Bass technique: Jack Stevens

Last month’s column focused on traditional approaches to right-hand technique for electric bass playing. The more you investigate other playing styles, you’ll discover there are many variations on right-hand technique, such as three-finger technique and more classical guitar style playing. Slap, for most bassists, is another staple technique.

This particular way of playing came to prominence during the 1970s and really peaked in the 1980s with tracks like Patrice Rushen’s 1982 release, ‘Forget Me Nots’. The track was co-written with her bassist, Ready Freddie Washington. A year later, Wham released ‘Club Tropicana’ featuring the handywork of bassist Deon Estus.

If you’re a BGM regular, you’ll probably already be aware of the major ‘slappers’ out there on the scene. Rather than go into too much of a who’s-who of players, we’re going to dive straight into the technique.

Often, it can be hard to get to grips with slapping the bass and getting the desired result straight away. The best approach is to think of your thumb like a drumstick, in other words your intention is to hit the string with some attack, but not deaden or mute it in the process. You want to bounce off the string in the same way that a drummer allows the stick to bounce of the drum head.

Your hand should be relaxed and the movement should come from your wrist rather than forearm. While the sound we’re aiming for is punchy and confident, the technique behind it can be quite relaxed and disciplined. Essentially, most of the attack comes from the side of the bone in your thumb. Have a look at figure one for a guide to where to actually ‘thump’ the bass.

Figure 1

jack stevens pic (1)As a basic starter, try to play consistent crotchets on the open E and A strings, as in this photo. This may seem like a simple exercise, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds to get them nice and even in length and tone. Some of the more complex slap patterns really require accurate timing and feel to sound slick. Try and do these exercises with a metronome and feel free to use your left hand to mute the strings that you don’t intend to play.

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Figure 2

Figure two is a popping exercise using the D and G strings. Popping (or plucking) is all about drawing the string away from the fingerboard and allowing it slap back down. I suggest using your right hand index finger for this: eventually you can incorporate your middle finger too.

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In Sister Sledge’s 1979 hit, ‘We Are Family’, the listener is treated to an outrageously funky fingerstyle bassline, but featuring some popping on the third round of each chorus, courtesy of the late great bass guru, Mr Bernard Edwards. This is an example of not needing to use both slapping and popping together in the same groove.

Figure 3 and 4

jack stevens picFigure three (bottom left) shows a basic riff featuring both slaps (thumps) and pops. Figure four (bottom right) takes the previous riff and makes it a little more funky with the anticipated pops.

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