Playing Bass Guitar With A Plectrum

Playing Bass Guitar With A Plectrum

By Daniel Herber
In Aug 19, 2010

Playing Bass Guitar With A Plectrum: Getting Started

The plectrum, or “pick” as it more commonly known, is a small flat plastic object that is usually no more than two to three centimetres in diameter and available in various thicknesses measured by the millimetre, that has been aiding guitarists for decades in playing our favourite songs. There is some confusion as to where the pick originates from, the most likely account is that it has been redesigned over the years for the exclusive function of playing a guitar from the coins that were first used by the early bluegrass players from the United States of America for use with a technique deemed ‘chicken picking’ where the coin was held between the thumb and index finger and used to play the bass notes of a musical piece while the remaining three fingers were designated to playing the higher strings of the guitar.

Playing Bass Guitar With A Plectrum: The Pick Thickness

Through using a coin instead of one’s thumbs to pluck the bass notes of a guitar, these respective notes were lent further emphasis, or in musical terms, accented to a higher degree than the thumb in terms of frequency carried through the guitar’s strings. The development of the plastic pick or plectrum as we know it is just a refinement of the original coins used for the same purpose. A common misperception is that the use of a plectrum or pick is reserved for the exclusive use of the six stringed guitar, acoustic or electric, when in actual fact it has been utilised to great effect by bassists across all musical genres since the inception of this small innovative object into the world of music.

When selecting a plectrum for use in conjunction with a bass guitar the thickness of the pick itself is all-important. Bass tone is affected greatly by the thickness of one’s plectrum, especially in the context of the live performance, the true display of any musician’s steel. Thicker picks are logically more inflexible and thus possess less ‘give’ which leads bass notes played with a thicker picks and precise technique to punch through the arrangement of a song or musical piece more than they usually would; which is put to great use, for example, in the genres of classic to modern rock through to heavy metal and beyond.

Playing Bass Guitar With A Plectrum: How To Pick

If you are new to playing bass guitar with a plectrum, I would recommend a medium to light thickness of plectrum though as these are more flexible and with good technique can be used to great effect to play a flurry of bass notes in quick succession using alternate (up and down) picking with minimal strain on the wrist. Alternate picking exercises played on one string, across strings and skipping strings respectively are a vital daily practice habit for bassists utilising a pick, as the distances between strings is substantially more in scale to that of a six string guitar and thus requires different muscle coordinations in the hand and wrist to be used.

It takes at least a few weeks of practice to be able to fluidly play a bass run that includes a few notes on each string ranging from the low E string through to the four string bass’s high G string. Technically speaking your pick should consistently hover no more than two millimetres above or below the string that you are playing or are about to play for each and every successive note picked on the bass, which may sound simple but realistically takes many years of diligent practice to master entirely. Remember, it’s all in the wrist.

Bassists in blues, jazz, and classical groups tend to favour the use of their fingers over a picked bass sound, as the fingers produce a less harsh sound and generally a smoother tone than a pick does on a bass guitar; thus providing a smooth platform of bass frequency over which the higher range instruments, such brass, wind or other stringed instruments like guitar or violin can shine.

Some Pick Playing Artists

Personally speaking, I think the pioneers of bass who primarily favoured the use of a pick over their fingers hail mainly from the genre of rock and roll. They include Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), John Entwistle (The Who), John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Geddy Lee (Rush) and Adam Clayton (U2). The pick was later used to great effect by heavier rock bassists such as Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) and first Cliff Burton then Jason Newsted of Metallica fame. The use of picked bass is standard practice in most contemporary rock and metal acts of today, as can be heard in the sound of popular bands ranging from Muse to Green Day to 30 Seconds to Mars to Silverchair to Bullet For My Valentine, to mention only a handful.

It’s not wrong to be playing bass guitar with a plectrum, as many musical purists still believe, it is simply a different technique. If you own a bass guitar and have never considered playing it with a pick do yourself a favour and buy a couple of picks to try it out, they are generally quite cheap. The worst thing that could happen is that you may discover that you prefer the feel and sound of a pick over fingerstyle bass.

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* Is a trained vocalist * Plays with the alternative band "Your Name In Neon" * Has been gigging and playing for 9 years * Is a former pupil of Guitar Excellence * Teaches Bass and Guitar * Is a beginner specialist * Can dance and play at the same time * Can synchronise his head banging and playing at the same time.

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