When bassists discuss plucking techniques, it’s usually about whether it’s best to play with a pick or with your fingers. However, among fingerstyle players, there is also the question of how many fingers one should use. Most commonly, the question is whether it`s best to use 2 or 3 fingers for plucking.
Using 2 fingers might be the most common, but most common doesn’t necessarily mean the same as best. At least, that is what any experienced bassist that uses 3 fingers will tell you.
Therefore, I have decided to show you all there is to know about playing bass with 3-fingers. It may or may not be for you, but by reading this article you will know what you are signing up for if you do decide to try it.
You will learn about the advantages and disadvantages of 3-finger plucking. I will also show you some bassists that use 3-fingers, and clear up some common myths about what playing with 3 fingers entail.
Can you play bass with 3 fingers?
While using 2 fingers is a more widespread technique, many bassists play the bass guitar using 3 fingers. 3-finger picking is most widespread in heavy, technically demanding genres, and almost exclusively consists of bassists using the index, middle, and ring finger of their plucking hand.
So yes, you can absolutely play the bass with 3 fingers. Multiple iconic bassists, such as Billy Sheehan and Steve Baily have shown that it is a plucking style with a high ceiling.
Some bassists play 3-finger style with the middle finger playing every second note, with the index finger always playing the first note of a bar. However, it is more common to play in an Index-Middle-Ring pattern, while switching up which finger does the accenting.
|Same finger accenting||Different finger accenting|
You can keep your fingers both straight or bent when playing with 3 fingers. I prefer keeping mine bent, which produces a groovy tone and gives me more control of my plucking. Keeping your fingers straight creates a more powerful and clanky sound, which can be more suitable in heavier genres.
Playing the bass with 3 fingers is a style that will generally take longer to master than the 2-finger style. However, mastering 3-finger plucking will lead to several advantages over those who don’t.
Many believe the main advantage to be speed, but this is not the case. Bassists who have mastered both 2 and 3- finger plucking tends to find that there is little to no difference in how fast they can play.
The exception to the rule here is if you are going to play fast triplets or galloping. However, both styles have been applied by virtuoso bassists in multiple genres, with little discernable difference in peak speed.
Furthermore, two of the most influential bassists ever, James Jamerson and Geddy Lee, played with just 1 finger. Some of the basslines these guys wrote are beyond what the vast majority of both 2 and 3-finger players will ever be capable of playing.
The advantage of playing bass with 3 fingers
So if using 3 fingers isn’t noticeably faster than just using 2, what is the point of using a 3 finger technique at all? Well, there are several reasons. Here are the key arguments for bass players to use 3 fingers over 2:
Getting a consistent tone with 3 fingers takes a good bit of practice. However, once you have mastered the technique, it will be easier to produce a consistent tone than it is with 2 fingers.
This is because it will be harder to pluck with enough strength when playing fast basslines with 2 fingers, as opposed to 3.
More fingers mean that each finger will be worn out slower. Therefore, you can practice for longer and play extended shows without your fingers becoming exhausted and your technique suffering as a result.
Being able to play for longer can allow you to speed up your overall progress as a bass player as well, as you can practice for longer without wearing out your hands.
Less wear on each finger also means the development of calluses will be slower and less painful.
When playing fast bass lines, your fingers will not have the time to pluck the strings with their full strength.
If you are using 2 fingers, each finger has to quickly pluck the string and then immediately get back to playing the next one. Using 3 fingers gives every individual finger more time to pluck the string and recharge before it does so again.
This enables your fingers to pluck the strings with more power and prevents your playing from sounding too weak.
Bassists that use 3 fingers
Below are some iconic bassists that use 3 fingers. I recommend looking any of these bassists up if you are looking for inspiration on how to develop a good 3-finger plucking technique:
I picked bassists from various genres, but as you will see, the technique is most popular in rock and metal:
|Billy Sheehan||Various acts||Rock|
|John Entwistle (occasionally)||The Who||Rock|
|John Myung||Dream Theater||Progressive Metal|
|Steve Baily||Various acts||Jazz|
|Gary Willis||Tribal Tech||Fusion Jazz|
|Alex Webster||Cannibal Corpse||Death Metal|
|Steve Di Giorgio||Various acts||Metal|
|Rob Grange||Ted Nugent / The Amboy Dukes||Rock|
Why do bassists play with two fingers?
In general, bassists play with 2 fingers because it allows for fluid and fast plucking and because it produces a different tone than playing with a pick. It is also a style that is easy to pick up, but difficult to master, making it great for both beginners and intermediate bass players.
When I started out playing, I began playing with 2 fingers, and I`ve stuck with it for 15 years. I use 3 fingers for galloping, but otherwise, it simply feels unnatural to me.
This was a result of what bassists I was inspired by and because playing with 2 fingers felt the most comfortable. Most bassists tend to have a similar story, with some adopting a different style as they grow more familiar with their instruments.
Related reading: Is playing bass with a pick bad?
Another reason is that 2-finger plucking is generally the easiest fingerstyle technique to pick up, without becoming limiting as you progress as a bassist.
When mastered, 2 fingers give enough flexibility to move between strings fluidly, and enough speed to play incredibly fast lines. Therefore, It is a technique that is great for both beginners and pros.
Can you play bass with 3 fingers? Absolutely. It will take a good bit of practice, but if the 3 finger technique feels natural to you and you are going to play a fast genre for longer periods of time, it will in all likelihood be worth it.
However, do not expect to be able to play faster than with 2 fingers or with a pick. What you can expect are a more consistent and powerful tone and more resilient fingers.
You also don`t have to commit yourself to playing with any number of fingers forever. I believe every bassist can benefit from dabbling with different plucking techniques. I use both 1 and 3 fingers occasionally, and both allow me to do things I could not do with 2 fingers.
Thus, I would advise at least trying out playing with 3-fingers. At worst you will familiarize yourself with what your instrument is cable of. At best, you will find a technique that suits you perfectly and will allow you to unlock your full potential as a bass player.
Are you considering the 3-finger style because you want to play faster? While that might be futile, there are other ways to increase your speed. To learn more, check out these 3 ways to make your bass neck faster.