6

I have seen a few questions about this on guitar, but none on bass.

When I started guitar, I instinctively used my four fingers to play stuff (five if you count the thumb for over-neck awesomeness) and that seems to be the correct technique.

I got into bass a few months ago and tried to have the same approach.It's quite a stretch (especially on lower frets) but over time it got somewhat manageable. However, I got a teacher who told me I should go about doing things like fifths and octaves with my pinky instead of my ring finger. Is he wrong? Or is it just a preference thing?

6

Well, I'll have to disagree with your teacher. Do aim at one finger per fret as a default!

The three-fret technique is essentially a variation of the standard way to finger notes on double bass, due to Franz Simandl. Double bass requires about five times as much force as electric bass (apart from having a considerably longer scale), so it's really tough to apply the 1-finger-per-“fret” principle. Some guys can actually pull this off and achieve marvellous results, but for most players it's just not practical to torture the ring finger and pinky with having to work on their own; the Simandl technique groups them both together to a single, more powerful unit.

This is completely different on electric bass. If you have difficulties pressing down the string with the ring finger or pinky alone, then there's either something wrong with you technique or the action of your bass is set too high. Indeed, it's very rare for players to actually use the pinky and ring finger together, rather they'll just skip the ring finger.

So, force isn't really the issue.

What's quite a different issue is the spread of the hand. It's a matter of fact that even on electric bass, the position where your index is on the first fret while your pinky fingers the fourth is extremely uncomfortable. Don't do that, ever! You don't need to. No matter where your hand is and which finger targets what fret, the hand should always be nicely loose and flexible. Don't spread out fingers while they aren't actually used; only keep them ready. While pressing the pinky, the whole hand may in fact be a good bit higher up the neck than when the index finger is playing. It's still nominally the same position, and the move of the entire hand within an inch won't slow you down.

It turns out many bassists, by being lazy and using three-finger technique, actually miss the goal of a relaxed hand. The three-finger technique, like the chord technique used by many guitarists, has a tendency to encourage a firm broomstick-grasp like grip. Actually this kind of technique can give good results (especially à la Hendrix – screaming bends and thumb auxiliary bass notes), but on bass it's most of all limiting. A more open hand is much better for melodic bass lines, not always just playing pentatonic scales or merely switching between fifths, and it gives a better basis for switching to other positions.

4

As a beginning bass player I've been working through Ed Friendland's Hal Leonard Bass Method, which starts out using just first, second, and fourth fingers spanning three frets. He introduces one finger per fret (spanning four frets) as an advanced technique in volume two, and teaches that you should pivot between second and third fingers rather than stretching your fingers across all four.

I picked up this book partly to practice exactly this. Previously I depended completely on one finger per fret. My left wrist and hand have been feeling a lot of pressure, and cramping up sometimes when I play something repetitive close to the nut. Working on the more relaxed technique seems to be helping.

More advice along the same lines:

,

Anyway, so my (limited) experiences agrees with advice I've seen in Friedland's book and elsewhere, and (it sounds like) with your teacher: for versatile technique that doesn't stress the left hand too much, most people probably need to learn both ways.

2

Like everything else in music, fingering is definitely a preference thing. There are some ways that are more economical than others, but it ultimately boils down to what is more comfortable for the player. In general, the one-finger-per-fret rule still applies for bass.

In a lot of music genres, bass players do a lot of roots, fifths and octaves. If you're looking for an economic fingering pattern, you'd probably end up with:

  1. Index finger on root
  2. Ring finger on fifth
  3. Pinky on octave

It looks just like how an average guitar player fingers a power chord.

You'd also notice that your middle finger is free to be used on the fourth/seventh - this allows you to play hammer-on the fifth/octave in a bassline. Pretty common technique used in more songs than I know.

Once you get used to this fingering, I guess you'd naturally feel more comfortable with ring finger on the fifth, and pinky on the octave. Again - not a sacred rule, but just what makes sense economically.

1

Dependent mostly on the length of fingers. One finger per fret works pretty well on guitar, but not so on bass. it is more noticeable on the bottom 4 or 5 frets (one of the reasons I prefer 5 string - no real need to play down there!). Playing scalar stuff, o.f.p.fret does actually work at the bottom, but for playing I, IV, V as you do a lot I might use index and ring/pinky. Your teacher isn't wrong, maybe he finds that best, but there's certainly nothing wrong with beefing up the pinky, which may otherwise stay as weak as it ever was. Bassically, whatever feels right for you will be good - provided you give other options the opportunity.

1

I teach that there are essentially three fundamental fretspans to learn on a standardly-tuned bass guitar: three-frets, four-frets and five-frets.

Three-fret span is incredibly useful, as it limits your vocabulary in a way that gets you thinking in terms of very useful basslines. It makes the root, fifth, and octave extremely playable in a way that is conducive to creating grooves. It also allows for convenient neighbor tones for these, but forces you to focus on other aspects of the groove than the melody.

Four-fret span is useful to expand out of that cage into more technically-proficient lines. However, when doing so, it is important not to lose site of the groove in the process.

Finally, five-fret spans are great as they encompass a full major third on each string. If you master a five-fret span, on a four string bass every note within an perfect twelfth ascension from your lowest note will be accessible to you without shifting. On a five string bass, this expands to every note within a two octave distance of that root accessible without shifting. This opens up enormous melodic possibilities – but as with the four-fret span, has a tendency to shift the focus away from basic groove.

In practice, I use all of these at different times. However, I recommend starting with becoming a master of the three-fret span. This is not because it is simpler, but rather because it will focus you on playing fundamental lines of bass playing, and on learning to groove before learning to stretch melodically.

1

Since I have long fingers with good joint flexibility, I decided to adopt OFPF from the beginning when I learned bass. I am very careful about stretching and finger warmup exercises before each practice session. I have experimented with optimum finger placement on the neck to minimize and distribute the strain as evenly as possible across all four fingers. For my first and fourth finger reaches I pivot on the thumb; I don't go for a long stretch on either end. This technique has served me very well as I learn and play the bass.

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