Left Hand Positions

The question is asked:
> [...]  In particular, my left hand seems to be moving up and down the
> neck more than other bass players I've watched.  I've heard of something
> called "1st position", "2nd position", etc -- can anyone elaborate on
> that?  Am I doing myself a big disservice by not adhering to these
> positions?
and someone else adds:
>I play a 5-string fretless and read mostly major key songs. Usually,
>all the notes can be played from one position.  For example, if the
>song is in B flat, cut off the 6th "fret" on the E string with your
>2nd finger.  (This technique can also be applied to songs in a
>minor key.) Doing slurs may move me out of position however.

>I usually avoid playing open strings (unless I want a sound effect),
>because either it requires non-standard fingering, an open string
>sounds different than a closed one, or I can't do a vibrato on an
>open note.

>Jaco Pastorious made a comment on the tape "Modern Electric Bass"
>about being "locked" into a position while playing a fretless.
>Sometimes my intonation drifts and I have to glance at the
>fingerboard if I move out of position.  My bass tutor mentioned that
>he has to look at his fingers while playing the "horizontal" bass.

>Am I handicapped because I have to glance at my fingering hand?  I'll
>try practicing in the dark or wearing blinders when I read.
Marc (not Marcus!) Miller (mmiller@bestnet.com) responds:

One thing I have learned over the years is that, with a few exceptions, basically there is no right or wrong when playing an instrument. I say no, you are not "handicapped" if you must look at your instrument occasionally, and it's not wrong unless it takes away from the more important things like reading your chart!

One thing that can help you learn to stay in tune when playing fretless (I used to ONLY play fretless...) is to get in touch with "positions" in the classical sense of the term. A position starts at the first whole step from the open string, therefore "first position" is with your left index finger (if you play right handed) on the F# or the second fret of the E string, and follows the major scale on that string. G# is the beginning of second position, A is 3rd, etc. There are "half positions" of course, so "half" would put you in position to play an F, Bflat, Eflat or Aflat scale (on the E, A, D, G respectively) Get familiar with the first 3 positions- half, first, first-half, etc. and try experimenting with natural major scales and then melodic minors. After awhile, you'll be able to find any note without looking. (If you have time, I'll tell you a great studio "war story" about having to play fretless in a pitch-black session. But later...)

As far as playing open strings, you are correct in trying to avoid them, mainly due to the timbre difference, but there are times when it's OK to use them. I use this rule: if I can reach the 5th fret without missing the position jump on the note after, I'll do it. I'll never play an open string for anything over a half-note, unless it's the last note in the song. But again, it's up to you; whatever works for you. Don't get in the trap of listening too much to Jaco, Stanley Clarke, (or ME!!!)- that's the best part of being a musician; expressing yourself. As long as it doesn't violate God's law or Man's law, go for it!

-Marc Miller
mmiller@bestnet.com


And Paul Bagley (pdb@unirsvl.rsvl.unisys.com) adds:

Well, I'm pretty much self taught also. I've probably got some bad habits too, but none I wear. ;^) OK, I'll get serious now.

I have been told I shift positions a lot compared to other bassists. That being probably true, here's my reason why I think that is. On a 4 string bass you can start on Ab of the low E with your middle finger on the root of a scale, then play up an octave and a fourth. So if you stay in that 11 note range of the major scale, 12 if you use the 7th below the root on the low E, then you won't need to shift. All this assumes you are using a one finger per fret, use all 4 fingers, type of method.

But you've probably noticed that a C on the low E string sounds a little different than the same C on the A string. Same note, but a bit different harmonic content. Which one fits the song and the group you play with is pretty much your call. On some songs it may sound best to play everything on the E string, shifting all over. On others you may want to play in an open position, or play in a closed position (no open strings). We play a chorus in Em with a E - D - C - D kind of bass line, and I usually play this on the A string, shifting as I go. It just don't sound quite right any other way. Other songs, especially hymms, I will stick to a position, probably to compensate for my poor reading.

And if you're trying to play chords or apreggios, be ready to shift positions a ton! I sure do.

So the real question is how comfortable are you with your playing? Do you think you move around too much?

If you said Yes, then you have a few choices. First, you can simplify your bass lines. Don't play so many notes! Don't laugh, but some of the choruses we play are fairly simple, I play mostly roots, sometimes roots and octaves. When doing this be sure your rhythm is spot on. You don't have to run the fretboard like a wild man to sound good.

Second, know your fretboard (fingerboard for us fretless folk) inside out. Every note, every position. Use the differences in sounds to the best effect. Play a song in D either centered on the 10th fret or on the 5th fret and notice the difference, what you can and can't reach without shifting, etc.

Third, switch to a 5 or 6 string. I like my 4 string a lot, so I'll keep shifting, but a 5 string may be the option for you. And the sound of the B string on a fretless is awsome!

So I'd say keep your options open. Know what your instrument can sound like, and play the way the provides the best for your worship situation.

I hope this is helpful. Sorry it is so long!


Back to Christopher Whitt's bass page!