Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Pick vs Fingers and more
When people hear that I play both guitar and bass I often get the same question: "When you play bass, do you play with your fingers or a pick?". This is obviously an extension of the stereotypical idea that guitar players ALL think they can play bass because they know where the notes are. Whether or not they use a pick seems to be first indicator of whether or not they are going to respect the integrity of the bass, or just try to play it like a guitar. Along with that is that the thinking by many bass player friends of mine that playing with a pick is blasphemy and "amateur hour" stuff. Here's my "elevator pitch" answer to this frequent asked question: "I prefer to use my fingers most of the time". However, this debate really is a topic that needs to be explored in greater depth, and the argument is something that goes far beyond just the topic of the bass guitar itself. Many people look back on the history of the bass guitar in modern music and look to the days of upright bass in the context of jazz, early blues, and rockabilly. Certainly few people would have thought to take a pick to the strings of an upright bass, however, in the beginning of these genres, it probably seemed odd to traditionalists of that time for people to exclusively play it with their fingers since traditionally it was a bowed instrument. These bass players of these early genres made a decision that playing with their fingers would provide a more appropriate tone for the music they were playing than using a bow. Obviously, as an extension of this, the first players of the electric bass were guys who were experienced with upright, so it seemed a natural fit to play the electric bass with their fingers. This set the standard for the instrument. However as time went on, some players began using a pick just as they saw their guitarist counterparts doing, but not necessarily for the "ease" of using a pick, but, like their predecessors in the jazz and rockabilly genres, they used them for the tone it provided. A pick sounds dramatically different than one's fingers. It can provide a sharper attack on the strings, a boost in high end response, and a more consistent volume on faster played passages. Given this difference in tone, playing with a pick should not be something that is considered inferior; it is something that expands the tone color pallet for the instrument. Honestly, even though I have an extensive guitar background, I find it easier all in all to use my fingers as opposed to a pick, so "ease of use" has never been a factor to me. Live, I will almost always use my fingers; the only exceptions being when I play a punk rock or heavy metal song on my cover gigs. The bass tone in those genres lend themselves well to pick playing. In the studio, in just about any genre, I tend to use a pick because of its more even, measured, output, and brighter tone. There are considerably less "peaks and valleys" in the volume which can be hard to compensate for, and I have found tonally that it is better to record a brighter sound and then darken it if need be as opposed to trying to brighten a muddier sound. At the end of the day, I think you can see that the debate is really a foolish one. When it comes to any instrument, the bottom line is finding one's tone and thus furthering the creative process. I believe that if you say "I would never play with a pick!" or "I would never play with my fingers!" you are only doing a disservice to yourself, your creativity, and your audience. As a player of ANY instrument, if you really LOVE the instrument, you need to be aware of EVERYTHING that that instrument can do; every sound it can make, every tone that can come out of it. It's only by knowing what all is available to you that you can dial into the perfect sound for your genre, and/or each individual song you play. Don't let any kind of stigma associated with a certain approach keep you from trying something that you may end up really liking, or at least having a use for. It's important as musicians that we learn about, and build off of, what came before us, but the goal should never be to emulate what is tradition, but to use our own creativity to further our instrument of choice. On this same token, this bit of advice should be picked up by songwriters as well. Don't feel that you have to conform to any kind of structure, arrangement, instrumentation, or genre lines just because "That's the way it's always been done". Experiment as much as you see necessary, and don't be afraid to do something off the beaten path if you think it best expresses what you are trying to get across with your song.