What's the best way to play bass with a pick?
Is there a "best" technique?
Is it even that complicated an issue?
Surprisingly, it is.
Finding A Good Pick Technique
So, how did I come to find pick playing to be such a nuanced topic? Sadly, through a playing injury.
Before I attended music school I had quite a reckless attitude towards practice. I was very impatient, more was always better and (I'm embarrassed to admit) I subscribed to the flawed "no pain, no gain" mentality.
*Disclaimer: Never play through the pain. It's a stupid idea!
By the time I enrolled in music school I already had an underlying problem in my right arm and this made me very conscious not to bend my wrists too much whilst playing.
This, however, became a problem during a particular module of my technique class.
The technique I was taught was to hold the pick between the underside of the thumb and the last joint of the index finger and then to anchor the hand to the bass by placing the outer edge of the palm on the bridge and the little finger underneath the bridge pickup.
This wasn't all bad advice. I still think the index and thumb grip is the best option out there for holding a pick.
However, placing the palm on the bridge and anchoring the little finger caused a problem.
It bent my wrist.
So, what was the solution here?
I decided to rebuild my technique from the ground up. But rather than building it around the instrument by doing things like anchoring to a certain part of the bass, I wanted to build a technique around the way that my body worked.
Movements Of A New Technique
In short, I wanted the bass to work around me and not the other way round.
The first thing I did to start my newfound technique quest was to take some Alexander Technique classes.
The Alexander Technique teaches people to use their body correctly by first, understanding how the body wants to move, and then learning how to move correctly.
The most helpful thing I found in relation to pick technique was that the rotational movement (often called "flicking your wrist") that is required for pick technique doesn't start actually at the wrist. It starts at the elbow.
The two bones that attach to the wrist and run through the forearm attach at the elbow. So in order to rotate the wrist and the hand that's attached to it, you must rotate from the elbow.
I was off to a solid start.
With this new-found knowledge in mind, I also noticed that if I rotated my hand from the elbow rather than the wrist, I could keep my wrist perfectly flat.
I didn't have to apply any pressure or strain to the wrist and this meant I was much more relaxed when using this movement.
But all of this knowledge, as great as it was, hadn't yet been applied to the bass. How would it hold up?
I won't lie, there were a few teething problems.
The new technique meant I started out holding the pick at a steeper angle in relation to the strings to the sound was a little angular and aggressive.
But this was a relatively easy fix.
I adjusted the height of my strap a little to flatten the angle of the strings and all was well.
The Benefits Of A New Technique
A few months into this new technique I also noticed that it was more diverse than the technique I was taught in class.
For one thing, I no longer had to anchor any part of my hand to the bass to play. This meant I was able to have a totally open tone, a heavily muted tone and varying degrees of a partially muted tone with ease and comfort.
The previous technique was fine for open tones but it got uncomfortable when trying to use a heavily palm-muted tone.
The second big improvement was that all of these different sounds pretty much required the same hand movements to execute.
Whether I was playing open, muted or partially muted didn't affect my hand position and this, in turn, didn't make me more likely to pick up an injury if I was using one technique or tone over another.
So was this technique overhaul worth it?
I've taught it to many students since. And I've even written an exercise book to help others develop it.
But one thing I do want to address before I'm done is that many students who are new to the technique say "it doesn't feel right" when they first learn it and this, in their heads, gives them a reason why they shouldn't learn it.
But there's a logical flaw with this point of view.
Sure, ultimately we all want our technique to feel smooth, natural and to have a good flow to it.
And what we don't want is tension, aching and playing pains.
If you're trying to learn a new technique it will feel strange at first. It will feel clunky, clumsy and unnatural but these feelings aren't the indicators of a bad technique. They simply highlight the fact that your body hasn't moved in this way before and that it needs to learn how.
The telltale signs of bad technique are pain, muscle tension, soreness, stiff muscles and ultimately, playing injuries.
As long as you're not putting yourself through painful movements and as long as you're making the bass work around your body and the way your body naturally wants to move then you'll have a good technique.
And if you're in doubt as to what I mean, check out this video tutorial I did demonstrate this technique.