3 Finger vs. 4 Finger Technique and Scale Length Issues

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by BassHappy, Sep 16, 2017.

  1. This will cover some aspects of DB technique and some aspects of 4 finger bass GUITAR technique as it applies to scale length. Apologies in advance if I have this in the wrong place. Mods, feel free to move. Note in advance: this will go long.

    OK, time for my little dissertation. I want to give my experiences here in the hopes that it may help some folks who might have similar "technique" issues. I have been thinking about this for years and I hope I am able to articulate this is a way that is clear and understandable.

    I think some history is relevant - I started playing bass at 12 years old and I was in a band the day I got my bass. It was an Old Kraftsman short scale by Kay purchased out of the Spiegel catalog with an amp packaged with it.


    The two guitar players in my band were good players and at least "Mel Bay" schooled - and gracious enough to take me aside and teach me basic technique. Of course, they were teaching me one-finger-per-fret guitar technique - not any recognizable form of bass technique.

    One of my guitar players was a real stickler for technique, and he would laugh and openly criticize players - pro and otherwise - who either didn't use their pinky, or didn't use their ring finger. He called them three-fingered jokesters.

    I took to the bass right away - and he showed me several finger exercises which strengthened my hands and wrists substantially and got my pinky and ring finger operating very well in concert with the other two. Of course, as I eventually learned, there was a bit of a difference in using the fret-per-finger technique on a short scale vs. a long scale - especially in the lower registers. I was small as a young fella, with very small stubby hands. In a matter of weeks , I was playing the hits of the day - which of course were very simplistic. I mean, this was 1964. I mean it was "Dirty Water" and "Louie Louie", well you get the idea. Simple stuff. I bounced around a little bit, but the players eventually locked in for several years and my band really started getting local traction.

    By 1968 or so - one of my guitar players had a Gibson "Kalamazoo" bolt on short scale, the one modeled after the Mustang.


    He had a great set-up on it and I fell in love with it. The action on the Old Kraftsman was crazy high and it did a lot to strengthen my fingers and served me well - but it was time to move on. He sold me the Kalamazoo and I sold the Old Kraftsman.

    1968 or 1969.jpg

    I continued to play through my high school years, and eventually scored a trashed short scale EB-0 which my father and I resurrected and restored.


    My band was highly successful, opening for a lot of national acts and creating a big local following. We won the Midwest Region in the "Search for the New Sound" contest.


    Two of the guys followed me into "Happy the Man". We didn't feature a lot of vocals so we ignored most of the hit parade - and instead focused on our own arrangements of album oriented obscure rock. We loved bands like The Flock, Touch, The Litter, Spookytooth, Crow, and bands that eventually became popular - but no one in the midwest had yet heard - like Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues and even the Allman Brothers. Later on, we grew weirder as we were dazzled and delighted by bands like King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Ekseption, Van Der Graff Generator and the whole "Canterbury" movement in the UK: Bands like Camel, Gong, Egg, Caravan and Hatfield and the North. We also began writing our own material and sprinkling it in. The music grew in complexity. We always kept the audience guessing, the material was so obscure at the time - it was hard to tell which songs were ours. It was a ROCK band and I am a ROCK player.

    In 1971 I sold the EB-0 and went into the Army. I was sent to Germany, and it was there that I met the nucleus for my future band. I knew I needed a bass so I bought a 1972 Fender Jazz from the PX for $296 brand new. It was natural ash with black blocks. I also went to London and bought a 100 watt Hiwatt bass stack with two 4 X 12 cabinets.


    In those days my heroes were John Wetton, Greg Lake and Chris Squire. I adapted to the Jazz quite well, even though I had never spent any serious time on a long scale. In those days I was getting in 4-6 hours a day on the instrument and really refining my chops.

    Getting to the story - when I got back to the states and we started rehearsals - I was delighted and amazed at the virtuosity of the players in the band. The music was startlingly complex and demanding. I got along fine 90% of the time, but when I created really rapid fire finger patterns in the lowest position my hand would have a tendency to cramp up. Sure, I could have simplified the part, but I considered that to be a cop out. I was always stretching and writing above my technical abilities, so I could learn and grow into them. But this cramping was new to me.

