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I'm learning bass after playing guitar for a long time. Anyway, it seems that the bass finger picking style is significantly different from the style I would use on the guitar. The standard bass technique seems like it would never work on guitar (the guitar strings are too close together). However, is there any reason why it is not desirable to go the other way and use guitar-style finger picking on a bass? Or are there some good reasons to not do it that way? All the beginner bass videos show the finger picking always stopping on the next string (which guitar finger picking does not do). Is this a kind of essential part of bass technique?

  • Thanks for all your replies, very helpful! I'm new to this site. Do I have to pick one reply as an "answer"? All the replies have been super informative. – Matt Dec 31 '17 at 5:07
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    Welcome - with a great first question! You don't have to choose any answer, but if you feel that one shines more brightly, do so. Or wait a while and see which gets voted up better. Your choice! – Tim Dec 31 '17 at 9:24
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There are a couple of relevant things that are "easier" about playing bass:

  • You are usually (though not always) only trying to play one note at a time
  • As you also say, more precision in the plucking action is possible on bass, because of the thickness of the strings and the increased spacing between them

There are a few relevant things that are "harder" about playing bass:

  • The strings often need to be plucked harder
  • The precise rhythmic feel with which you play the notes is often important. This often depends on the exact way that you strike the string - including the angle, the texture of the part of the finger that you use, and the point along the string at which you are plucking
  • Muting technique is generally important, both to achieving the right rhythmic feel, and also to getting a clean sound without more than one note sounding at the same time.

So I would say that most your observations generally result from the fact that bassists are taking advantage of the aspects of the bass that are 'easier' in order to help them with the things that are 'harder'.

With guitar, it's not common to be able to stop on the next string because often you want that string to be ringing too. With bass, that's often not the case.

With bass, you often want to set up a very regular-sounding rhythmic pattern that might stay on one string for a while. Using the string below the one you're playing as a rest for your thumb can be very helpful when doing this - It gives you something to pull against. Some players even use a rest below the bottom string to enable them to use a similar technique on the bottom string.

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Let me take a rough swing at this...

Bass techniques need to be heavier, because the strings are heavier - they take more effort to start & more effort to stop.
You generally also only want a single note to sound at any given time.
You also, generally, don't want much if any fingernail sound [subject to required effect].
The bass fingering style tends to use the 'corner' of a finger rather than the tip, again to avoid the nail sound unless for effect. [Not always, but a good proportion of players.]

So - guitar finger-style, aside from having a thumb awkwardly-placed [we can come back to that later] is generally too delicate for a bass. You need to generate more force & in most cases that force needs to be parallel to the plane the strings lie in.
You then, because of the arched shape you are making with your picking hand, will have more difficulty reaching other strings in the same move, to assist damping. At the end of any individual stroke, your finger will be above the string-plane, with the fingernail closest to the string - so any damping would require a 'return' move.
I'm ignoring palm-damping for this, as that is similar for either instrument.

If you use more of a pulling technique, away from the plane of the strings, you will start to produce more of a "slap & pull/pop" sound; fine if that's what you're going for, but generally will be a bit bright for a regular finger-part.

If you look at the 'slap & pull' technique, you'll see the wrist is used a lot more than in guitar picking, so the thumb can be used to hit vertically down on the strings, with the fingers hooked more to enable the pull-away. This part could be considered closer to guitar-style, but again much greater force is needed.

Back to the thumb, from the opening section...
Until about the late 60s, early 70s many players in fact used only the thumb as their 'finger style'. If you look at basses from that time you will see there is a finger-rest under the strings. This later moved to above the strings & became a thumb-rest instead [the very same plastic part simply moved to the other side of the strings].
Eventually, both of these rests died out & you don't tend to find them on modern instruments.

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The method of picking where a finger comes to rest against the next string, usually lower in pitch, is called apoyando, or rest stroke. it is used a lot on guitar, mainly in classical playing. In fingerstyle it's not a lot of help, as often, strings need to keep sounding, and this would stop them.

On bass, with more often than not, in general playing, one note at a time is the norm, using rest strokes works well as it mutes another string - always a good thing for clean bass playing. But with care, there's no real need for that - I play a lot, and hardly ever mute strings, and there's no sounds that don't belong.

Another point is that compared to guitar playing finger style, often chords are formed, which isn't normally the case on bass.

The two instruments are actually very different, both in playing and use, so it's a very good idea not to try to transfer some skills from one to another. If you would like strings closer, as in guitar, several 5-string basses exist with standard 4-string necks, which make the spacings not incomparable to a guitar's. But, as I say, don't treat the two as the same.

In answer to your last part, yes, it seems to be fairly essential, as in most players use the technique, although from my point of view, it's not essential - to me at least ! I've taught both ways, and I think each player will find his own muting method - or none at all; but things need keeping clean regardless.

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However, is there any reason why it is not desirable to go the other way and use guitar-style finger picking on a bass?

If I understand correctly what you mean by guitar-style finger picking on a bass (you're not talking about Doc Weaver style finger picking - just the usual approach to attacking the strings on guitar vs bass) then no - there is no good reason not to play that way if you can make it work. Here are a few very big names in the bass world who did just that. There are many others as well:


Paul McCartney of the Beatles:



Tom Fowler with Frank Zappa:


Anthony Jackson (He plays every way - whatever he thinks is necessary):


This also relevant: Geddy Lee Explains His Right-Hand Picking Technique


If as a guitarist you can play bass well that way, go for it - It has its advantages in terms of agility and flexibility. As a bass player, I'd encourage you to explore and exploit your guitar chops as much as possible on bass. You need to be able to play good solid bass lines, but bass today does much more than that. After all, it is a bass GUITAR. It took players 15 or 20 years to figure that out - to realize it was more than a small, electrified upright bass, but by late 60's the instrument began to get opened up.

You will have to mix it up though: There are certain aspects of bass playing that work better/easier if you play 'bass style'.


Left hand technique has some fairly well established rules and practices, but right hand techniques vary greatly from player to player: Some use a pick, and tend to come down more on the strings, like Macca up there, some use the thumb as a brace and stick down one or more fingers and come up on the strings (James Jamerson - one finger), some use the thumb (Larry Graham) some players combine techniques, depending on the need. Jack Bruce of Cream would sometimes play close to flat out finger picking style - hand over the strings working three or even four fingers - couldn't find any videos of that now, unfortunately.

Tim Fowler up there was one very few that seemed to be able to play deep, funky bass lines coming down a great deal on the strings using a pick in guitar-like fashion. It's not easy.

Larry Graham is essentially a thumb player but he invented slapping from that:

Larry Graham Right Hand Technique



Then we have guys like Stanley Clarke:


And Mark King of Level 42 - they took it even further - rewrote the book entirely:


See here as well:

  • Um, non of these examples include any guitar-style fingerpicking, do they? – leftaroundabout Dec 30 '17 at 23:01
  • @leftaroundabout Actually they all do - different sorts. Are we talking about Doc Weaver or Jimi Hendrix? OP didn't specify. Macca plays it just like a lead guitar. So does Fowler a lot of the time. Jackson is using a lot of flamenco style right hand technique there, among other things. – Stinkfoot Dec 30 '17 at 23:06

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