How Many Fingers Does it Take to Play the Bass?

Revolutionary techniques, and the inspiration behind them

By Jon Liebman
Week of July 22, 2019

What a kick it was in this week’s interview to sit down with The Who bassist Jon Button, hearing him talk about what goes through his mind as he finds himself in the almost unimaginable position of having to fill the shoes of the inimitable John Entwistle. The succession of events that transpired, from the musical isolation of Jon’s native Alaska, to traversing the globe playing sold-out arenas with one of rock’s all-time legendary bands, is nothing short of fascinating.

As I sat, captivated by the incredible story, the subject turned to bass technique, with Jon’s answers equally engaging. Remaining ever true to each song’s unique identity, Jon has always approached the music with varying techniques, including use of a pick, thumb, customary two-finger technique, or whatever was most appropriate for any given song.

Then a “light bulb” moment came, and Jon decided to alter his two-finger technique by using his first and third fingers, instead of the customary first and second, simply because of how closely matched they are in length, more so than any other pair. The revelation eventually morphed into a dazzling three-finger technique, in the spirit of Billy Sheehan and select others.

The conversation got me to thinking about other bass players who developed unconventional approaches to playing bass, either because they were unaware of the “right” way to play, or because their own sense of logic dictated otherwise.

In my interview with one-of-a-kind bassist François Rabbath a couple years ago, he told the amazing story about how he’d developed his left-hand technique on a beach one day, after analyzing the symmetrical movements… of a crab!

Most people know the story of Larry Graham and how he invented the slap bass technique in an attempt to fill a void left by an absent drummer.

Brian Bromberg and Steve Bailey can be quite bizarre to watch, at first anyway, given the way they utilize the borrowed “thumb” position from the upright bass technique upon reaching the 12th fret of an electric bass.

I don’t know if I’ll ever comprehend how Jimmy Haslip managed to develop his brilliant technique on a left-handed bass, without restringing it for a lefty. In other words, he’s literally playing the bass upside down!

And how in the world did James Jamerson play all those incredible Motown grooves, doing all the plucking with only one finger?!

I guess you just gotta do what you gotta do, whether it stems from ignorance, brilliance, or sheer genius-level ingenuity.

As I always stress in my bass instructional books, and in my online bass courses right here on For Bass Players Only, give the music what it needs. While my own instruction has always been geared, for the most part, to traditional technique building, I love to see what my students may come up with. If you’ve got something new and different, go ahead and express yourself. Just be sure you never lose sight of what’s expected of you, namely, grooving, playing it clean and making the music feel good.

Have you got a story about an unorthodox method of bass playing? Leave a comment below and share it with the rest of us. In the meantime, check out my interview with Jon here.

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Comments on How Many Fingers Does it Take to Play the Bass?

  1. Dmitry Shultz says:

    I found it drives me playing the bass with DGCF tuning (fat strings!). Low D is probably the lowest I want to go anyway, so why 5 strings?;)

  2. Lonnie Plaxico says:

    You can play a shoe-string if you’re sincere.—John Coltrane

  3. Scott says:

    Years ago as I was just learning bass, I had developed a weird thumb technique on my right hand. It felt more natural and seemed to work for me. I got into a slump for learning on my own, so I hired a teacher to help. He took one look at how I played, tried to correct my style and insulted me time and time again. I was 46, self employed for 30yrs,…I don’t think I am OK with these kinds of insults…I shared my feelings and left.
    Find out technique IS a REAL thing!! Floating thumb!! So I guess I was fine doing that – never used another instructor ..until I found ForBassPlayersOnly. 🙂

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