As you expand your skills with the bass guitar, you might be looking for techniques that let you really flex your musical talent.
The slap bass technique has been around since the late 1960s and produces one of the most iconic sounds. The slap bass technique has been responsible for altering the music landscape forever.
From funk to classic rock to modern rock, slapping has been an incredible invention and tool for musicians today.
And while it continues to be used today, it had humble beginnings with American funk bands and musicians. But you might be interested in learning more about slap bass and what it has been able to offer the music world.
What is the Slap Bass Technique?
Slap bass is a guitar technique that revolutionized the way people play their bass guitars. As you might guess from the name, the player will slap the bass strings to produce a unique percussive sound. This technique can be done with a double bass or a bass guitar, but it only developed for the bass guitar in the 1960s.
Since the original development of the technique, there have arisen two distinct methods to achieve this sound. Over the years, many bassists have played around with their instrument to stretch the tones and sound. For example, pull-offs and hammer-ons are terms used to describe the method of pulling off the string and hammering back on the instrument to create a quick slapping and popping sound.
Method 1: Use Your Finger
The first method is simple. When you are playing, you take the bony ridge of your finger and slap the string down. This method is more often associated with the term “slapping.” In combination with the other slapping method, bass guitarists can play several notes in quick succession.
Method 2: String Slaps Against Guitar Body
This method is a little different from the first. You pluck the string of the instrument hard enough that it slaps back against the body of the guitar. The result is a “popping” sound that is iconic. Most artists who use slapping techniques combine slapping and popping to create the iconic sounds associated with it.
Who First Invented the Slap Bass Technique?
Slapping as a technique has been around since the early 1900s for the double bass instrument. It is a technique used in several early precursors to classic rock, including western swing, jazz, and rockabilly. Perhaps double bassists had a hand in inspiring the invention of the technique for the bass guitar. Unfortunately, the historical record does not have much to say about the links between early jazz double bassists and funky bass guitarists.
Going back to the beginning of this technique for the bass guitar, bass guitar enthusiasts generally point to two individuals: Larry Graham and Louis Johnson. Back in the days of the funk and disco genres, these two found a new way to create groovy percussive sounds. Larry Graham is usually credited as the first bassist to develop and popularize the technique.
Larry Graham called the technique he developed “his thumpin’ and pluckin’ technique.” He often shared how he first started trying it out when he was around the age of 14. Graham was a member of the legendary American funk and soul group Sly and the Family Stone. Sly and the Family Stone is famous for being the first major rock group to be racially integrated.
While playing in Sly and the Family Stone, he talked about emulating the drum sound with his bass guitar. In fact, he found a way to make the slap of his thumb on the string sound like a bass drum and the “popping” sound was similar to a snare drum. Although it might be an exaggerated story, he might have been pushed to think outside the box after the band lost a drummer.
Although not often credited with the direct invention of the slap bass technique, Louis Johnson is considered one of the greatest bass players to have ever lived. He was a member of the band the Brothers Johnson and, as a member, further played around with the slap bass technique. He would go on to play bass for Michael Jackson on several of his famous albums. When they talk about the popularization of slap bass methods, many bass enthusiasts mention both Louis Johnson and Larry Graham.
Slap Bass in Today’s Music
If Larry Graham had any idea of what impact he would have on bass guitarists in the decades after the 1960s, he might have documented the origins of his technique more. Nowadays, you can hear slap bass techniques used in a wide range of music genres and by an ever-growing list of musicians. Some artists play around with this bass guitar technique to add groovy color to their music, while others develop their own methods to make unique sounds with their bass guitars.
Variations on the Slap Bass Technique
Since the early days of Larry Graham, Louis Johnson, and 1960s funk and soul bands, the slap bass technique has been altered by numerous artists. As new musicians have picked up the bass guitar, they have been able to use the basics of slap bass playing to make the instrument their own. Some players have developed a way to pop the strings with their thumb while slapping with their other fingers. And others have been able to mimic a drumroll by using both sides of the thumb quickly.
Famous Musicians Who Use Slap Bass
The slapping technique has traveled all around the globe. From Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Japanese artist known by the stage name Miyavi, slap bass is alive and thriving. Other artists active in today’s music world include Marcus Miller, Bill ‘The Buddah’ Dickens, TM Stevens, Les Claypool, Victor Wooten, Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clarke, and Mark King.
Learning How To Use Slap Bass Techniques
If you are just beginning to learn how to play the bass guitar, it might be a little bit early to introduce slapping techniques. But as you progress with learning chords, it is only natural to experiment with the kinds of sounds you can produce with your instrument. If you are interested in becoming the next famous slap bassist, you should find a teacher or explore videos online. You might surprise yourself with a hidden talent you never knew existed.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.