Join Billy Sheehan for an in-depth discussion in this video Right-hand basics, part of Electric Bass Lesson: Fundamentals.
- So you may be wondering why I keep talking about how important the position of the bass is as it sits on you, but it has everything to do with how your hands get to the bass so you can actually play the notes. So that's why it's important. So if the bass feels comfortable sitting on your lap, it's sitting there, you feel comfortable grabbing it here, getting your arm over it and putting it there, then we get to the point where we're actually gonna play a note, which is very important. Now before I get into that I just wanna point out that there are many, many ways of plucking the bass. When bass was first started years and years ago they had the old P bass, the original thunder precision bass had a little block on it for you to hold with your hands so you could play with your thumb.
Those guys didn't know you could do anything other than that. I remember I had one on my first original bass. So that's a valid way to play it, with your thumb, (strumming) if you wanna do it like that. With one finger, (strumming), two, three. Four, all five if you want. (strumming) Thumb slapping. (strumming) Or with a pick, or any other way you can conceive of. Now I'll get into the specific mechanics of all those things and how they work, but again, the position of the bass on your body will help your hand feel comfortable when it's down there.
One very, very important point, which I may bring up several times during this video, is for me, this has helped me a lot, it may help you. Always make sure there's a great spot to anchor your thumb. Make sure that it's solidly on something because you're pulling against the strength of your thumb. The opposable thumb is what you have on your hand there to push against, and that gives your fingers the strength (strumming) to pull hard. Sometimes if your thumb wasn't anchored, you couldn't pull as hard. So that's a very, very important point. I'll be making that at several different times in reference to other techniques and other types of playing.
But basically you're gonna play with your thumb or some combination of fingers, or all of them. So we'll get into the specifics on all those, as I said later. But the left hand now. Some people ask me, do I play when my left hand is over the neck or under the neck? I'm not sure sometimes. I don't really think it through. I just kind of put my fingers on the notes that I have to play, and play them. We'll get into, that sounds oversimplified, but we'll get into specifically how your left hand works mechanically also, and then compare the two of them together, and get both of them working hopefully towards the same goal.
So let's actually take some of the things we've already talked about now and start to apply them and actually play a note. So we've got the bass, it's comfortable, it's in our lap. Our arm is around here. You're gonna take one finger, anchor my thumb, take one finger and (strumming) simple as that. Now that's the beginning of the whole, the whole adventure is that first note. A musical career starts with one note I guess, like a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, there's your first step. So anyway, that's basically what you're gonna do when you wanna get a note is you're gonna pluck pulling like that.
Now again, this may seem overly simplistic to you, but let's take it a little bit further here now for some of you that actually are a little bit more well versed as players. And it seems very simple, like almost anyone could do it, but if you did it for a little while, (strumming) you'd find it had little inconsistencies, and it wasn't as smooth. You could do eight in a row, but nine was a little bit off time. So what you wanna do is (strumming) be able to consistently play notes in a sequence, in a string because most music is rhythmic, and you're gonna wanna stay in time.
You might wanna get a metronome happening, or play with a drum machine, or even if you play along with a record, which I suggest and encourage people to do, to play along with records. I did it a lot, and still do it to just be able to play in time. As simple as that. I know it sounds almost too simple, but then the next move is to get to the other string, then the next one, then the next one. Now you notice I'm not playing with my left hand at all because we're just dealing with one thing at a time. Rather than get confusing and dealing with what notes we're playing and what scales and chords and music theory, let's start with the mechanics right here of being able to just pluck the note.
(strumming) So an exercise you can do is get in a comfortable spot, pluck one note on the E string multiple times. Like let's say, let's take eight on each. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Now before we can go to the next string, let's go back. In other words, a lot of times when you start to do exercises you kind of go too quick. So let's just do two strings. I know it sounds really simple, but if you can get it really right, you're chances of becoming successful as a bass player are much higher.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, (strumming). Ridiculously simple, I know, but stay with me. It's a foundation block of the rest of everything else. Now let's try going across a couple of strings. Simple again, but let's try just four of them. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. (strumming) Again, this isn't music, this is just exercise, just to get the mechanics of your fingers working.
Later on music is a different thing. We'll deal with that, but just getting it to mechanics, being able to pluck those notes, have them sound consistent, keeping them in time, again with a metronome in your head. Now some of you guys might have a hard time with time. Time is a different thing. We'll cover that in one separate section, but I just wanna have you be able to play the bass, play a note. (strumming) One finger. That's the basic of it. My thumb is locked, my finger is there, and it pulls.
Now if you go to two fingers, (strumming) it's a little more complicated, but it's still the same principle, but now we're sharing the rhythmic work between two fingers. So we're going one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Your goal there is to get those two even so it's not going one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. You know, accent the wrong note. You just wanna basically be able to play both of them at the same volume, same attack, so they almost sound like the same finger playing, but they're not, they're two.
(strumming) Switch to another string, eight on each. Do that back and forth, back and forth. I still to this day after having played 35 plus years will sit down and practice just that. (strumming) With a metronome, when I'm warming up before a show or before I start a recording project, with one finger, with two fingers, then with three, then with four, and every combination I do I'll warm them up slowly and easily with just that.
So that's the basic basics of playing one and two fingers. Now three fingers, same principle, (strumming) but we get into a different thing now because we've got three, which is an odd number. Now I'll explain why that's a different thing a bit later, but I just wanna basically emphasize work on that with a metronome. (strumming) Now here, I hope this works, I'm just gonna grab a metronome just like that.
