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How many fingers should I use to play fast?

Discussion in 'Bluegrass [DB]' started by Mr. Chuffey, Sep 15, 2010.

  1. I played guitar for many many years, about three years ago started out on electric bass, and about a year ago got my upright. OK, now I finally know what I want to do with my life. I have been seriously in the woodshed, and it's coming along really nicely. I took some lessons for a while from a good teacher, but he wasn't into the music I like (Country and Bluegrass). So I've been working on my own. I didn't get to the point of playing very fast with my teacher, but now I can play a lot faster, and a lot of the records I practice to are very uptempo hot Bluegrass. On guitar and bass, I play with a pick and fingers, but I got the impression that I should be playing my upright bass with just my index finger. Is that how you really hot bass players play those scorching runs and solos? When I try it with just one finger, my whole arm seems to get into the act, it gets sloppy, and I can't keep up. Should I be starting to use two or three fingers on my upright? I watch the videos, but I can't see what's going on with the picking hand too well. I don't want to go off into a wrong direction. I'd like some feedback please.
  2. M Ramsey

    M Ramsey

    Mar 12, 2005
    North Carolina
    Andy Mortiz is a killer player for the band Cadillac Sky. He's a classically trained bassist and knows a ton about technique. I've observed him using index and middle finger, as does Barry Bales of Alison Krauss and Union Station fame (for the past 20 years) and Missy Raines (formerly of Claire Lynch and the Front Porch String Band).

    Then, you have bluegrass bass heroes like George and John Shuffler (both played bass for the Stanley Bros back in the 50's) who walked all the time and mostly used just one finger, the index.

    Another current hero, and current IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) bass player of the year, Marshall Wilborn, who studied at Julliard (on his own) for a time and he gets it done with primarily his index finger.

    That's how I roll as well, the index finger and mostly the side and the first joint of it, where I have a monster callous. Don't be afraid to dig in, in order to get some volume and tone from your instrument.
  3. For me, I sometimes play with just the index finger, sometimes with the index and middle finger together (like one big double finger), and sometimes with both fingers independently (like playing elec. bass). And I'm sure you could easily track down someone playing with their index, middle and ring finger . . .

    Theres no one way to do it.

    Check out this video of Oscar Peterson playing with both Ray Brown & NHOP. The video angle of NHOP really allows you to see his right hand technique. I think he employs pretty much all three techniques I mentioned above constantly switching between them seamlessly.
  4. Tampabass

    Tampabass Going Viral By 2080 Supporting Member

    Feb 16, 2006
    I know you are, but what am I?
    me, too.
  5. Jim Carr

    Jim Carr Dr. Jim Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 21, 2006
    Denton, TX or Kailua, HI
    fEARful Kool-Aid dispensing liberal academic card-carrying union member Musicians Local 72-147
    All good advice. I have a different take. I play bluegrass, country, classical and Jazz on my DB. I have a Gage Realist piezo pickup, and for live performance in all styles except classical, I usually use an amp on stage for monitoring and send a signal DI to the FOH.

    Because I am amplified, I generally don't have to "dig in," to be heard. That makes faster passages more within reach (more on that below). When I really need to get a more pounding sound, I use my index and middle finger together, as if they are one finger. I literally pluck with both fingers on the same string at the same time—using a pumping action with my arm. BTW this two-fingered arm pump style is an old pre-electric Jazz technique that you can see in old films from the '30s and '40s, or even in the Icon films from Europe in the '50s. It can give you a lot of sound and may save you a blister when under pressure to be heard.

    Now to the real question: playing faster with the plucking hand. For me, I mix 1, 2, and 3 fingers, borrowed from my electric style—though I go between 1 and 2 most of all. My Jazz teacher, Yuka Tadano uses two fingers (alternating), and also mixes that with using one finger—she is awesomely fast with both approaches.

    Finding the sound and tension sweet spot on the strings near (but not at) the end of the fingerboard matters for sound and speed. Controlling the wrist position/finger angle as it grips/releases the string also will matter. Lots of practice and real technique building with scales and outlining chords (arpeggios) make a big difference, IME.

    Don't forget that swing is a major ingredient in Bluegrass. I honestly don't find their to be a real separation in technique between Jazz, Country, and Bluegrass.

    I think when we talk about fast passages, we need to specify a metronome marking and say if we are talking quarters, eighths, swung eighths, sixteenths, or what. Is this fast passage work just a walk-up, a lick, a long walk or something more? :D
  6. MatticusMania

    MatticusMania LANA! HE REMEMBERS ME!

    Sep 10, 2008
    Pomona, SoCal
    Q: How many fingers should I use to play fast?
    A: All 10.

