Like with guitar, there are a few bass guitar tips and tricks that might come in handy. Though bassically similar, being a bass player has its highs and its lows; though, aside from the pun, you’ll be dealing with the lows.
KEEPING IT ON THE DOWN-LOW
Not too often does a musician start off playing bass guitar. It’s something you gravitate towards, usually after you’ve had some experience with a regular guitar or uke, or some other fretted, stringed instrument. What draws you to it is a mystery I suppose. For me, I simply loved that deep, down-low tone vibrating through my hands as I plucked the string. If you’re playing through a good-sized amplifier, the vibration can also shake your house a tad.
Maybe it was the power of those low notes? The fact that even one of Bruce’s bass notes equaled in power and sound (at least to me) a full chord played by Clapton? Could be, but especially in pop or rock music – well, a well-written orchestral bass part can be electrifying – the bass occupies its own frequency of the music: it’s easy to hear bass parts as they flow along below the higher pitched instruments and voices. The only competition is perhaps the bass-drum, though usually it’s not a competition; more of a blending.
Now, more to the point: Tone.
Yes, that again.
THUMP, NOT SCRAPE
So it’s pretty obvious right off that the strings on a bass guitar – either electric or acoustic – are way thicker than on a standard guitar. That’s why there’s that thump and growl and earthquake sensation. And as such, the ideas of finger nail shape and length are just about the exact opposite of the requirements for guitar because you now wish to stay away from anything high-pitched or scraping noise that might detract from the clean, deep, bassy, thumping, thung sound that is every bass player’s right to explore. In short: short finger nails are key – on both hands.
When not playing finger style guitar, or if I’ve recorded all the other parts of a piece of music and are ready to lay the bass tracks in (sometimes, with certain songs, I put in the bass parts after the drums and chordal instruments have outlined the shape of the piece) I go ahead and get out the sapphire finger nail file and file the nails on the plucking hand (more appropriate term for bass) right down as far as they will go.
Why? Because with such a thick, metallic string, a finger nail will simply scrape across the string instead of contributing anything at all to setting it in motion. Think of running your nail through your hair; some strands will catch a little, maybe get singled-out under the nail a bit. Now think of running your fingers across a macrame plant hanger, or a gathering of ground-crew tethering ropes for a zeppelin: finger nails will just graze off the surface because of the circumference of the things.
And that, when amplified, can sound like a bunch of click-scrapes.
Now it has to be said that there are certain times a brighter, crisper sound is needed to make the bass guitar stand out in a mix. That’s normally a matter of the style of the song or music, or personal taste. But that sort of sound, aside from amplifier tone adjustments, is not about your finger nail length; that calls for the use of a plectrum/pick or slapping the strings or bouncing a drumstick off the strings to be played.
And if you’ve already tried playing with a longer nail getting in the way, you also might find that you wind up with a certain aching, almost bruised feeling under your nails. Depending on the natural thickness or thinness of your nails, even the G string of a typical bass guitar will have more mass than your nail, and instead of vibrating the string, the string will be vibrating your nail, giving you that bone-bruised feeling.
HOW SHORT IS TOO SHORT?
Just don’t draw blood. That’s always a good rule of…thumb. Don’t file the nail down past the nail bed; just leave a bit. And you might, while you’re at it, bevel the remaining edge downwards a little so there’s no flat edge to the nail when viewed in cross-section. Again, get out your 3M 415N and smooth those edges to a glass-like finish so if they do come in contact with the string, they’ll just slide on by.
Remember, tone on finger style bass is the actual flesh of your finger tips against the strings, and nothing else.
DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DID
I have to admit, I did develop blood blisters on my finger tips once, after getting carried away practicing. I always try to remember what sort of music I was practicing, but it was so long ago…
Oh yes, I believe it was when I was playing along with Stanley Clarke’s amazing samba figures on Return To Forever’s Spain from the Light As A Feather album. Yah, that’s the one. Luckily that healed up in a day or three, the skin eventually peeled off and I was left with a rather tough, smooth patch on the skin of my finger tips. You can – and should – do that gradually and not go crazy and over-practice like I did. The same should go for any musician. There’s such a thing as tendinitis which you’ll want to stay far away from.
Good thing is though, if you need to go back to finger style guitar and grow your nails out, those toughened finger tips won’t get in the way.
I guess getting calluses is a thing, right? Shows the world (and yourself) that you’re dedicated to your art and will stop at nothing, and let nothing stop you, from attaining perfection. Funny thing is, when you really get into playing, you might find you’ve even left those hard-earned calluses behind to wind up with smooth, tough skin – on both hands.
KEEP IT SMOOTH, KEEP IT TOUGH
So there’s a middle ground between feeling like you’ve shut a drawer on your finger tips and bruised your nails, and getting tiny little blood blisters on your finger tips from playing too much in one sitting. Keep your nails from coming in contact with the strings of your bass guitar as much as possible by filing them down, smoothing them with the open-coat silicon carbide sandpaper and watching the curve and angle of your fingers as you pluck the strings. And don’t, as I did, play along with RTF’s Spain more than, say, six times in a row. Go Eat A Peach, have A Taste of Honey, or have some Brown Sugar or something; however you Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! Your fingers will get there when you do; not before.
If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
Fingers On Strings