    I never had that experience with my short scales, but I figured it was because I had stepped up my playing a few notches. At this point I was playing 6-8 hours a day, every day - so my wrists and hands were in excellent shape. I didn't have any way of explaining the hand cramping, but it worried me. I noticed that with GI Bill I was eligible for upright bass lessons at the local college, Madison College, now James Madison University. I signed up for an introductory course, and started in.

    My teacher was an accomplished player, having played in many orchestras and jazz outfits. He was also an accomplished soloist. We started in on the lessons, and of course he started teaching me proper DB technique which involved the use of only three fingers and specific hand positions up and down the neck. I struggled mightily at first, but started to get a bit of a feel for it. As I was learning I was trying to adapt the technique to some of the wild and crazy stuff I was playing in my band.

    At the next lesson my teacher greeted me with a big smile. We had played Wilson Auditorium - which was a 1200 seater at the college - and had sold it out previously. He mentioned that he had been hearing some really great things about that show and didn't realize that I was the bass player of the band - and that he was curious. I was delighted of course, and I began to tell him about the hand cramping and my struggles with the electric. He asked me if I could bring in a cassette tape of the song that was cramping me and said he could spend a little time outside the lesson and maybe point me in the right direction. I dropped off a tape with one song in particular that had been giving me consistent cramping problems and he seemed excited. He called me the day before the next lesson and asked if I could also bring my "electric" along - as he called it.

    I showed up at the lesson and he asked me to get out the electric and to play along with the cassette. I didn't realize it, but apparently there were several passages in the song that he just couldn't play with DB technique - and he wanted to see how I was playing them. He got out the DB and tried to play along but eventually gave up. He told me that in his opinion I was playing guitar parts only an octave lower on bass. I don't think that is really true, but that was his opinion. And it certainly didn't surprise me coming from a dedicated upright player. The fact is - I am very much a melodic "root" bass player, never a frustrated guitar player. I mean - isn't it called BASS GUITAR? I don't own or even play guitar, and I never have.

    He didn't say much about it, but he didn't have to. It was obvious that switching to 3 finger "position" technique was not the answer for me. Sadly, when I went in for my next lesson, I found out he had to leave the university for medical reasons. Long story short - I never saw him again and I took this as a sign to stay in my lane and stay focused on my own path.

    The Jazz bass had dead spots from frets 4-7 on both the G string and the D string and they were becoming more and more of a problem. Maybe Fender was sending the "seconds" overseas to the GI's but it was really incredibly bad on this bass. Frets 5 and 6 with zero sustain and the others only slight sustain. I took the bass to several local luthiers and we went through all the possible fixes, which of course didn't work.

    The band eventually held an intervention and asked me to sell the bass. Our singer at the time had a Fireglo Rick 4001 and he offered it to me to use until I figured out what to do.

    JH Ricker 5.jpg

    I won't say it was miraculous, but I found myself getting around much better on the Rick and eventually realized it was 33.25" scale instead of 34" scale on the jazz bass. That 3/4" doesn't seem like much but it made a difference to me. But, that one song still caused my hand to cramp even on the Rick. I decided to get my own mapleglo Rick:

    Rick Rick.jpg

    In 1976 I met a remarkable gentleman named Paul Reed Smith. Paul had worked for years as the "holy grail vintage repair tech to the stars" - in the DC-Baltimore area. Eventually he started making his own guitar and bass designs. We were doing a show in Annapolis and my guitarist and I stumbled onto his tiny shop at 33 West Street. We had heard about him from our friends in the band "Artful Dodger" so we recognized the name when we saw it on his sign.

    Paul had a fretless bass in the shop, one of the first he had made, for Stan Sheldon of Frampton's band - and I fell in love with it. I explained to him my cramping problem and how I had always wanted a custom bass. He told me we could make a bass with a slightly shorter neck, and still keep it two octaves, which I needed. I told him that I found the upper registers of short scales to be too cramped for me, and he said we could split the difference on that between long and short scale. We invited him to the show, and he came out to see us. He was blown away and wanted to continue the discussions. We met again the next morning and began designing and working through the details together on a bass for me. It would be #7, the seventh instrument Paul ever built and it would be a medium 32.5" scale. My guitarist Stan ordered a doubleneck 6-12 guitar, and I ordered the bass. We were the first two customers to ever write Paul checks in advance to make us custom instruments.

