Bass Guitar Techniques (A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners)

April 8, 2024
Bass Guitar Techniques - Bass player using fingerstyle technique
Close-up photo of bass guitar player hands, soft selective focus, live rock music theme

Learning to play the bass is a lifelong journey with unlimited potential paths you can take. But if you want to be a well-rounded bass player and you’re still new to the game, it helps to know these fundamental bass guitar techniques. If you can master these playing techniques or at least do them at a proficient level, you’ll be able to play almost any style of music.

Let’s get started!

1. Fingerstyle Playing

Fingerstyle is probably one of the most widely used bass playing techniques across all styles of music. Perhaps because the range of sounds you can achieve with this approach are endless.

Your sound is achieved by plucking the strings with either your index or middle finger. Typically, your index and middle fingers would alternate, and occasionally rake the strings as you move to your lower strings of the bass. It’s the go-to technique for many professional bass players and personally, I feel that it gives you a great amount of control over your sound. So, if your new to learning bass, I recommend you start here.

Here are a few examples of bassists that exclusively use this technique:

  • Jaco Pastorius’ (Weather Report) signature sound was a 16th-note staccato mid-range percussive sound that came from exclusively using this technique.
  • Rich Brown (Steve Coleman & 5 Elements) predominantly uses fingerstyle and is able to achieve a smooth legato, almost fretless sound even though his main axe is a fretted bass.
  • James Jamerson (Basically any Motown hits from the 60’s and 70’s) also used his fingers for his plucking technique.

The list of bass players that exclusively play fingerstyle is endless. And from hearing just a few bass players that use this technique, it becomes apparent how versatile this technique is for your tone, making it an essential bass technique for anyone learning how to play.

Quick Tips For Plucking Technique

Fingerstyle playing is the foundation of bass guitar technique. Here are a few tips that’ll get you on your way.

  • Alternate plucking: As you develop your plucking technique, you’ll start to care less about being so strict about your fingers alternating. But, when you’re starting out, learning to develop this coordination will become super-useful later on as you progress to playing more complex things on the bass.
  • Raking: String raking is nuanced and often done when switching from a higher string to a lower string. To do this, allow your finger to rest on the next string right after you pluck. So, if you pluck a note on the G string with your middle finger, your middle finger comes to a stop on the D string. This puts your middle finger in playing position to pluck a note on the D string if you decide to.
  • Starting finger: When you’re playing something that crosses strings (ascending in pitch), like playing a note on your A string and then a note on your D string, try starting on your index finger for plucking. Your middle finger will likely be longer than your index finger, so starting out with your index finger allows you to already position your middle finger in a playing position on the next string.
Bass guitar technique - Plucking hand touch points
Bass guitar technique – Plucking hand touch points

2. Playing With a Pick

Picking is a totally valid way to get sound out of a bass, and it’s especially popular for those who started on guitar. Punk, metal, and rock players all commonly play bass with a pick. But even funk bass players like Bobby Vega uses a pick. Carol Kaye (jazz guitarist and bassist), who played the bass guitar on countless hits also often used a pick. There’s a certain attack you can get on the electric bass with a pick that you don’t quite get with other techniques. So, don’t knock it until you try it.

Quick Tips For Playing The Bass With A Pick

I started exploring using a pick over a decade ago when I heard Bobby Vega play. And in my process I picked up a few tips.

  • Material matters: Picks are made of different materials and each material has a different attack. Some can be downright noisy to use on bass strings. There’s even picks made of felt! So when you’re first starting out with a pick, buy a ton of them and try them all out.
  • Keep it relaxed: There’s no need to squeeze a pick with a death grip. Keeping your picking hand relaxed will allow you to play with more finesse. When you’re first starting it may feel like you have to squeeze the pick really hard in order to keep a hold of it. That’s fine. But, as you develop the foundational strength, work on lessening your grip.
  • Try what works on guitar: If a technique, like sweep picking works on a guitar, it’ll work on the bass! After all, it’s a bass guitar. You just have to try it. And it may even transform your playing.
  • The downstroke: There’s a certain attack you get with your downstroke that’s clear and precise. I started out alternating picking. But I’ve landed on predominantly using downstrokes for every note with an occasional upstroke.
Sample of my collection of guitar pics
Sample of my collection of guitar pics (From a behemoth rock-sized pic to felt!)

