3 Practice Techniques for Bassists
Someone recently asked how long it took me to learn to play bass. The answer? I'm still learning! As musicians, we are (hopefully) always working on ways to improve our technique and learn more music. Although I've come a long way since I first picked up a bass over 10 years ago, there are some key exercises I still use today that have helped me immensely. I find them as helpful today as when I was just starting, and they can work no matter what style(s) you like to play. Here are three of my favorites:
The Ring-Finger Triplet
If you're anything like me, you probably play finger-style with your index and middle fingers, alternating them when playing something fast. Practice this and you can get pretty quick. The problem is, what if you need to play even faster? Or, what if you want to play lighting-fast triplets a la Iron Maiden? You need to incorporate the ring finger of your plucking hand.
This can feel very awkward at first. Your ring finger feels attached to your middle finger, moving less freely than the others. However, you can use this to your advantage you can develop speed because of how closely the two fingers are linked. Start very slowly by plucking ring-middle-index, ring-middle-index, over and over. Develop a consistent rhythm and attack before you speed up. The ring finger has less meat to it than the middle, so you may need to build some strength to get the same sound level.
Once you've got the basic 1-2-3 pattern down, mix it up. Play eighth notes with just your middle and ring fingers. Play as fast as you can for a few measures. Incorporate just a few triplets into easy songs that you already know, using the ring finger sparingly. Try the Iron Maiden gallop rhythm. If you can play their song Transylvania, you've got it! (Listen to the song here fast part begins at 0:21
If you can incorporate your pinky, too, you've made it further than I have!
Right-Hand Isolation Challenge
Ideally, you will have Exercise 1 down before you work on this one, but its OK if you're still working on it. The idea here is to practice playing complete songs with only one finger from your plucking hand (the right hand for most players). This will build dexterity, strength, and speed for each finger, as well as force you to think creatively for complex parts.
You might be wondering how I came up with this technique. Simple I was bored at band practice! We were going through some very simple songs, and I wanted to challenge myself. This became one of my favorite practice tools. Try it at home, at band practice, and even on a gig you should be able to achieve a consistent sound and attack with each plucking finger.
This exercise might be easy for your index and middle fingers, but you'll really be working when you try to play complete songs with just your ring finger. Again, if you can do this with your pinky, you're a better player than I!
Left-Hand Isolation Challenge
Okay, you guessed it this is just the opposite of Exercise 2. Play complete songs using only a single finger from your left hand. Be sure to include the pinky in this one, as you will definitely want to strengthen and develop it for use in your playing. This one is very tough at first, especially for quick changes. I would not recommend doing this on a gig unless you're really comfortable this is probably the hardest technique to achieve a consistent sound with.
For an added challenge, do Exercises 2 and 3 at the same time one finger only on each hand. Use only your index fingers, or mix and match for even more fun index and middle, middle and ring, etc. If its difficult, that's good it means you're learning!
I hope these techniques are as useful for you as they were for me. I like them because I can do them inconspicuously, and they go a long way to keep my fingers in shape. Best of luck!