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Accomplished bass players that use floating thumb?

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by JacoLifeson, Oct 17, 2020.

  1. JacoLifeson


    Jan 9, 2020

    I’ve been using the floating thumb technique for about 7 months now, but I’m starting to have doubts on it’s actual value. Of the bass players I admire, (Jaco, Victor Wooten, Joe dart, Geddy Lee, Jack Bruce, Michael Manring) none of them seem to use floating thumb. Even though I understand the theory behind it and it’s ergonomic benefits, I’m starting to doubt if it’s worth pursuing.

    Here are my issues with it: even though my thumb rests on the string, sometimes harmonics are still ringing out. Since the biggest benefit of floating thumb seems to be the ergonomics and muting, I’m concerned that the right hand muting doesn’t seem as effective as my thumb being firmly planted on the string. Furthermore, transitioning between playing the E string with my thumb on the pickup and the ADG strings is uncomfortable. I also find that for maximum benefit, you’re expected to play with a very light attack. I find that most of the players I admire play with a hard attack which is harder to get without planting your thumb.

    what do you guys think, should I transition to a moveable anchor using the pickup and e string and fingers for the rest?

    Edit: another thing I forgot. I feel like when I use floating thumb, it’s more difficult to get an attack that’s parallel to the string. Instead, I strike into the string which results in a ton of fret noise.
  2. Lobster11

    Lobster11 Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Apr 22, 2006
    Williamsburg, VA
    Interesting and thoughtful post.

    For me personally, the fact that floating thumb requires (or at least encourages) a light attack is a feature rather than bug. Learning this technique was really helpful to me in learning how to lighten my touch. (I'm a big believer in "letting the amp do the work.") And I wonder if my light touch is why I don't seem to have problems with unwanted to harmonics. (?)

    It sounds to me like you prefer to dig in a little harder, in which case it's advantageous to have your thumb firmly anchored somewhere. In that case, I would definitely consider switching to the moveable anchor. I experimented with both over a period of time and decided I was personally more comfortable with the floating thumb, largely for the reason noted above, but I can certainly understand someone having the opposite preference.

    Actually, I think of the two techniques as closely related -- kind of as opposite ends of a continuum. In practice I probably actually use both: e.g., anchoring when I'm playing on one string (or two adjacent strings) for a while, and floating when there is more string-crossing involved.
    fearceol, Hummergeist and JacoLifeson like this.
  3. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    Hi @JacoLifeson, a common denominator of all the great bassists you mention is that they are 4-string bassists. I never would have contemplated using floating thumb before I went to a bass with a low B string. Sometimes when I play 4-string, I just anchor my thumb on the pickup, and muting is not difficult with a combination of right and (especially) left hand muting. IMO, it's the low B string that makes that impracticable.
    gebass6, LBS-bass and bass12 like this.
  4. Learn both techniques. Get a teacher to refine your Floating Thumb technique. It took me 10 months to nail floating thumb.

    I play 3 or 4 finger technique now (thumb, index, middle, +/- ring fingers). I found Floating Thumb indispensable for this.

    Breaking old habits/bad habits and mastering new habits is really tough, but it will open up a whole new world to you if you persevere.
  5. bass12

    bass12 Say "Ahhh"...

    Jun 8, 2008
    Montreal, Canada
    I think Lee makes a good point above regarding five string vs four. I generally use the “moveable anchor” approach but I will also use the floating thumb technique when I need it for muting. So to me FT is more of an “extra tool in the toolbox” than it is a go-to approach.
    Lee Moses and LBS-bass like this.
  6. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011

    I play 6-string and depending on the situation I may vary between floating thumb and fixed thumb. I started with fixed thumb.

    As you have observed, harmonics can ring under the floating thumb, which of course depends upon your hand position, which is related to where you pluck. This can sometime be a problem for me on the low B string when I am playing closer to the neck.

    The times when I might be tempted to use anchored thumb is when I am playing fast patterns that alternate back and forth across non adjacent strings. Too me, it helps with accuracy to stabilize the hand with anchored thumb during this type of passage. The hand pivots at the wrist on a controllable point of instability at the thumb. With floating thumb, the pivot is at the shoulder so a lot more mass is involved. Most of the time I use floating thumb.

    When I first started playing bass guitar my plucking fingers were almost straight. Around 2006 my organization hired a very young, and extremely talented bass player. Observing his technique and listening to his tone is what convinced me to transition to floating thumb. His tone was incredible and very expressive.

    For me the real transition was moving from straight plucking fingers to arched plucking fingers, and adopting floating thumb was sort of consequence of this action. With arched fingers you can straighten your wrist and still pluck the fingers at different angles including parallel to the body of the bass. Varying the angle of the pluck allows you to change your attack and how the string vibrates, so IMHO you have more control over tonal nuance. Also I felt my sound was more percussive and focused after this transition, which is something I had chased for decades.

    As others have suggested...perhaps you should practice both.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2020
    Groove Doctor and Lee Moses like this.
  7. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    Can you elaborate on the harmonics that are ringing? Not sure if I understand. Do they ring because of the left or right hand? They shouldn’t be ringing if you are using floating thumb. At least not as far as the right hand is concerned.
  8. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    This is not correct. When I play closer to the neck, my thumb tends to hit a harmonic on the B string that rings very easily.
  9. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    Never seen that as a problem. Not sure if I understand what you mean. You mean if you play exactly with your (floating ) thumb above the B string 24th fret and play a B on another string as well? You will have the same if you play with a anchored/regular thumb on the 24th fret.
  10. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    I don't know exactly where the harmonic was, I believe it was slightly beyond the end of the fretboard. I had adjusted my playing position to be closer to the fretboard...I was not playing over it.