3. Slap Bass

Slap bass is one of those bass-playing techniques that some players either can’t stand hearing or can’t stop doing! Either way, to have techniques at your disposal like slap technique will only make you a more well rounded bass player.

Slap technique can be better learned by watching how these pros do it. If you want to learn more about the nuances behind this technique, I go more in-depth here.

4. Muting the Strings

Beginner bassists often struggle with unwanted vibration or “buzzing” strings. Muting controls these sounds from happening. Ultimately the goal is to smoothen out your playing so you can lay down clean, polished basslines.

Muting the strings is as simple as touching the vibrating string, which instantly stops the sound. You’ll need to use both hands to mute the strings – right hand to mute the strings below the one you’re playing (using the fleshy part of your palm), and your left hand to mute the strings above (using the fingers). At first it may feel like a lot to pay attention to, but it will become second nature pretty quickly.

Check out these bass players unique approaches to keeping their strings quiet. You’re not alone if you battle with string rattle, buzz, or sympathetic vibration. Even the pros make conscious decisions to solve this problem.

  • Gary Willis (Tribal Tech) unique right-hand technique involves the use of 3 fingers, where two inactive fingers are used in muting.
  • Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) keeps it super-simple and uses a hair scrunchie (yes a scrunchie) to mute his strings. But what’s even cooler is that the scrunchie slid along various parts of the fretboard and used to create harmonics (harmonics are high-pitched notes)!
  • Francis Rocco Prestia (Tower of Power) predominantly uses his fretting hand to mute his strings by keeping his fingers flat and lightly resting on the strings at all times. Over the years, I’ve learned to adopt this approach for much of my playing.

5. Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs

Hammer-ons and pull-offs are fundamental bass guitar techniques that involve the fretting hand. They help you play faster and produce smooth, connected lines. I used to want to pluck every single note. But the more I observed my favorite musicians play, I realized that the secret to how their phrases were articulated often had to do with hammering a note or pulling off a note.

With a hammer-on, you pluck the string once and then use your fretting hand to press a higher pitch. For example, your index finger can be fretting the 3rd fret of your E-string (note G). Then after you pluck the string to sound out that note, your pinky finger hammers down on the 5th fret (note A). A lot slap bass technique incorporates this technique.

Pull-offs use the same technique, just in the opposite direction – they start at the higher end of the fretboard and move down the neck toward the lower notes. So, if your pinky is fretting the 5th fret of your E-string (note A), after you pluck the string to sound out the note, your pinky pulls the E-string again, releasing it, and then leaving the index finger on the 3rd fret.

Quick Tips For Hammer-Ons and Pull-offs

To be able to do hammer-ons and pull-offs you need to have some strength with your fretting hand. So don’t get too discouraged if you can’t get it on the first try.

  • Two or more notes on the same string: Whenever you have to play something that involves two or more notes on the same string is a good opportunity to apply a hammer-on or pull-off.
  • Left hand leading: This one is more advanced, but starting out with a hammer-on frees up your plucking hand to travel elsewhere. I learned this approach from Oteil Burbridge. He’ll often hammer a note, then pluck the same note twice, creating a nasty triplet!

6. Ghost Notes

Ghost notes (also called dead notes) are the heart and soul of great bass playing. They’re the percussive hits between notes that bring a bassline to life.

To play a ghost note, mute a string with your fretting hand (ignore the frets – they don’t matter for this technique) and pluck that string with your plucking hand. Just don’t press down too hard on your frets or you’ll sound out a note. But, don’t have too light of a touch either, or you’ll end up sounding a harmonic!

Beginner Bass Guitar Techniques: Final Thoughts

It’s easy to get overwhelmed or discouraged when you’re learning a new instrument. Starting your bass journey with these 6 techniques will help you produce a polished sound early on, making it more enjoyable and rewarding to keep on playing. No matter what music style of playing you’re into, good technique is a must in order to get the ideas that are in your head out to your hands and fingers.

Looking for more beginner bass lessons? Check out the complete archive for the best tips I learned from top bass players!

PosidoVega

Hi! I’m Posido Vega, a multi-passionate creative. I’m an artist, bass player, jazz theory enthusiast, children’s book author and illustrator, and SEO 😅.

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