10 Reasons Your Fingerpicking Sucks… And How To Fix It!!
Reason #1: Picking Strength
First on the list of problems is picking strength, you might be playing too hard. If you tend to practice acoustically without an amp, this could cause you to whack the hell out of the strings just to get any sound out of them at all. This can become an issue once you plug in; playing like this can greatly reduce your stamina, cause your tone to sound very aggressive, which might not suit the style you’re playing. You’ll also reduce your sustain and you might even injure yourself!
Now there will be times when you want to play harder depending on the song, but if you play like this all the time you’ll have no dynamics and just nowhere to go. So try raising the volume on your amp a little more and just play lighter, let the amp do the work. In fact, this is how Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris get’s that aggressive galloping style. He’s not digging in at all, he uses a lighter touch and just turns his amp up to 11! Check out my video lesson on one of his most famous bass lines here.
By using this simple trick you’ll increase your stamina, speed and give your playing the dynamic headroom to play any style. There will be less chance of causing injury while playing a long gig and your sustain will improve. By playing with a softer touch, your hand will be much more relaxed and you’ll easily be able to play super fast!
Reason #2: Angle Of Attack
Second on the list is the angle of your attack, by this I mean that this is how your fingers point at the bass. You might angle your fingers fairly flat against the strings, arched over them in an almost hook-like style or anything in between. All of these variations affect your playing, tone and virtuosity. The flat fingered approach is great to get that clangy, metal sound, but if you want a cleaner and tighter tone, then keeping the fingers a bit more arched over works great.
This can be a quite subjective, there’s no straight right or wrong answer here. However, if you are playing and something sounds a bit off, then take a look at your picking hand. Check your angle and maybe try a few variations to find out what sounds best and feels right for you. Also notice how the different variations in sound when playing different styles of music, check out my video of Dean Town to see just how the arched approach can help you achieve that Joe Dart style tight funk attack.
Reason #3: Picking Position
For number three we’ve got picking position along the string, this can also greatly affect your tone. When we choose a picking position, particularly as beginners, we tend to go to the default position of finding an anchor point at the pick up. That’s fine when we are starting out, but there are a limitless number of tones available to us when picking along the string, from the bridge all the way up to the base of the neck.
For example, we can position our picking hand over the bridge where the string is taut for a tighter, mid heavy sound and closer to the neck for a more hollow, warmer tone where the string is looser. You can try out all the different areas in between which might not sound too obvious when playing alone, but you will definitely notice the tonal difference when playing in a band setting! Have a look at my video on tone, here I talk more about picking positions as well as all the other aspects of getting a great bass sound.
Reason #4: Consistency Of Attack
For number four we need to look at the consistency of our attack, this is something that is so important to our overall sound within the context of a band. When you’re playing finger style with two alternating fingers, you may notice that one of the fingers is slightly weaker than the other, thus creating a slightly weaker tone and a variation in sound from one note to the next. This can cause some unwanted accents that you have no control over.
Try playing an eight note pedal bass line using the alternating two finger approach, then listen out to see if you can hear an accent on one of the fingers. You may find that you hear accents on either the main beats or the off beats. If you find that you don’t have a consistent tone, then try dropping the attack on the stronger finger or raising the attack on the weaker to get both fingers as even as possible. I have a video covering all aspects of alternate finger picking here.
Reason #5: Accents
For number five, we will look at accents. These come into use when utilising dynamics in your playing, you should be able to place accents on whatever beat or subdivision you want. To accent a particular note, you just simply play it a little harder that the others. You need to be in complete control, so try playing straight eight notes again with consistency and evenness. Then try to accent each main beat or down beat, once you’ve done this, then try accenting the off beats.
Once you have this down, move onto accenting different beats within the bar. Start with accenting beats one and three, then move onto beats two and four. Experiment with different variations and groups of three, this is where it get’s a little trickier. Get a metronome going and play these exercises along with it, you’ll notice how this changes the overall feel of the line.