    I played the Rick for well over a year because Paul was building guitars and basses in batches of 7-8 and it took him a year to finish a batch. We were working at A&M Studio D with producer Ken Scott when the bass arrived unexpectedly. Paul wanted to surprise me. Ironically, i had just finished the basic tracks the day before the bass arrived. However, the song that gave me the most trouble had several punches and I was very unhappy with that. I am exclusively a one-taker. I don't believe you can punch "feel" and "feel" is what bass is all about. You can lose emotional continuity. Ken was a sport and he allowed me to use the new PRS to go back and re-record the tune. I nailed it one take with no hand cramping and never looked back. I ended up swapping #7 out for #11, and giving him the Rick - but that is another story.

    PRS COOL.jpg

    So, I played PRS #11 exclusively through many tours and over the course of a couple of dozen records, including the "live" and "bootleg" offerings. My hand never cramped again and it was the only bass I owned.


    I was hoping this might be helpful if anyone finds themselves in the same or a similar boat. Anyone have any similar stories to share?

    I know folks don't always agree on some of these "technique" issues, everyone tends to think their way is the "way". I tend to go easier on beginners and smaller stature folks with physical limitations, as experience has taught me to. The number of medium scalers out of Fender Japan is a nod to the smaller stature of the Japanese people. For me, it was never an issue of "technique" but an issue of a bass that didn't fit me properly. I am no longer naive enough to only question "technique". There can be a number of other limitations, and many times there are. I will always encourage folks to play the bass that fits them properly. This is why.

    As we grow older we all hope we stay healthy and that we don't have to make a the decision to go shorter or quit playing. But folks need to realize there is no down side to going shorter and in fact, there are lots of world class options out there for the beginners or the old timers.
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
  2. Garret Graves

    Garret Graves Gold Supporting Member

    May 20, 2010
    Rosemead, Ca
    A great read, thank you! I'm a one finger per fret guy on electric, standard three finger on upright. I appreciate your comments on different scale lengths, it's so true. When it comes to cramping up, as you will know, changing your hand position or raising or lowering your elbow on the fingering hand can change the angle enough to relieve the cramp temporarily at least. You of course did better than that- found a bass that doesn't cramp you up at all :)
  3. Hey Garret

    Thanks for this.

    So great that you can go back and forth from three to four and upright to electric. I was hoping to integrate both techniques into my playing, but maybe that was overly ambitious. I wasn't able to hang in there long enough with the upright to even begin to master it.

    When you dedicate your life to an instrument and start in on the 6-8 hour routine every day - it so disconcerting to experience any repetitive stress or physical limitation issues. You keep wondering which finger exercises you aren't playing enough - or which ones you haven't yet invented - or maybe you should find an unrelated exercise to try at the gym that strengthen those muscles which tend to cramp that way. Maybe when you go back it will be gone. But for me, it never was. I tried everything I knew to try. Medium scale became my reality out of necessity and thankfully - it was a perfect fit.

    And again, thanks for your kind words and your suggestion about changing the elbow angle. Much appreciated. If I ever begin to cramp again, I will make it my go-to move~
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2017
    Garret Graves likes this.
  4. Lobster11

    Lobster11 Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Apr 22, 2006
    Williamsburg, VA
    Hey BassHappy,

    I'm just a bass hobbiest who took up the instrument late in life, and (as you know from our private conversation a while back) am a big HtM fan. Consequently, I am extremely reluctant to think that I could possibly offer you any kind of advice about how to play bass; I'll never be half the bass player you've been throughout your career! So, I'll just tell you what I've learned -- having focused from the beginning on learning "good" technique -- and ask you what you think about it.

    First, I've come to the conclusion that the single most important goal of technique should be maintaining as straight a wrist as possible on each hand. I think the most common causes of pain and injuries is playing with severely bent wrists. I hate to say this, but looking at the last of the pix you posted makes me wince, as your left (fretting) wrist seems to be bent at a 90-degree angle and looks like it would hurt like hell.

