Hopefully this post won’t be too controversial! I wanted to share some thoughts on right hand technique, or should I say frethand technique – I don’t want to be handist about it, I am a lefty even if I don’t play as one! I was educated into the one-finger-one-fret technique when I started playing guitar. Anything else would have got me a wrap on the knuckles from my classical guitar teacher. The first finger goes on the first fret, the second on the second, the third the third and the fourth on the fourth. All good and logical…
Using one finger per fret means that you know which note is under each finger. It’s fine on a short scale guitar, but on the longer fretboard of the bass it is a different story. The technique means big stretches, especially at the low end of the neck, where the space between the frets is proportionally larger that further up. That can make it quite uncomfortable for many. Rich posed this question on “Bass Guitar Scale Length – Stretching Too Far?“:
I’ve been playing a 34″ (my first bass) for over a year now, and my fingers have stretched, but nowhere near enough. At the top end of the bass (frets 1-5) I can only span 3 frets (even this requires stretching), so playing anything that covers four frets requires a lot of jumping around and is quite painful
How do you fret? Well, Rich, there’s good news, although it is something I didn’t catch hold of until years after I started playing bass. Firstly, don’t keep your finger held down on a fret after you’ve finished the note. Having the first finger planted when you don’t need it creates unnecessary stretch and tension when you are reaching for the higher frets with fingers 3 or 4. Even better news, you don’t need to stick to one finger one fret at the low end. Dave Marks explains it well in his video:
There is a different technique, called the Simandl method. It will be familiar to upright bass players, but doesn’t seem as widely known in the electric bass world. It is much more comfortable for a bassists’ fingers and is designed with the bass neck in mind. It is named after Franz Simandl (who lived from 1840-1912) and was a teacher and double-bass player of note. He developed a set of studies which are still in use today.
The Simandl method uses the first, second, and fourth fingers for the lower register. In it’s fullest form, it involves dividing the fingerboard into different positions, and applying different fingering methods for each. Using fingers 1, 2 and 4 in the lower positions is used by classical double bass players to accomodate the instrument’s scale length.
There is much more than that to the Simandl method. It includes some things which would sound wild even for those familiar with the likes of Victor Wooten – like using the thumb in the highest positions – but that will do for now! You might also want to check out the Rabbath method, which has applicability on eletric bass too, especially fretless (see Rabbath versus Simandl).
Don’t stop working on stretching, and keep to one finger one fret further up the fretboard, but don’t over stretch – no-one is going to enjoy playing bass if they are injured. One of the other righthand/frethand issues to be aware of is where your thumb is. If it is wrapped around the neck, apart from making it hard to apply force to fret the strings, it will also shorten the effective length (and reach) of your fretting digits. Plant the thumb in the middle of the back of the neck. That gives the maximum usable finger length and mobility – as well as numerous other benefits.
These days I am much less militant about one finger one fret, at least in the lower orders, although I generally play that way, as I’m rarely playing in first or second position. The main thing is building up the strength and reach of your pinky fourth finger.