    The amount of pressure I place on my thumb when floating is very light. With anchored thumb, there is more pressure on the string. It's possible to land on a harmonic with your anchored thumb, but in my case, I believe the amount of pressure I use with floating thumb is more likely to pull out the sound of the harmonic.

    It's been at least a decade since I was primarily an anchored thumb player, and I don't remember ever pulling unintentional harmonics with my thumb. It's happened multiple times with floating thumb, but I don't see it as a significant enough problem that I would consider abandoning the technique.
    Les Fret likes this.
  11. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    Yes I agree. All the time I played with floating thumb on my 6 string I never run into this issue. So it’s definitely not a thing to worry about or a reason to abandon the technique.

    I almost never use floating thumb on my 4 string though. Only on my 6 string. So I agree with someone’s remark that all the players mentioned in the OP are 4 string players. They didn’t feel the need for floating thumb because they found other ways to mute unwanted noise. But it also didn’t exist back then. Floating thumb came into existence when people start using 6 (or maybe 5) strings. But people like Pattituci, Steve Bailey, Myung and Anthony Jackson for example also don’t use floating thumb. So whatever you like.
    Wasnex likes this.
  12. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011

    If you are curious, the harmonic I am talking about is an F#. It falls over my bridge pickup, so it's quite a bit past the end of the fingerboard. Same pitch as the harmonic over the third fret.
    Les Fret likes this.
  13. Papageno


    Nov 16, 2015
    Disclaimer: I'm a far cry from being "an accomplished player"...
    This being stated, I use the floating thumb (on 4-string fretless) without any problem.
    Concerning the 2 issues you mention:
    1. if harmonics ring when you mute with the thumb, just move your hand a few centimers away (you need to learn where the harmonics are located and be careful to avoid them).
    2. try not anchoring your thumb on the pickup when playing the E string. You need to get used to have your hand not "resting" anywhere, it is just a matter of practice.

    In my view, floating thumb is not only about muting. It is also a technique that allows me to keep my hand in the same shape when playing all strings. By contrast, with the thumb anchored on the pickup, the shape of my hand and its position with respect to the string being played would change when I move from the E to the G string.

    But that is a very personal thing, and I believe each of us has to find what works for him/herself.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  14. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    Just tried to replicate this issue on my six string but was not able to get this harmonic F#. Are you sure it is from the right hand? Sometimes when you lift you left finger up when you are above a natural harmonic this harmonic can ring by accident. Do have maybe have a video of this?
  15. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    I'm not quite sure when 'back then' is supposed to be, since Bruce, Pastorius, Lee, Manring, Wooten and Dart cover almost 60 years from 196? to 2020, but, independent of external influences, I was using what seems to have become known as floating thumb since at least the mid 80's. I beg forgiveness for the barnet!
    JRA, Papageno and Les Fret like this.
  16. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    I was talking about Pastorius and Jack Bruce and maybe even Manring. But I guess you are one of the first then. :)
    I think it only really came into play the last 15 or 20 years or so. Since Gary Willis I think.
    Groove Doctor and SteveCS like this.
  17. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    Yes, Willis is probably the most commonly credited with 'discovering' or 'inventing' the technique. It just came naturally to me, but I very much doubt I was alone in that.
    Les Fret likes this.
  18. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    FYI, I was a full-time pro for almost three decades. I know how to deconstruct my technique to identify and correct problems. I am absolutely certain the sound is the harmonic ringing under my thumb on the B string.

    I often practice soloing over changes. Sometimes I notice the build up of a discordant tone that is not intended, and often it turns out to be a harmonic ringing under my thumb on the B string. It is not hard to track down the source of the problem, once I become aware of the pitch. The effect is sort of like the sympathetic ringing that occurs on a piano when you depress the damper pedal, except it's just the one pitch. There are also times when my thumb floats down past the B string; allowing the open string to ring...related but different problem.

    I probably would not notice on a bandstand, but it is noticeable when practicing alone in a quite room. I am not the strongest player, but I do have a relatively clean technique that is free of extraneous noises, despite the fact that I play with a full range sound. For the most part I try to avoid producing clank, grind, and fret rattle, unless it's called for. Allowing the strings to ring and produce unintended tones, is never acceptable IMHO, even if noone notices.
    Les Fret likes this.
  19. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    Adopting floating thumb was not really intentional for me. I came up on upright and sort of adapted my upright technique to bass guitar. So I used anchored thumb and straight plucking fingers. When I intentionally tried to transition to floating thumb, it did not stick.

    However over the years I have learned various technique such as double thumb slap and plucking techniques that use thumb, index, middle and wring fingers. These tend to flatten out the rotation of the wrist; especially when you start trying to integrate them into one unified technique like Victor Wooten style playing.

    The last straw was being inspired by one of my younger colleagues to play with bent plucking fingers. This is also something I tried earlier in my life that did not stick. But all of the elements finally came together for me to transition to playinging with a straight wrist, curved fingers, and floating thumb.

    To date I have maintained that there are certain types of patterns that I think are still easier to play using anchored thumb. But as the years pass, this seems less and less true for me. I may be at, or near a point where I would never find an advantage to anchored thumb, except when I pickup an upright bass.

    Anchored thumb will always have a place on upright IMHO, because you need to use straight fingers so the plucking power can flow all the way from the core of your body. The curved fingers can be used for short, extremely fast passages, but in my experience they become fatigued very quickly if used too much.
  20. JacoLifeson


    Jan 9, 2020
    The harmonics I’m getting are sympathetic. Usually I’ll play a line and notice them ringing out on the e string. Usually, they don’t stop unless I mute with my left hand or more firmly push my thumb into the string. So what I’m saying is my thumb will be “floating” on the e string yet it doesn’t prevent the e string sympathetic harmonics.

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