An Age-Old Argument
There’s an age-old debate over whether or not bass players should use a pick. On one side of the argument are those that believe the finger-plucking style is exclusively the way bass should be played. Some folks really look down on bassists who play with a pick. They’re seen as having a lack of technique – equating the plectrum using bassist as a mere failed guitarist in disguise.
On the other side of the argument are those who see absolutely nothing wrong with using a pick. They firmly understand there are certain situations and circumstances that call for its use. They view those who disagree as being elitist, archaic “bass snobs” incapable of seeing past a narrow point of view.
While some may see this as a silly debate, there are legitimate reasons that support both sides of the argument. Let’s take a look at things from a couple of different angles…
Good Pedagogy – Bass players must master two-finger plucking at an early stage in their development. They need many hours of it to develop rhythmic consistency, evenness, and callouses. It’s similar to learning the rudiments of other instruments – such as a violinist bow grasp, or a trumpet player’s embouchure. Discouraging the use of a pick when learning bass is good pedagogy. While a pick is not necessarily a bad thing, using one can impede the needed commitment to learning the dexterity behind using your fingers to play – which requires more co-ordination and generally more time to become proficient.
Versatile Tone – You can get any tone and sound you need by finger plucking the bass. Playing with different parts of your fingers can change the sound of your tone. Furthermore, you can change your playing attack on the fly. You can go from playing a fuller, warmer tone using your finger pads, to creating a crisper, brighter sound using your fingernails – without needing a pick.
Endurance – Playing for long sessions using a pick is strenuous and tiresome – which leads to a breakdown in technique and agility. While many bassists use a pick, they only do so for short stretches. Whereas playing with your fingers allows for much better endurance needed to maintain the timbre you seek for hours and hours.
Technique – Playing bass with a pick compromises the ability to use the proper technique needed to play all other aspects of the bass. The bass has a very long neck compared to a guitar. By the time you get your bass sitting high enough to correctly use a pick, you have moved the neck to where you can no longer hold it correctly. You end up losing reach – bending your wrist and moving your thumb away from the middle back of the neck – this is bad bass playing technique!
Better Attack – For some styles – metal, punk, rock – a pick simply sounds better. A pick allows the bass to have a much quicker attack, with a sound that’s generally more aggressive and defined. Many metal band bassists prefer to use a pick for this very reason. If you are playing punk, hardcore, or thrash metal, you often need to use a pick to obtain a sound that requires a much stronger attack.
Emulating the Sound of Others – There are a lot of accomplished, legendary bassists who incorporate using a pick in there playing (see below). If you are playing in a band that plays covers, you’ll want to emulate the sound of the original bassist as much as possible. So if you’re emulating the sound of a bass player that uses a pick – well then….you’ll need to use a pick too Sherlock!
Play With Guitar – In most playing situations, bassists follow the drums tying the rhythm and lead parts together. But there are many times when bass players need to follow guitar players. This is common in punk, “screamo”, and other styles of playing. Using a pick can allow you to play single notes faster. With a pick you can lock in with the guitarist to obtain the sound you need!
Iconic, Legendary Bassists Use Picks – If you think bassists who use a picks are lacking in skill, technique, knowledge or sound then let me direct you to a list of just a few bassists who use picks at least some (if not most) of the time – I believe these guys would beg to differ:
- Marcus Miller – Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Luther Vandross, many others
- Chris Squire – Yes
- John Paul Jones – Led Zeppelin
- Lemmy – Motorhead
- Michael Anthony – Van Halen, Chickenfoot
- Paul McCartney – The Beatles
- Roger Waters – Pink Floyd
- John Entwhistle – The Who
- Bobby Vega – Sly & the Family Stone, Joe Satriani, many others
So There You Have It! – I have resolved the argument and debate over whether or not bassists should use a pick. And in conclusion I really don’t believe there is a right or wrong answer either way. But my opinion is that, as a bassist, you should strive to learn and obtain as much knowledge and as many skills as possible. And this would include learning to play bass with your fingers AND a pick. But don’t end there. You should also become a master at thumping, popping, slapping. Get excellent at playing jazz, rock, funk, punk, metal, R&B, blues, pop, reggae, Celtic, country and every other style of music. Learn to play the electric upright bass, the double bass, and master the fretless bass. Learn theory and bass education. Learn everything you can so that one day the debate can be about you – and the new tool you developed that you need to be a “real bassist” – or not!
Should Bass Players Use a Pick?