Last time we got to the point on the fingerboard where we dispense with the fourth finger, as it is too short for practical use. Upin 6th position you’ll find that the third finger will give you the octave to the open string, the same as the 12th fret on a fretted bass. You can find the same note as a harmonic by keeping your thumb in the corner of the neck, as we did in 4th position, and extending your third finger completely straight out. Where the third finger touches the string will be the octave harmonic point: easy for playing and also tuning up. I’ll look at other harmonics on the bass later on in this series, and if you know your bass guitar harmonics, you’ll already be on the way to mastering them: they’re all in exactly the same places on the neck.
The 7th position is the last one on the neck where the thumb is on the side of the neck, supporting the fingers. Here the notes on the G string are G, G# and top A. After that, we come to that arcane technique: thumb position. Many students get worried about going into the upper octaves, regarding it as a no man’s land of strange intervals. Here’s the master key to this: thumb position now covers all the previous positions but simply an octave higher. That’s all easy-peasy.
Now, you may be wondering why it is called thumb position: this is because we place the thumb across the strings at the octave point on the harmonic point; it acts as a virtual ‘top nut’ and anchor point for all your fingering, and it works across all four (or five if you have them) strings. In the classical books you’ll see that the thumb position can be extended up or back to E on the G string. I’ve found that it’s not necessary, and is actually painful to press down the string with the side of your thumb, particularly with a higher action on your bass. Use the thumb on the harmonic and use your three relevant fingers for the notes and you’ll be comfortable.
Now here’s the neat bit about thumb position: extensions. I’ve already mentioned about using all four fingers in extension fingerings from 4th position upwards. We can expand on that with thumb position because the notes are that much closer together. So you can finger notes in thumb plus half position, thumb and 1st, and so on. The big news is that you can combine different positions into fingerings so that you can cover semitones, tones, minor thirds and more – all within the same fingering. So an extended fingering on the G string might include G (thumb), A (first), B (second) and C# (third finger) without having to move your hand position, by extending the fingers in different amounts. The number of combinations available with this fingering system may well surprise you.
OK, what happens when we want to go even higher? Easy, place your thumb on the D harmonic on the G string and extend up as before, and if your fingerboard is long enough, you can do the same thing for the double octave G harmonic. And you thought this was going to be hard, didn’t you?
David Etheridge studied double bass at the Royal College of Music. Since then he’s worked with musicians as diverse as Nigel Kennedy and Martin Taylor. David teaches double and electric bass and is the MD of two big bands and a 55-piece jazz orchestra.