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Wheat's BassBook

Helping Bassists Worldwide Since 1997

Fretting Notes with the Left Hand

In general, you'll use the four fingers of your left hand to fret notes on the neck. Your four fingers will alow you to cover four frets without having to change the position of your hand on the neck. For simplicity, we'll refer to the fingers on your left hand as follows: i=index, m=middle, r=ring, p=pinky. Sometimes it's easier to use numbers to designate the fingers of the hands. In that case 1=index, 2=middle, 3=ring, and 4=pinky. When these letters or numbers are written below a piece of written music or tabulature, they are given as suggested fingering guides for either the left or right hand (when the context doesn't make it sufficiently clear, I'll label them "left hand" or "right hand"). The fingerings you ultimaltely use are a matter of personal preference. Below is a simple line with the fingering indicated below:
 i p i m r i r    (left hand, using letters to designate fingering)
 1 4 1 2 3 1 3    (left hand, using numbers to designate fingering)

Standard Notation

As I continue to modernize Wheat's BassBook, I've been redoing these older, tab-only, ASCII examples in Guitar Pro, exporting them to an image, then adding the fingering info and cropping them with Acorn, a great image editor for Mac. The example above, given this new treatment, looks like this:

Playing Tips

Be sure that you press down on the string just behind the fret, not directly on top of it. You can experiment a bit to find out just how far behind the fret you need to be, but if you're too far behind the fret or directly on top of it, you'll have get a weak and/or buzzing sound.
As you can see, each finger is responsible for one fret. And since the pattern begins on the fifth fret, we call this "playing in the fifth position." Here's the same line, played in the seventh position:
 i p  i m r i r    (left hand, letters)
 1 4  1 2 3 1 4    (left hand, numbers)
In order to build strength in your left hand (and to train it to playing in possition), you should keep pressing down on the lower notes on the same string while you fret the upper notes. In the first two notes of the above example, you should keep you index finger pressing on the seventh fret while you fret the tenth with your pinky. When you get to the fifth note of the passage (9th fret of the A string) you should have your index finger on the seventh fret of the A string, your middle finger on the eight fret of the A string, and your ring finger on the ninth fret of the A string.
When a pattern involves open strings (strings which are played without fretting them) fingering changes somewhat. Consider this example:
 o r o i m o m    (left hand; o=open)
 0 3 0 1 2 0 2    (left hand; 0=open)
There are many different ways to finger (or fret) a given passage. The fingering you choose will always involve a tradeoff between comfort and speed. Certain fingerings will be more comfortable but will slow you down. Certain others will be more efficient but more difficult to maintain for long periods of time. Fingering is subjective. Different players favor different ways of fingering the same passage. Your own style of playing will dictate you fingering of any passage. And after a while, you won't think much about fingering unless you're learning a new piece or trying to find a better way to play something. Fingering will become, to a large degree, automatic.

Fingering in the Lower Registers

Trying to keep to the "one finger per fret" rule that I've been describing can be very difficult, and often unneccesary, in the lower registers of the neck (i.e. below the fifth fret). Consider the following line:
If we stick to the one finger per fret rule, we'd play this line with the first and third fingers of the left hand. But if you were playing a long song made up of a lot of patterns similar to this one, your left hand would fatigue fairly quickly. Therefore, below the fifth fret (on simple lines like this one) you might want to consider letting your fourth finger substitute for your third, which will allow you to relax your left hand a bit but still play the line well.

Extended Fingerings

Extened fingerings are ways to finger patterns which involve a stretch (i.e. a span of more than four frets). These can be extremely difficult in the lower registers (i.e. the lower part of your neck, below the fifth fret), so much so that you might not be able to use them. But they are usefull in the upper registers (above the ninth fret). How much you'll resort to extended fingerings will vary according to the size and flexibility of your hands. Here's a scale using extended fingering:
 i  m  p i  m  p i  m   (left hand)
 1  2  4 1  2  4 1  2   (left hand)
 1  3  4 1  3  4 1  2   (left hand, using 3 instead of 2)
Here's the same scale (the same notes) using a different fingering:
 m  p i m  p i r p    (left hand)
 2  4 1 2  4 1 3 4
There's room for differences here too. Some players would choose to finger the first two notes of the above example with the index and middle fingers (i.e. shifting from the 7th to the 9th position) and then shift back to the eighth position to finger the rest of the notes.

A Quick and Dirty Definition: Scales

A particular sequence of notes with a definable intervalic structure (i.e. sequence of whole and half steps), from which melodies can be written, is refered to as a scale. We've been using two scales in the above examples, the blues scale and the major scale. Scales are named for the note they start on and for the particular pattern of whole and half steps which define the scale.
The example above (starting on the fifth fret of the E string, which is A) is the A minor Blues Scale (we'll get into why it's called minor later), which is often simply called the "'A' Blues Scale" or even more simply "'A' Blues." Below is a reprint of the second example (starting on the seventh fret of the E string (i.e. B):
 i p  i m r i r    (left hand, letters)
 1 4  1 2 3 1 4    (left hand, numbers)
Since it starts on B, we call it the B Blues Scale.

Freboard Diagrams

Scales are sometimes easier to represent using fretboard diagrams. The A minor blues scale can be represented in a diagram like this:

Am Blues (One Octave)

The fingerboard of the bass is depicted as if you're looking down on it from above while playing it. The thickest string (the low E) is closest to your face. The thinnest string (G) is closest to the floor. The dots show you where to put your fingers. And the letters and numbers on the dots show you different things depending upon the particular diagram. In this case, they're showing you interval names.
As with the tablature examples, in older parts of Wheat's Bassbook, you'll see them rendered in ASCII, like this:
Here, the X's show you where the roots are. The "5" below the chart shows you that this span of the freboard starts at the 5th fret. Thus, this diagram covers frets 5-8. This older way of representing the neck is handy because it can be generated quickly. But it lacks the additional information about each note. As I modernize Wheat's BassBook, I'll be replacing the odler ASCII (i.e., raw text) diagrams with graphical ones.

A note on Left Hand Posture

There is much concern (and rightly so) in the bass playing commuity about repeat stress injuries (e.g. tendonitis, carpel tunel syndrome) to the hands and wrists as a result of improper practicing techniques or too much practicing. With this in mind, I'd like to stress a few things about left hand fretting (though I'm not a medical doctor and this in no way should be taken as medical advice).
Fretting notes requires pressure and you will probably be tempted to try to get that pressure entirely from your fingers and your thumb, turning your hand, effectively, into a vise holding the neck of the bass. This is not a good technique to turn into a habit. First off, it will tire out your left hand very quickly. Secondly, it may lead to wrist injuries. Strive whenever possible to pull with your shoulder and back muscles (like upright players do) when fretting notes. The thumb will still exert a little pressure, but it will become mostly a guide to help your fingers find the notes. The pull should come from your shoulders and back.
If you do this correctly, it will have the added benefit of reminding your to keep your wrist straight, which is something else I'd like to emphasize while we're at it. If you keep your left elbow close to your body while you're fretting low notes, it will put your wrist at an unaturally sharp angle (which *will* lead to repeat stress injury. I can vouch for that one). Practice keeping your elbow farther out (especially while going for those low notes). Keep your wrist as straight as possible, and remember to pull from your your back.
Copyright 1996-2024 by James "Wheatbread" Martin