How to Play Slap Bass

bass guitar
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If you want to play funk, you'll need to learn how to play slap bass. Slap bass is the technique of whacking and popping the strings to get that percussive sound so characteristic of funk (and also useful in other genres). It's the technique used by famous bass players such as Bootsy Collins, Flea, and Les Claypool.

Slap Bass Hand Position

The first thing you want to think about is hand position. You want your hand and wrist angled at about 30 to 45 degrees relative to the strings, so that your thumb naturally rests parallel to them.

With this angle, you have easy access to the low strings with your thumb, and your fingers rest nicely on the high strings at the same time.

To get this angle, adjust your strap length until the bass hangs at the right height. When the bass is positioned correctly, your hand will naturally rest over the strings at the correct angle with your wrist straight.

Most slap bass players have their right hand near the end of the fretboard. Some prefer to play closer to the pickups, but the further towards the fretboard you are, the easier it is to pull the strings up and down. Slap bass playing depends on being able to yank the strings around quickly and easily.

To play slap bass, you'll need to work on two different moves, "slaps" and "pops." A slap bass line is analogous to a drum beat, with low notes (the slaps) hammering out the bass drum hits and high, sharp notes (the pops) mimicking the role of a snare drum.

Put them together, and you can really carry a rhythm all on your own.

Slaps

To play a slap, you simply strike the string with your thumb using a quick wrist jerk. The wrist should rotate without bending, like turning a doorknob. You are aiming for the string with the bony part of the side of your thumb.

Whack the string hard enough that it hits the fretboard. It will take some practice to get your aim consistent, but keep at it and before long you'll have no problem.

There are really two schools of thought on thumb slap technique. The first is to immediately lift the thumb away after slapping to let the note ring out. The bony side of your thumb hits the string and then instantly reverses direction. The second method is to follow through with your thumb downward, letting it come to rest on the next higher string. It's a little harder to aim correctly and get consistent notes, but it leaves your hand in prime position for a pop. Also, it lets you do the double-thumb technique made famous by Victor Wooten, in which you play another note when you lift your thumb back up.

To play a pop, you use your index or middle finger to lift the string up away from the bass, and then let it snap back down against the fretboard. You'll need to pull it quickly and with a little bit of force in order to get a good snapping sound. If you're too soft or slow, it won't really hit the fretboard.

That being said, don't yank the string too hard. It's a waste of energy, hard on your fingers, and can pull the string out of tune.

Experiment with how much force is necessary. Try popping the string as softly as you can so you can get a good idea on exactly how hard you have to pull to get it to snap against the fretboard, and then don't use more force than that.

Your wrist should twist in much the same way for a pop as for a slap, just in the opposite direction. Don't lift your hand up away from the bass. After popping, your hand should still be in the same place, just rotated up (and ready to come down for a slap).

Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs

Once you are comfortable with the basic technique of slaps and pops, you should read about hammer-ons and pull-offs. Most slap bass music makes heavy use of these two tricks, so you'll definitely want to get familiar them.