    Second, I've come to the realization that an important way to avoid such wrist-bend is this: When I'm fretting notes in the middle of the neck or higher, my thumb (behind the neck) is more-or-less perpendicular to the neck -- but as I move toward the nut my thumb becomes more and more parallel to the neck. I cannot physically fret a low F with my thumb perpendicular to the neck without severely bending my wrist, but by adjusting my hand position so my thumb is essentially parallel to the neck I can fret it with ease -- and I can comfortably play F-F#-G-G# using one-finger-per-fret.

    Third, I'll mention that I've come to the conclusion that Scott Devine has the best advice about using one-finger-per-fret: Use it when you need to, and don't when you don't. I suspect that when playing HtM stuff you almost always need to, but for most of us mere mortals there are many tunes where using only two or three fingers is most efficient.

    Interested to hear your thoughts.
    BassHappy likes this.
  5. Clef_de_fa

    Clef_de_fa Guest

    Dec 25, 2011
    I had a teacher for a big part of my musical life, either on the bass guitar or on DB ( classical music not jazz ).

    I think I do have very good technique, much better than many. I see position that to have a straight wrist they have to put their thumb around the neck like touching the E strings, then when playing the D and G strings they'll have to bend the wirst in a very weird angle and the thumb that was touching the E strings is now also touching the A strings. Very common on guitar and bass as those instrument are "rocker" instrument that you can make a pleasing sound no matter your technique ...

    as can be seen in this vid ... which is pretty much every bass player and I find it quite irritating, it is totally doable to play those without having your thumb touching the A strings ... a lot don't care as long as they don't have any problems ...

    I see the same thing on DB. Punk and Rockabilly put their thumb around the neck but Jazz and Classical player do not and because of that they can play very intrecate music, much more complex than just being the back bone.

    I'm around 5'2 and I play 34' bass, I did play some 35' and normal scale DB. I also play 6 strings bass ... I feel like a lot of people can't adapt.
    BassHappy likes this.
  6. BusyFingers


    Nov 26, 2016
    Cool history. A lot of people downplay the importance of scale and personal ergonomics. They are usually people who are quite comfortable on a full scale bass, though. Why are they comfortable? Either one of two reasons:

    Either they have hands large enough, or the music they are playing is within the realm of execution, despite the ergonomic disadvantage. It's not that they're intentionally trying to mislead people, they just don't understand.

    If you want to play one finger per fret, however, scale length issues will likely rear their ugly head eventually if you have smaller than average hands.

    It's alright to suggest a medium or short scale bass for someone who isn't enjoying a full scale bass. To suggest otherwise would kind of be like making a car that has seats that aren't adjustable and just telling everyone they will get used to it.

    I've heard people suggest that your hands will stretch with practice, and they are correct, but that is only to a point. Even then you can only go so far. I've also found that fretboard radius can make a big difference for smaller handed players. I know that a vintage 7.25 radius makes a full scale easier, though it's still a bit long for my hands.

    Everyone has an ergonomic sweetspot, and I believe mine may well be a 32 inch scale bass with a 7.25 radius with a modern C shape and medium jumbo frets.

    For me, using a shorter scale allows me express myself better musically, that should be a priority for any musician.
    BassHappy likes this.
  7. Hey Lobster

    Thanks for your comments, and yes, I believe we actually met back in Harrisonburg too, didn't we? Hard to think back that far, but I think so. I know you were kind enough to send me some bootlegs of the band - and since I am a bit of a collector I recall that I already happen to have the ones you sent. But I really appreciated getting them. Thanks!

    No, as a matter of fact I don't have any wrist pain, or really any other form of repetitive stress injuries, and I consider myself very lucky. I am sorry a photo of me made you cringe.....LOL

    I have no idea what you are talking about there. When we are cramming for a tour, it's very hard for us to block out rehearsal time together, so we do grueling rehearsal sessions 10-12 hours a day for two or usually three days. Problem is, Frank and sometimes David have to work out onstage moves - changing instruments and programming moves during and after songs - so all of those moves need to be rehearsed once the song order is locked in. As you know Frank is pretty regularly changing from keyboards to sax to flute - sometimes in a matter of seconds. So we cram for two days going over all the tunes, then run the entire show a few times the third day to nail all the changes between songs, with Stan included in that too. Sometimes, if my elbow gets tendonitis from working it too hard at these cramming rehearsals - I need to see my rolfer Craig Swan, who used to pitch for the NY Mets.