Just a cheap little thing held together with a rubber band because I dropped it once in the dressing room, and it broke. (clicking) it's a little click, but it's timed. (strumming and clicking) For hours I do that to this day. It's just a very important thing to know. So get a little metronome, a little click thing, and do that with just those beginning fingers. And if you have trouble on any one thing, stop and go back to the point you were at where you weren't having trouble.
If two fingers isn't working for you, go back to one. (strumming) OK, so now we covered a little bit about one and two fingers. I'll give you a little bit about three finger technique here. The most questions I get regarding my playing are about three finger technique, so it's a little complicated. I'll break it down to some basics for you. Basically you have three fingers plucking. (strumming) Now most of the music we do is cut up in either twos or fours. One, two, three, four, two, two, three, four, three, two, three, four. So when you have three fingers it's an odd number, and you're playing into an even number, so we have this little jump thing that happens with these fingers.
Now when I play, it's also a question of which direction do I go in? Which finger do I start with if I'm gonna use three fingers? I start with this one. One, two, three. Now if I'm gonna do four notes, (strumming) I'll go one, two, three, four. And then I'll have to start the next four notes, so one starts there. So in other words, one starts on another finger each time. Three and four don't match up, so it leaves one hanging each time, which jumps over to the next group. Here's how that works.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. On the string, one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. So what I'm doing is I'm always doing the fingers in this sequence. (finger pats) They don't go back and forth (finger pats) like that. They don't go this way ever. No finger plays two notes. Every time it finishes its note, it hands if off to the next finger. So four notes with three fingers. (strumming) Now that's kind of fast, so I'm gonna slow that down.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. Very simple, take it slow, take it way slow. If it's not making sense to you, or it's becoming difficult, don't be afraid to take it as slow as possible because when I first began to analyze the things I was doing as a player, I had to take it really slow. And sometimes playing slow is more difficult than fast because you really have to concentrate on what you're doing. And here it is. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. So I'm going one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. That's how I'm counting, so my hand is always going in that direction. Ring, middle, index, ring, middle, index, ring, middle, index. (strumming) So slow, very slow again. Don't be afraid to do it super ultra slow. (slow strumming) Two, three, four. Three, two, three, four. Notice how my thumb is locked on there? Now because my thumb is solidly locked on that one spot, my hand's not flying all over the place, it's a little easier for me to stay in one spot.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. Simple and basic, but that's when you see me playing, (fast strumming) a whole bunch of licks, and when you see another player playing, that's all based on all these fundamentals. It's all based on a couple little things, and if you really get them solidly in, later on when you wanna play some fancy licks, or whatever you wanna do, whatever your goal is as a player is gonna become much easier if you're laying a good solid foundation, and one of them is right there.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. Now with two fingers it would be one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One finger it would be one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. With your thumb. (strumming) Or any other manner you could think of to pluck it. With a pick it could be up, down strokes. I don't have a pick, but I'll just show you what the fingers would do. Down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up. Or it could be all down. Down, down, down, down, down, down, down. Or all up. (strumming) So those are the choices you would have. Pick, fingers, if it was your thumb.
(hard strumming) Or just play half of it. (strumming and tapping) There's a million ways to go about this, but again, just get in solidly one finger. Graduate to two if you want, three if you want, and even four (strumming) if you wanted to get fancy on it. Here's a little bit more about what's actually happening with my right hand, just to give you a little bit more depth of it. And again, I have to explain that I played for many years before I knew any of this, and I had to figure it out when I had to explain it to someone else.
This is nature taking its course with me picking bass and being in a band and playing. Later on I figured out this stuff, so don't worry about figuring it out yourself first. I wanna encourage you to go play as much as possible, but here's some basics on what I'm doing there. Most players play from this joint here, so you'll see their fingers moving in that way. Two finger players would. Stand up bass players, they put their thumb on the edge of the neck and play in that manner. Since a stand up bass is in this angle, and you can approach it like that.
When bass became electric it went that direction, so the hand turned this way. So now we have a whole different set of mechanics going on with the hand. Now you'll notice one finger, the fingers are not even. It's not a flat line at the ends of the fingers. This is short, that's a little longer, that's the longest and that's, I don't know where that is. So basically what I try to do, instead of working from that joint, I actually end up working from that joint, which makes this flat, which lines up with the string so that when the fingers are plucking (strumming) they're all hitting it at the same spot.
Or like this. I don't know, if I kept my fingers straight I couldn't play that. So basically I'm curving my fingers so I can flatten them out, get it up against the string, (strumming) and I move mostly from that joint there. So that's a little bit more advanced of an explanation for somebody who's beginning bass, but I wanted to put that in just so you'll see where it went to eventually. Basically don't even worry about that if you just wanna learn some songs to start playing.
This is another sideline here, but just so you understand some of the mechanics of that. Another reason why that works, and I figured this out later, is the radius of the circle of that is smaller than that. So therefore it fits in between, in between the strings a little easier. In other words, a circle this big is harder to fit in between those strings than a circle this big, so it's easier to get in there with that. So that's another little bit of the mechanics of how that works. And again, the thumb is always locked in there.
On other basses I've had I'll sometimes put my thumb up against the string as well (strumming) and play, and that helps to deaden that string. But basically the principle is still the same on any bass, on any pick up, that your thumb is locked. I'm working from that joint there, three at a time, and that's my story.
- Choosing a bass
- Right-hand and left-hand basics
- Slap and pop
- Breaking down a lick
- Playing in time
- Locking with the bass drum
- Playing in different styles
- Using an amp
- Changing strings