Reason #6: Anchoring
Next up at number six we have anchoring, this refers to the position you keep the thumb of your picking hand in when playing. This is so important in keeping residual noise from other strings to a minimum and for maintaining control in your playing. There are a few ways to do this, you can anchor the thumb on a pick up and just hold it there.
This is fine to start with and for playing the lower strings closer to you, like the E and A strings (or B if you’re playing a five string bass), but you may find that when you are playing the higher strings furthest away (the D and G strings), your unmuted E and A may ring out without you wanting them to. This can sound messy and just plain bad, so to stop this you need to move your anchor point down onto either of your lower strings to mute them as you play the higher strings. This is known as the moveable anchor technique.
The floating thumb technique is similar to the moveable anchor technique, except that we move the thumb as we progress across the strings. This mutes any unwanted strings from ringing out as we go, rather that lifting the thumb and re-anchoring it elsewhere. The thumb acts as a relaxed guide and floats as we move about while keeping your picking hand in a more consistent shape. I discuss this technique and more with the brilliant Todd Johnson in an interview here.
Reason #7: Starting Finger
For number seven we have the starting finger or general finger picking awareness. This might seem odd, but when using alternate picking to cross strings, the finger you start with can make a big difference. The best example of this, are the popular fingerings for the Major and minor scales. You start with your second finger on the fretting hand when playing the Major scale, but you use your first finger when playing the minor scale.
If you adhere to strict alternate picking for both of these scales, you’ll find that it’s best to start with your index finger for the Major scale and the second finger for the minor scale. This is just down to how your fingers fall in order as you move through the scales. There are a different number of note grouping for each scale, so your picking fingers will change for each group. This alternates depending on wether you are ascending or descending too. Be mindful of this when playing tricky bass lines!
Reason #8: Raking
At number eight we have raking, which is where you drag your picking finger up across the strings in a raking motion. This allows you to play over several strings using just one finger. This technique is great for adding fluidity to your playing and speed. Try playing a root-fifth-octave configuration to practice this. Play ascending using alternate picking and then rake back through the notes to your starting point. Then try some of the scalar exercises in this technique video lesson or try it out on any descending line that takes your fancy!
Reason #9: Alternate Picking
Number nine on the list is strict alternate picking, this is the complete opposite to what we talked about in number eight! Interchanging between these techniques can get a little tricky, and it’s what can cause you to become finger twisted. Your middle finger is longer than your index, so you’ll naturally want to use that one when ascending, and use the shorter index finger when descending. This descent will be a little more difficult, so try a few exercises:
Playing the D Major scale, try descending down through the scale back to the root note starting with the middle finger. This is what you will play: Middle, index, middle, index etc. You’ll notice how this feels more comfortable, as we are descending with that shorter finger. In comparison, try the same exercise starting with the longer index finger. I’m sure you will notice how much more uncomfortable it feels descending in this manner. There will be a strong temptation to rake this line instead, but try to stick to alternating picking as it will stand to your overall technique and control in the long run!
Reason #10: Tracking
Finally at number ten on the list we’ve got tracking of the fingers, this is a combination of the last two points. Once you have raking and alternating under your belt, you can then start to keep track of both these techniques as you play. When you’re working through a piece, you want to keep the same finger picking order every time you practice. If you want to build up your speed and consistency, then it’s best to keep the pattern in your picking hand the same each time.
Now, no one is expecting you to remember each and every picking finger stroke in every single song, but this is where slow and methodical practice helps. This is what gets each of these techniques imbedded into our muscle memory. Take note of the parts within a piece where you might rake or play something a little different, like the occasional repeated finger. That way you can build up to playing on autopilot, while keeping an eye out for any parts that are likely to be a little tricky coming up.
Check out an old video lesson of mine where we incorporate doubling up on notes to build up speed and accuracy, try the exercises here using all the points we talked about in this post. Have fun!