    Greenwich Rolfing®, Structural Integration by Craig Swan in Greenwich, Conn.

    He actually uses a Rossiter System technique on my left elbow and fixes the me in one session if and when I need it. He has saved dozens of folks from carpel tunnel surgery and actually a number of other repetitive stress injuries. Rossiter technique is designed for repetitive stress, feel free to google it. I have never had trouble with my fingers, or wrists, even playing that much over the three days. Never have a problem doing several long show days in a row. Just those rehearsals that take the toll. You can't pace yourself either - you are going full blast for at least 10 and usually 12 hours a day. Not a whole lot you can do to prepare yourself for that. For me though - the good news is that I haven't had a hand cramp since that last day with the Rick at A&M.

    My days of doing the 6-8 hour thing are scattered throughout the month these days, only on studio days and I manage to get an hour or two in here and there composing lines. I finished my parts on the upcoming "Pedal Giant Animals" record earlier this year - and I have been working on a new record with my wife, Leah.

    I have no idea what photo you were referring to, I really don't - but my thumb is always my fulcrum point and rests more or less on the center of the back of the neck. I couldn't even play most of the rockers if I didn't. Of course, any photo can be misleading as it's simply a moment in time - and I suppose the right moment could catch me doing all sorts of crazy things that would look out of sorts or out of position. I think it's natural to move things around and attack things a little differently from song to song which keeps my muscle chain pretty loose and my mind fresh.

    I don't have many hard and fast rules anymore - it's whatever works and above all have fun. I think I actually enjoy playing now more than I ever have.
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
  8. Hey Clef

    Thanks for the info and thanks for the videos. I would be lying if I didn't mention that they made me chuckle. No, I don't wrap my thumb around the neck when I play....LOL... I will use my thumb occasionally to do a slide on the E string.

    No way I could play the music I play doing that.
  9. Hey Busy

    Wow thanks - I can see from your post that you totally get it. Very refreshing. Talk about ergonomics, I posted this a while back and it kind of grossed some folks out - I don't mean to, for sure. But since you brought up the idea of stretching your hand......

    Try this. Take your right hand and spread it out as far as you can. Then do the same with your left hand. Then place your two index fingers face to face and see how much you have stretched out your bass fingers on the left hand over the years. Here is mine, please hold the comments about the ugliness, dirt under the nails etc. Yes, I work for a living:

    Hands Rick2.jpg

    The right hand is spread as far as it goes.

    Thanks again, I love this post, Busy....
  10. Lobster11

    Lobster11 Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Apr 22, 2006
    Williamsburg, VA
    Right, that's me. We didn't ever meet in Harrisonburg, however, because even though I wasn't living too far back in the day -- I was a student at Lynchburg College through the late 70s -- I didn't know anything about HtM and had no connections to Harrisonburg. However, I asked you whether you knew a friend of mine who used to see you guys all the time back then (when he was a graduate student at James Madison) and who happens to share the same first name as me (which, BTW, isn't "Lobster").

    Anyway, I apologize if I wasn't clear in my post, so allow me to try again.

    First, the context: If I understood your OP correctly, the point was that when you're having problems the answer isn't always technique. In your case it was finding a bass that "fit" you, and I very much appreciate your point. I think the only reasons I raised the possibility of a technique issue were that (1) the poster immediately before me had made a technique-related suggestion that you seemed to appreciate, and (2) I participated in a couple of other threads recently about the very issue I was raising, so it was on my mind.

