Where does the sound come from?

Bob Nieske June 4, 2012

Where does the sound come from?

 One day when I was rehearsing with Jimmy Giuffre (If you don’t know Jimmy you should check him out) I was tuning.  Pling pling, pluck pluck…  Jimmy interrupted asking “What are you doing?”, “I’m tuning”, “well it doesn’t sound like music”.

I thought I’d tune first and then get to the music and said as much.  Jimmy replied something like “you should never touch your instrument unless you intend to make music”.  I thought “Wow you’re so strict Jimmy! “ 

 Of course Jimmy was right.   Don’t take anything for granted musically (or otherwise for that matter).   There’s an awful lot to consider when you play, no matter what style of music.  What’s my tone like?  Am I in tune?  What kind of attack and how do I end this note?  Am I dominating, supporting or equal relative to what’s happening around me?  Where’s the time?

 Everything we encounter is a teacher and if we don’t take our instrument seriously we’re teaching ourselves that it’s ok to just pluck a couple notes mindlessly, and that can/will infiltrate our “serious” playing.

So the first place the sound comes from is your CARING what you sound like and playing attention to every note.

 Think of a sprinter at the start of a race.  She’s waiting for the starting gun.  Her feet are in the blocks.  Her hands are on the starting line.  She is poised and waiting.  The gun fires and she’s off.  What happens?  Her feet push off from the blocks, but if you think that’s all that happens you’re missing something.  That would be like thinking you only pluck the string with your finger.   It’s the finger, the forearm the elbow, the weight of the arm, all the way back to the center of your spine between your shoulder blades.  It’s how you breathe and stand.  Can you feel your feet on the ground?

Feel gravity through the bottoms of your feet on the ground, take a balanced stance and let your mind travel from the ground up through you between your shoulder blades and down your arm to your fingertips. Pluck an open D string with one or two fingers.  Don’t pull the string sideways but push it down as you pull it sideways.  Let your plucking finger come to rest (follow through) on the fingerboard and the A string simultaneously.  If you only pull sideways you get a dead sound.  If you push down while pulling sideways (especially with a stopped note) the sound is more complex and alive.  When you push down you get the string vibrating against the wood of the fingerboard, giving you that growl on the lower strings.   From time to time send your awareness to various parts of your body to look for tension.  The shoulders are a prime tension area. 

 Also be aware of how much you are moving when you play.  I see players who are moving and emoting all over the place when they play but if you close your eyes and listen the playing is lackluster.  Watch the great players and you’ll see there is very little wasted motion.  Play efficiently. 

Which fingers should I use for plucking?  I’m not sure it matters.  Very good bassists use different fingers and combinations of fingers for different attacks.

A few things to consider:  Hand angle can be determined by finger length.  If you are plucking with your first and second fingers the hand angle should be the same as the angle created by the difference in the length of the first and second fingers.  If I want a very big (not necessarily loud) sound, especially on the E string, I’ll use my first finger but not the tip, the side, from the middle joint to the tip and pressing down, not pulling across.  You’re almost plucking from the knuckle right at the halfway point of the finger.   That’s about 2 inches of finger surface on the string.  Using the tips of the first two fingers gives you about half that.  It seems to me that more surface area means more sound, although the side of the finger has hard knuckle and the finger tips are softer so that will affect the sound too. 

The great bassist Rufus Reid recommends using a volume pedal.  I agree.  Any amplified instrument needs volume control.  Guitars have knobs and vocalists use distance from the mic.   If you just plug into an amp you have to stop playing to adjust your volume.    With a pedal you have much more control and variety of choice.  You can have the amp volume up and pluck lightly for a softer more sustained sound or have more attack by having the amp volume down and louder plucking.  That can be great if you’re playing in a soft situation where you want to play aggressively.

© Robert Nieske 2015  email me at:    bobnieske@gmail.com