Silence That Noise
When I teach anyone slap, probably the biggest problem is unwanted noise. The thumb position we use for slap bass means that you can’t use your thumb and fingers to mute other strings and notes in the same way as when you’re plucking. This means it’s all too easy to end up with loads of unwanted notes in your playing (sometimes not even notes – just clanking noises).
So these exercises are designed to help you hit only the notes you want to hit so your slap basslines are nice and crisp.
First, just play a C on the the third fret of the A string. The key is to rest all four of your fingers across all of the strings to deaden them from the impact of any wayward strikes. I call this a “home position” for slap. The real trick is to be very relaxed – you don’t want to press down on the strings, otherwise if you do strike the wrong string, you’ll get either a harmonic or an actual note – which very likely would be out of key.
When you come to strike the C, lift three of your fingers up at the same time as you strike the A string, while at the same time pressing down on the C note. This has to be done in a single movement. You don’t want to lift, press, then strike: all three actions should take part at the same time.
Speed is irrelevant at this point. We’re only interested in getting that technique down and getting a single clean note. And, of course, you want a clean end to the note too. To do that, simply put your fingers back across the string in the home position and you’ll naturally mute the string.
Very similar to exercise 1, but we’re playing a G on the third fret of the E string. For muting on the E string, you might find it easier to mute across the other strings with just your fretting finger rather than having to lay your whole hand across the strings. It’s very much a question of personal preference though.
Obviously in real life, most basslines involve more than one note on one string! In this exercise we simply hit on the quarter notes (i.e. four beats in a bar – the speed doesn’t matter: play at whatever tempo you’re comfortable with). A G then an an A on the E string (third and fifth frets) than a C and D on the A string (third and fifth frets), then back down.
These kinds of simple scalar movements are the basis of most lines.
This is essentially the same as exercise one, but with more rhythmic interest. Instead of merely hitting on the quarter note, we are breaking the line up to hit in different places. This is where slapping works so well in a funk context, as it helps to create the syncopated feel of the style.
And, like exercise 4, the same rhythmic pattern but playing a G (third fret on the E string)
And a similar rhythm through a simply chord change of C, F and G – so the third fret of the A string, the first fret of the E string, and the third fret of the E string. Don’t forget: this isn’t about speed – all we’re looking for is to get comfortable with the muted of the notes and a clean slap for each note.
Open strings present their own challenges, as it is very easy to hit other strings and create the noises and clanking that we’re trying to avoid. As with all notes though, the principle is the same: holding down the strings before you hit the string, releasing the E at the moment you strike with the thumb, and choking it off immediately afterwards to give a single, clean percussive note.
One thing I constantly tell people is to hit lighter and more accurately. Many people see famous slap bassists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and assume that slap is about aggression. You’re more than welcome to develop an aggressive style, but really you should build towards it from solid foundations based on accuracy. In this first exercise, we’ll work at targeting a specific string: in this case, the open E.
And, of course, we want to do the same with the A string. What we are working towards is a kind of muscle memory for where to position our fingers and hands when we know which string we are going to slap. This will develop independence, accuracy and – ultimately – speed.
And finally we bring together all the things we’ve learned to play through the G Major scale. As with all these exercises, start slowly and remember that we’re aiming for accuracy and clarity in our playing ahead of speed. Speed will come with time!