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The Benefits of Playing Thumb Style

I haven’t used my thumb pick for a while – like Albert King, I have a fear of picks because they sometimes slip off my fingers mid-song when I am performing. But I do like the sound of the skin of the fleshy pad on the outside of my thumb as it brushes or hits the strings, and have been developing it as a picking/strumming tool to music in the style of Wes Montgomery. At the moment, in my lessons with Luke Bradshaw, he is helping me with ‘East Wes’, a tribute to Wes Montgomery by Eric Johnson.

Almost accidentally, the thumb technique is helping me develop a trademark sound on the bass guitar on my own songs. I have found out that Wes’s brother Monk also used his thumb on the bass, perhaps influenced by his brother’s legendary technique. But I have also found out that double bass was often plucked with the thumb, that is, before the now-ubiquitous first/second finger ‘walking bass’ technique became de rigeur. The tone of the thumb on the strings gives a fat, warm tone, with less twang than the fingers ( I tend to grow my fingernails a bit for brightness of tone when fingerpicking or hand-strumming on the guitar, but I find this is not good for the bass, as it gives it too much attack). Many bass-players and erstwhile musical ‘authorities’ want to impose the two-fingered walking technique on everyone, and whilst this is an approach I want to develop in my scales and exercises, my thumb is serving me well on my recordings, as the bass is sitting nicely next to the kick drum in the mix and giving my songs a smooth, warm foundation. Another benefit of the thumb technique is that the fleshy outside of the hand – the karate chop point - can mute the strings not in use, limiting unwanted noise. Sting and others have used this technique to great effect, as discussed here

Of course, thumb and fingers open the way to slap-bass technique, which I have used on my new song ‘The Hug’ (which I have nearly finished will be released shortly). Larry Graham (from Sly and the Family Stone) amusingly tells of how he developed slap technique having come from to the bass from the guitar, Needing to have a percussive technique due to the lack of a drummer, he started thumping the strings with his thumb for the kick, and plucking it with his fingers for the snare. It’s interesting the way new approaches give rise to novel techniques isn’t it?

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