I play bass guitar with a thumb pick and fingerpicks. That is just my confession, not bragging. Is playing bass this way unique? Well, it is, quite a bit. But why? Is it so rare to find thumbpick bass or fingerpick bass players because this playing style is impractical? Nope. It’s simply because playing bass with this little piece of plastic or metal hasn’t become popular, and people are hive minded. There ya have it. I can only name a few thumbpick bass players off the top of my head. Chas Chandler of The Animals (quite some memorable bass lines), the great jazz player Dominique Di Piazza, Mario Cipollina, former member of the tuneful band Huey Lewis & the News, or Jack Blades known from the wonderfully melodic rock band Night Ranger. They don’t, or didn’t use fingerpicks though, and Dominique Di Piazza stopped using a thumb pick as well, for quite a while now. So will bass guitar played with thumbpick and fingerpicks ever get more popular? No idea, but we can sure as hell give it a try!
What are these picks good for?
When it comes to art, the advantages shouldn’t necessarily outweigh the disadvantages, we can do things “just because”. But performing art like playing music does have a practical side as well. So let’s look at the benefits of playing with fingerpicks and a thumbpick.
The first and most obvious such advantage is the pick attack. If you ever drooled over the beautiful, aggressive attack of some rock bassists like Chris Squire or Andy West, you know what I’m talking about. The hard material of a pick releasing the string – especially a roundwound string – can bring out extra harmonic content and enhance the midrange as well. And when I say hard material, a metal thumb pick like the Dunlop nickel silver one does wonders to the pick attack on bass. The one pictured in this article is a plastic Hosco by the way, but it’s exactly the same as the Golden Gate GP-8, an extra large celluloid one with pearloid texture.
Another important positive aspect is that you get all the freedom of fingerstyle playing, because you can pluck the strings with multiple fingers, even at once. It opens up the possibilities for easy double stops or even piano-like chords. Something that’s not easy to do with a flatpick (although not impossible either). It’s also much easier to play big intervals without having to work out strategies for skipping strings like when you play with a pick.
So what’s the main drawback? Check below.
Picks on your fingers? Focus on muting!
Probably the biggest difference from playing with bare fingers, and also the greatest challenge is to get clean, well separated notes with the fingerpicks. The awkward ringing noise of adjacent, just released or previously played strings can ruin the sound of an otherwise fluid playing technique, quite badly. Because of that, muting or as steel players call, blocking becomes a very important part of your bass playing. Speaking of them steelers, you can learn a lot from pedal steel, console steel, lap steel and dobro players when it comes to string blocking. And the long sustain of the bass guitar strings will require all that knowledge. An approach that surely works is palm muting, in a controlled way. It’s achieved with the palm of the picking hand, stopping the strings you don’t play. While pick blocking gets mentioned quite a bit among steel players, it’s actually quite difficult to stop a vibrating string with a hard pick without getting an annoying harmonic. Most of the time you also get a well audible “click”, as the pick hits the string. You can give it a try though, maybe it works for you. Another approach to muting is done with the fretting hand. While it sounds obvious, switching to thumbpick & fingerpicks coming from bare fingerstyle might result in a steep learning curve regarding fretting hand muting. Eventually, you’ll learn to do a lot more with those fingers than just fretting notes on the fingerboard.
Why I play with a thumb pick + 3 fingerpicks
I started out with a flatpick as a kid, on acoustic guitar. I never got too good with it, but I wasn’t too bad either. Pretty quickly after learning the basics I started playing with what they call a hybrid picking style. It involves using the pick and some of the fingers as well (the middle and ring fingers in my case). At one point I even put two plastic fingerpicks on my middle & ring fingers. That was my introduction to the fingerpicks, and it worked quite well. But soon after that, I bought my first thumbpick… and I didn’t like it. I tried to shorten the blade of it as it usually happens with people who just get into thumb picks, but shortly after it, I just gave up and went to fingerstyle, played with bare fingers. On bass I started with a flatpick as well, and quickly after that I went to the usual two fingers plucking style, the one originating from double bass playing. And then switched back to pick playing again for a little while, finally ending up playing bass with the closed palm picking style I was already doing on guitar as well. This bare fingers style with a touch of nails worked really well on both electric guitar and bass guitar. But after more than a decade, I got back into acoustic guitar playing, and the bare fingers + a little nail just wasn’t cutting it. It wasn’t loud enough, nor the tone was satisfactory. So I tried the fingerpicks and the thumb pick again, and this time I was sticking with it. After a couple months of patient but persistent trying, I suddenly leveled up and it started working! The learning process is so interesting when it comes to things like that, cause the constant trying, the persistent but not forced training turns out to be fruitful and gifts you with the knowledge you didn’t previously have. So since I was good enough with the fingerpicks on guitar, it was logical to use the very same picking style on bass as well. And it required little adjustment going from one instrument to another, except the above mentioned muting. That’s really crucial on bass.