Beginning Bass: Left and Right Hand Dexterity

Here are a couple of exercises I’ve used to help my beginning students get more finger independence and dexterity. We’ll start with the basic one and move on to the more advanced….

The first exercise is one I picked up from my friend and fellow bass teacher Beaver Felton and put a few variations on as well. Simply put, you place your first (index finger) on the fifth fret of the E string (or B if you’re playing a 5 or 6 string bass) and lay the fingers down 1-2-3-4 on the 5th, 6th , 7th and 8th fret.

Alternating your index and middle fingers of the picking hand, you simply play 1-2-3-4 across the E, A, D, and G strings and back down. Then, you move back to the 4th fret and play the same exercise in 4th position (on bass guitar the positions are noted by where your first finger is-thus 4th position is the 1st finger on the 4th fret and so on).

As you continue to move back toward the nut, the frets are farther apart. Rather than stretching your hand too much, try using the pivot technique. Your thumb rests on the back of the bass neck directly across from the 2nd finger. As you move through the 1-2-3-4 pattern you will allow the fretting hand to pivot around the thumb, which stays fixed across from the 2nd finger. This allows you to cover more easily the four fret area in the lower positions without hand strain and is especially good for 35″ scale basses.

When you have the basic exercise down, you can start at 12th position (the double dots on your neck at the 12th fret) and work back to first position. You can also use a pick (being careful to alternate down and up strokes) or slap with your thumb (using down strokes or double thumbing-which we’ll deal with in a later column). This way, you’re training your fretting and picking hands to operate in sync with each other.

This exercise can be done with a metronome for best results. Set the metronome on quarter note=60 and do the “4 by 4” exercise in quarters, eighths, triplets and sixteenths. When you can play 16ths at 60 BPM comfortably with no fatigue and no rushing or dragging, increase the tempo by 2-3 BPM. A good ending goal at this point is 120 BPM. Remember to keep your fretting fingers close to the fingerboard-if you lift them too high off the strings you’re just slowing yourself down. This is also a good exercise to experiment with a pick if you’re a fingerstyle player (or vice versa) or slapping if that’s a new style to you (more on slapping later)

In the next lesson in this series, we’ll look at mathematical variations for this exercise and adapt it for two-handed tapping in the style of Wooten, Hamm or yours truly. In the meantime, try this and see if it doesn’t loosen up you fretting hand and help you get your two hands in sync with each other.