Bass is such a deceptively dynamic instrument. Remove the low end or bassline out of most songs, and they will lose their weight, body, and impact. Most importantly, the bass ties melody and rhythm together with the fundamental element we know as a groove. There are many ways to play the bass guitar, and there has always been hot debate around playing bass with a pick or plectrum. This article will examine this debate and decide whether it’s a good idea to use a pick on bass or not. We’ll also look at how bass players use a plectrum to play, record, and achieve their signature sounds.
The Rule of Thumb (and finger)
Musical purists usually scoff at the idea of playing bass in any other way than the fingering method. This method was adapted from the upright bass players of early jazz and classical eras before the solid body bass. The reason for this is that the index and middle finger on your plucking hand tend to get the best attack for a warm, round bottom-end. However, many bassists have pioneered new ways to generate exciting timbres out of the electric bass since its invention in the 1930s.
Slapping and plucking became a trendy technique amongst disco and funk bassists of the 1970’s era. The action, popularized by Larry Graham, involves slapping your thumb’s ridge against the bass string to produce a popping sound. This is complemented with a plucking effort with the first two fingers of the right hand on higher strings of the bass to create an equally sharp note. This was the first example of how bass players were breaking traditions with their playing.
Nobody knows who was the first bass player to initiate playing bass with a plectrum. The sound became quite prominent with punk, garage, and nu-disco sound as most of the songs required a sense of momentum instead of a groove. Several iconic 1960’s and 1970’s bass lines that some might be surprised to know were played with a picking bass tone. As with any instrument or creative plight, rules are meant to be explored, bent and possibly broken,
Bass Picks vs. Bass Fingering
Choosing between bass picking or fingering will come down to a matter of taste and musical circumstance. There are very few absolute rights or wrongs in music, and we can apply the same ethos to bass playing. Each method has its unique set of pros, cons, and tonal characteristics:
● Finger bass provides you with a very organic, natural sound.
● The tone is relatively round and warm and blends quite easily into a mix
● Fingering requires much practice as there are many subtle articulations you have to perfect to be as accurate as possible.
● This technique can be quite heavy on the picking hand and can cause your hand muscles to tire or cramp up.
● Picked bass generates a sharper bass tone with more attack.
● This technique gives users a lot more presence on the mid to high-end of the frequency spectrum.
● Picked bass notes are more distinct and can sometimes be intrusive on the mix. ● This method is relatively easy on the hands and requires a bit less time and effort to perfect. Picking bass does not offer as many expressional options as fingering bass.
Should you decide to use picking for recording a bass part, you’ll want to know how to get the best possible tone out of your instrument. Below are a few simple tips you can use to maximize your bass tone when recording.
1. Ensure that your strings are relatively fresh and that your bass stays in tune even after vigorous playing. Picking bass places a lot more stress on your strings than fingering, so you’ll want to make sure that your bass can handle the extra workload without compromising tone.
2. Try to minimize the range of motion in your picking hand. It may be tempting to hack away at the strings to get a harsher tone, but your notes won’t be consistent, and it’s harder to stay on time. Rest your picking hand closer to the bridge for optimum control.
3. Make use of compression where necessary when recording bass with a plectrum. When used correctly, compression can give your bass signal the right amount of squeeze to boost its punch and enhance its dynamics. Don’t overcompress, as your track will come out muddy and be harder to mix at a later stage.
4. Use a thick celluloid plectrum for your bass picking. These types of plectrums have been accepted as the industry standard for most accomplished bass players. Tortex is another widely used material for bass plectrums. Most bass picks come in 1-3mm thicknesses.
Famous Bassists That Used a Pick
● Paul McCartney – Paul McCartney was one half of the songwriting duo that drove The Beatles to unfathomable heights. We can hear his iconic Hofner violin-shaped bass chugging away under early Beatles hits, “Hard Day’s Night, “Hey Jude,” and “Tell Me Why.”
● Carol Kaye – Quite possibly one of the most underrated bass players of her time, Carol Kaye masterminded some of Motown’s most memorable bass intros and grooves. Kaye made up the rhythm section of the famous session band The Wrecking Crew, whose work can be heard on albums by The Beach Boys and Frank and Nancy Sinatra.
● Flea – Flea is the oddball-come-genius bassist from alt-rock giants the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His jazz upbringing encouraged him to explore and break musical boundaries, and he has recorded bass using fingering, slap, and picking techniques. Popular RHCP tracks with bass picking include “Parallel Universe” and “Don’t Forget Me.”
● Mike Dirnt – Mike Dirnt is one-third of the legendary pop-punk trio Greenday. Punk music generally has a lot more drive than other genres, making it the ideal canvas for bass picking. Listen to Greenday songs, “Basketcase” or “American Idiot,” to get an idea of how well bass picking compliments this music style.
Using a plectrum for your bass playing can offer you some intriguing tonal and expressional choices when writing or recording. While it may seem like a more straightforward technique than fingering, it can still be quite tricky to perfect. Bass picking is a useful tool to add to your skillset, but it should not define your bass playing, and we encourage you to try and learn as many playing techniques as possible. Thanks for taking the time to read through our article on how to play bass with a pick.