choose the one you feel most comfortable with and go from there.

3

A few extra + Pick points to add to leftaroundabout's answer:

Easier to evenly accent 8ths / 16ths patterns, even when playing fast
Even if you can go as fast with three fingers as you can with a pick, you can get more appropriate accenting from the natural up/down motion of picking when playing 8ths / 16ths than you can when using three fingers. This is because even if you can control your three finger motion to accent every second or fourth pluck, they will be plucking the string in slightly different places, leading to the "threes" feeling leaking through. I've not seen any player who can overcome this.

Playing with two fingers gets around this, but again I am not aware of any player who can play with two fingers at the same speed as you can with a pick and keep it up for the length of a gig if they have many fast songs to play.

Notes can ring for longer before they're re-picked than when they're re-plucked
if you're repeatedly plucking a string with your finger, you will be muting the string for the time it's in contact with your finger. This means for fast patterns on one or two strings, the 'duty cycle' period during which the notes are ringing freely can be quite short, leading to a lack of definition in the line. With a hard pick, the period in contact with the string is shorter, so your notes can ring for longer.

Easier to play a string without muting the one below it
When you pluck with fingers, your finger naturally follows through on to the string below and mutes it (this can be avoided, but it may take a little bit of effort). That's often exactly what you want, but if you want to let a string ring and play some higher notes against it, that's easier to do with a pick.

Gives you a defined sound even if you don't have right hand finger callouses
I just don't play hard enough to build much of a callous on my right hand, so if I want to get a defined clicky sound I need to use a pick. I do also love the sound of the strings clattering against the frets, but that's not always the sound I want - sometimes I want a nice controlled sound, just with a bit more edge.

No need to figure out fingering options
When playing without a pick I use three fingers and a thumb - sometimes that can lead to quite a lot of thinking about the best finger pattern to use. Having those options is great, but sometimes when using a pick there's only one way to do it, which can be a blessed relief!

Easier to sing and pick (slightly personal?)
I am fine strumming away on the guitar and singing; playing a bassline and singing messes with my head if I have to think about right hand finger patterns. If I use a pick it seems to take up less headspace, and singing seems easier.

Having said all this, I'm a fingers player 90% of the time. But to be a well-rounded player there's no doubt in my mind that you need to be aware of what a pick can do for you!

0

I alternate between a pick and fingers for various reasons. I'll mainly use my fingers when I'm playing songs which only require the low end strings, however I'll switch to a pick if I need to play songs which require the high strings to be used. Why? Mainly due to the fact that my index finger is significantly shorter than my middle finger (my two plucking fingers). When I'm moving between strings, I have to stretch a lot further than normal with my index, putting unnecessary strain on my wrist. So for me, using a pick is more ergonomic and better for my playing style in the long run.

So I guess the main thing is that hand shape and build can also be a contributing factor to whether you choose pick or fingers.

-1

Why not be a pick player? All you have to do is play with rubber and/or felt picks to get a finger style tone when you need or want it. In fact, I would say that because you can play with so many different materials and gauges, picks are definitely much more versatile than the flesh you necessarily use when finger playing. Yeah, you can be creative with fingers, but you can do virtually the same with picks, as well as have all the typical advantages as listed elsewhere on this page. Moreover, tonal controls in particular, but also where you play the strings as with fingers, has a HUGE effect on how your pick playing sounds. Finally, picks help cut cut through the mix a bit better - not sure this was already mentioned. But producers often prefer them. As do music video makers since, contrary to finger player claims, pick playing just looks better. Why? Well, beyond 15 feet, you can actually see what the picking hand is doing, whereas, finger players look as if only their left hand is doing anything clearly. Besides, the strumming motion you share with guitarists is definitely way cooler looking than nose picking your strings!

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