    I guess technically I only use 7, and a thumb on occasion. I dont fret with my thumb and I dont do much plucking with my pinky.
  7. ez-rhino


    Sep 8, 2010
    Dallas, TX
    Bass and Drum Mercenary
  8. juuzek


    May 7, 2007
    I usually use a Dunlop Gator Grip in a 1.5 to get my DOUBLE BASS strings moving...:ninja:
  9. somegeezer


    Oct 1, 2009
    As many as you're comfortable with. I can't pluck any faster using 4 than I can with 3, but 3 is definitely faster than 2 for me. I always use all 4 to fret though. But this is coming from an electric bassist. I've not had experience with upright.
  10. Bass


    Nov 10, 2003
    Mr. Chuffey:

    I am certain that alternating your index / middle fingers, you will gain speed. Honestly, it didn't really occur to me to use the index finger only.

    I have been playing UB for about 4 years, and I'm certainly not an accomplished player, but I think my pizz technique is acceptable.
  11. Menacewarf


    Mar 9, 2007
    Depending on your strings, string tension, and technique you MAY want to practice on the E string (and sometimes the A) with both fingers together for faster pizz. (like a CLOSED 'peace' sign)

    For me, if I try to play alternating fingers with a more perpendicular angle on the E string there is not enough mass moving through the sting. Then depending on how hard I pull it causes either a small poppy pizz sound OR undue strain on my forearm and tendons. Both of which I can do without in my own playing :cool:.
  12. Bass


    Nov 10, 2003
    Alternating fingers and vertical / parallel alignment with the strings are not mutually exclusive.
  13. Menacewarf


    Mar 9, 2007
    Of course this is correct BASS, but getting the weight of the arm to transfer from your middle finger to the string, parallell OR perpindicular (or whatever degree between) is not very ergonomic.

    There is no one right way. My experience tells me to use 2 fingers on the E to get a big sound and avoid injury.
  14. Bass


    Nov 10, 2003
    Oh. My thumb is planted against the fingerboard bearing the weight of my arm. I pull the strings by squeezing my fingers towards the side of the fingerboard. Strength of my pizz comes from my hand - not my arm / shoulder.

    Maybe I'm setting myself up for injury? That's how the so-called instructor showed me how to do it anyhow.
  15. Menacewarf


    Mar 9, 2007
    I'm just speaking from my experience with my bass and strings and setup. If it works for you and your body isn't screaming at you who am I to say boo.

    I think a good takeaway would be to experiment with all the different pizz techniques and be sure to listin to your body.

    A two finger together, loose arm pizz technique can get quite up to speed with some practice, and doesn't sacrifice vollume or tone. It's just another tool in the toolbox.
  16. rusag2


    Oct 22, 2009
    Los Angeles
    I've found that my right-hand technique varies significantly with the tune and the tempo.

    Mostly, it's my index finger using all the meat I can get on the string. But occasionally, I want a slightly softer attack on a note, to match a soloists tone or perhaps to match the tune. I sometimes use a two-finger pluck in these cases. It creates (on my bass with my particular geometry) a more "puffy" attack...think "Kentucky Waltz" for example.

    On faster passages or runs (real runs or walking) the attack needs to be much cleaner...sharper and more focused.

    I'd say, experiment. Learn all you can about good traditional pizz technique...and then using that as a starting point, figure out what sounds best with YOUR geometry and your instrument.
  17. The fastest youi are likely to play is about 180 beats per minute. Check out Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder doing "Pig in a Pen" to hear what 180 bpm sounds like.
    You should have no problem using your index finger for that. Just make sure you practice a lot and get the strength in both hands to play that speed. I would think using two fingers at that speed would probably slow you down.
  18. sondrelj


    Oct 7, 2011
    Oslo, Norway
    Any take on technique is individual, and the most important thing to remember is playing ease. Different people have different strengths depending on what they have played before, so one should always build on prior experience. Here's my take on the question anyway...

    I play both bluegrass and jazz, and come, as so many of us, from the electric bass. I use several of the techniques described above, both alternating two-finger, and using both fingers together. My experience is that more meat against the string creates a better tone, but this is most important when playing slow, at the effect is greatest when you let the strings ring. The attack is pretty much the same, so the faster you play, the less the amount of meat matters.

    As for speed, I can play quite fast walking bass with one finger. The difference is how much I use my arm. At faster tempos I'll use my hand more to pull the strings. As long as I'm playing 1/8-notes, I can play at tempos of about 180-200. It's the 1/16-notes that are killers, and might require a second or third finger. Then again, that would be more solo playing in jazz, and never in bluegrass (newgrass is another story, however). It is, in other words quite possible to play fast bluegrass with one finger.

    The most important use of mixing the index and middle finger is IMHO for arripeggios. I play, as a former EB-player, with my fingers perpedicular to the strings rather than parallell, and as my middle finger is a bit longer than the index finger, it feels natural to use it moving up rather than moving the index finger. (this is perhaps also because I have never become comfortable with resting my thumb in the fingerboard and use, God forbid, the floating thumb technique favored by EB-players.)

    A finishing observation: I've noticed that bluegrass-players tend to favor the perpendicular right hand technique while jazz-players favor the parallell approach. I might be wrong though.

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