    The issue in those other threads had to do with how to avoid playing with a severely bent wrist on your fretting hand, especially down by the nut, which is a common source of discomfort and potential injury. The point was that one way to reduce wrist-bend when playing the lower frets is to adjust your thumb position: not where it is, but which way it is pointed. When playing in the middle of the neck, the thumb is anchored in the middle of the back of the neck, behind the fretting fingers, and it is pointed straight up, perpendicular to the neck. But when playing down near the nut, the thumb (still anchored in the middle of the back of the neck) should be pointing toward the headstock and parallel to the neck. It looked to me like, in the last of the photos you posted, you weren't doing this: It looks like your thumb is probably perpendicular to the neck, and your wrist looks like it is (as a consequence) pretty sharply bent. I (try to) avoid this kind of position when playing lower frets by pivoting my hand around my thumb so my thumb is pointing toward the headstock, rather than "up," which immediately takes much of the bend out of the wrist. I think discovering this "trick" probably changed my life almost as much as finding the right bass changed yours, so I thought I'd put it out there (despite the fact that you really shouldn't be taking advice from me!).

    Does that make more sense?
  11. Hey Lee

    Sorry for the confusion - and thanks so much for your thoughtful post. Yes, you jogged my memory for sure and for certain. I remember now that you were in Lynchburg and had a friend "Lee" in H'Burg.

    To be honest, I would have to put a camera or something on me as I play to really suss out all the intricacies of my playing, including my wrist and thumb action. I have no idea what happens with my wrist and thumb when I am totally flying around - but it has always been a minor consideration. Other than the cramping in the early days - while playing on an instrument that didn't fit me properly - I never had wrist pain.

    My point is simply this:

    Certain bass folks gravitate, for whatever reason, to four finger - or a fret-per-finger - guitar-based technique. After all, the instrument is BASS GUITAR.
    I feel these folks, should be encouraged at every step to find an instrument that fits them properly - especially if they are small in stature or dealing with other physical limitations.

    When I was at the height of my bass teaching I only had my medium scale PRS to teach on. Some of my students would beg me to let them play it during the lesson - and I would usually oblige. Overwhelmingly they would comment on how much easier the bass was to play than theirs. They didn't know why, and I never mentioned a thing. Granted - most of my students were beginners and some of the setups on their long scales were horrendous - which I would fix for them at no charge. After all, I got stuck playing their basses much of the time. Many would comment on how my bass - just seemed right.

    Hey, basses are like shirts. They come in S-M-L-XL-XXL and even XXS. By all means, find the size that fits you properly and get after it!
    Lobster11 likes this.
  12. You know, in thinking about it, there is one other thing that may have helped with the hand cramping. Along with the move to a 3/4" smaller scale from the Rick - PRS #11 has a pretty interesting 4% or so neck back angle.

    Killer PRS.jpg

    The neck is actually angled back toward the player and for me it adds a lot to the playing comfort. It's part of what makes the PRS bass so special to me. I had forgotten about this, but here it is illustrated:


    As you can see, the body is actually shaped like a wedge. This places the neck angle back at about 4% as illustrated below:


    Keith Horne is finishing up a Les Paul chambered bass for me, which shares the exact same neck angle. Paul Reed Smith donated the back and the top for the project:


    There is a build thread on it here if anyone has further interest:

    My Les Paul Bass Build - I need a Gibby too...
    Lobster11 likes this.
  13. Lobster11

    Lobster11 Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Apr 22, 2006
    Williamsburg, VA
    That's an interesting idea (and an interesting design -- thanks for the explanation and illustrations!), but I'm skeptical that this "neck back angle" in itself would make a difference. It seems to me that when I strap on a bass and get ready to play, I don't position the body at a desired angle relative to my body and then just live with wherever the neck happens to wind up; I hold the neck where I want it to be and let the body sit where it needs to to accommodate the desired position of the neck. So, if the neck were back-angled like that it wouldn't have any effect on my left hand, because I would still hold the neck in exactly the same position as I would otherwise; it would only affect the angle of the bass body relative to my own, which doesn't really matter.

    If the neck angle relative to the body does make a difference, it isn't clear to me whether having a "back-angle" as you described would be a plus or a minus. I often play with the neck angled not only upwards by, say 20 or 30 degrees, but also angled outward, away from me (towards the audience) by about the same amount, with the bass body sitting more on my right hip than on my belly. If I prefer the neck pointing "outward," it seems like if anything I would probably prefer a "forward-angle" rather than a "back-angle." I dunno; it's hard to imagine without having these various options in my hands.

    Does that make sense? What do you think?