Plucking hand technique on electric bass guitar is incredibly important, and often overlooked as people are starting to learn the bass. We rely on the right hand (99% of the time), to initiate every note we play. It controls the impulse that is used to excite the string, the dynamics, greatly affects the tone, and there are many different techniques that can be employed and positions that the plucking hand can be placed.
Some of the different techniques used by bass players are as follows:
- Finger style: Using the pads of the fingertips to pluck the strings. Just plucking with the soft pads gives a common "rounded" tone; having fingernails just long enough to touch the string on the way past will excite some higher frequency overtones and give a "brighter" sound.
- Plectrums: Commonly used in punk and rock styles of bass playing, plectrums are often used for consistently loud dynamics, and a bright sound with a characteristic pick sound to the attack of the notes.
- Slap: Using the side of the thumb, or occasionally other parts of the hand, the string is struck down towards the body or fingerboard of the bass, striking the bass and giving a very characteristic attack and impulse to the note which results in a percussive sound and high frequency overtones.
- Pop: Often combined with the slap technique, popping is when the string pulled up away from the body of the bass with the players finger and then released so the tension in the string causes it to strike the body of the bass guitar, for a similar effect to slapping but with some timbral differences.
- Thumb: Similar to finger style, the thumb can be used to pluck the string, however it is a softer and rounder part of the hand, and so results in a softer and rounder sound with more emphasis on the low frequencies, since the higher frequency overtones are not excited.
Hand positioning is also very important, as it plays a big part in shaping the tone of the instrument, and also to the comfort and safety of the person playing the bass. It is important to play with your right hand in a position that minimizes tension on the wrist, and is comfortable and practical, allowing the performer to play without risk of RSI whilst minimizing fatigue.
In terms of tonal implications, plucking the strings higher up the neck, towards or over the fingerboard results in deeper, rounder tones. These notes have a slower attack since the string takes longer to respond to excitation at this point, and therefore this technique is used more commonly in bass-heavy musical genres with slower tempos, such as dub.
Playing closer to the bridge has a more mid & high-frequency bias, with fast attack times, and is commonly used in jazz styles and other genres with many fast notes.