How to play slap bass

BASS WEEK: From Flea’s aggressive thumps to the sublime grooves of Victor Wooten, slap bass is an amazing rhythmic tool, adding a funky flavour to any style. Here are six manageable steps to get you started...

This tutorial is designed to take you from the basics of thumb slapping all the way to more advanced techniques such as popping, ghost notes, slides and hammer-ons. 

The most crucial part of thumb slapping is rotating your wrist as you slap (keeping your arm otherwise steady) so that the bony part of your thumb hits the strings. The fleshy part deadens them. 

Dry, muted notes are a key part of slap bass too, providing rhythmic and percussive groove to the standard slapped notes. The muted notes in our examples (denoted by an X) are played with a picking-hand thumb slap, accompanied by a slap on the strings with your fretting fingers. This two-hand approach may well come naturally as you get up to speed.

Finally, there's the 'pop', played by plucking a string (usually with the first finger of the pick hand) so that it bounces hard against the frets to create a similar sound to a thumb slap.

Single-note starter

Get started with this thumb slapped note (‘T’ denotes the slap). Rotate from your wrist and keep your arm steady. Silence the strings with your fret hand.

Single notes and mutes

This will get both hands working together. You need simultaneous thumb and fret-hand slaps for the muted notes, so thumb with a constant eighth note rhythm.

Add a slapped hammer-on

Now add a hammer-on (usually first to fourth finger) to the previous line. Your thumb needs to change strings, so practise slowly until the it starts to feel natural.

Pop goes the first string

Now add a pop (denoted by ‘P’) on the first string, plucked either with your first or second finger. Finding the right amount of ‘hook’ is crucial to this riff’s smoothness.

Changing the groove

Notice how the basic groove changes here as the muted notes now fall on the offbeat. Your thumb should once again be moving in constant eighth notes, even during the 16th note phrase at the start of the riff.

Putting it all together

This idea can take some time to master, as it combines specialist slap techniques with more standard moves such as slides and hammer-ons. Look out for the two first-string pops followed by a muted pop during the first half of the riff as this provides the greatest challenge. Perfecting short phrases is the best approach to practice.

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