Bass Lesson – Developing Speed


This post originally started out as a reply to a question on one of my three-finger technique videos. It became quite a long response, so I thought it would be best to create a new post for it.

Here’s the comment I received from Paul:

Hi Michael,

I am learning from your youtube instruction video. Great work! Thanks a lot. Actually recently I am trying to pick up this 3 fingers skill because I want extra speed.

But to be honest I do so just because my 2 fingers not fast enough to cover the song I want to play (well… only 120bpm with 16th notes). If i can play in 2 fingers i would prefer doing so instead because the beats are not grouped in 3…

Can you tell me why 3-fingers skill is useless in professional music? Don’t they need speed as well??

Also can you tell me the tips to practice the 2 fingers technique to improve the plucking speed?

Here’s my reply to Paul’s questions…



I started playing with 3-fingers because I wanted to play fast, too. It comes in handy with certain styles of music, mostly metal, and I still use that technique often with my band, Opus Dai. For me, the 3-finger technique has been the most useful when it comes to playing fast 16ths on a single note.


Professional situations

In my experience, I’ve never used 3-fingers for anything other than playing in rock bands. Playing for cruise ships, musicals, Top 40 cover bands, jazz combos, etc. never called for the use of 3-fingers, and these are the gigs that pay (it’s tough to make money playing in rock bands 🙁 ). This is what I mean when I say it’s useless in professional situations: you CAN use it, but you don’t need to. With that being said, you shouldn’t stop practicing what you enjoy.

The two most difficult songs that I’ve been required to play on a somewhat regular basis are Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke”. Those two songs have some fast, tricky figures on bass, but they can be played with two fingers. If you can really nail those two songs, then, in my opinion, you have great right hand technique… and great left hand technique!

However, if you want to play metal, I think playing with 3-fingers (or a pick) is the way to go. Some bass players can do it with two fingers, but I never could.

Three Fingers

Playing evenly with three fingers

If you choose to go with three fingers, getting the notes even is very tricky. It takes practice to get it down, but here are a few tips:

Keep your finger nails short on your right hand. If my nails start getting long, I find that the nail on my ring finger (or maybe it’s my middle finger …I can’t remember) starts plucking the string, giving it a distinct sound. It’s impossible to NOT make it sound like 3 when my finger nails are too long.

Using a compressor can help even out your volume, but try not to rely too much on this

Experiment! Try positioning your hand in different places: close to the bridge, close to the neck, somewhere in between. Try rocking your hand slightly as you play: when your ring finger plucks, tilt your hand toward the bridge, and as you get to your index finger, try tilting your hand toward the neck. This slight rocking motion helps me sometimes if I’m playing with three fingers and going across the strings. It helps me keep track of which finger is going to head the next downbeat.

Anyway, the point here is to keep trying different ways to make it work. Just make sure to warm up a bit, and, if something hurts, STOP!

Most importantly… play slowly and deliberately at first. Try placing accents in different places. Accent the first note of each group of four. Accent every second note. Accent every fifth note, and so on. You want to develop control in all of your fingers—this takes time!


Three-finger technique is just another tool

Something very important to realize about playing with 3-fingers is that it’s just another technique you can use, another tool. It’s not how you’re going to play every single bass line for the rest of your life.

If you learn the technique of slapping, hopefully you don’t start playing EVERY bass line with your thumb. Using three fingers is the same—it doesn’t make sense to use it in every song. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense to play with two fingers in a song when one finger will do. So, you should still spend time practicing with two fingers.


Be able to switch between two- and three-finger techniques

I often find myself switching between playing with two fingers and three fingers when I’m playing with Opus Dai, sometimes within the same measure of music. This is also true if I’m playing Iron Maiden, Metallica, Dream Theater, etc. You should be comfortable going between two fingers and three fingers.

To make it interesting, try experimenting with different rhythmic patterns as you switch between two and three fingers. This is a little like how drummers play paradiddles.

Try playing something like 3-2-1-3-2-1-2-1 3-2-1-3-2-1-2-1 on any note (3 is your ring finger, 2 is your middle and 1 is your index). You’re playing eight notes, but you’re accenting the first, fourth and seventh note. This kind of rhythm might be difficult to play quickly with only two fingers, and it’s a pain to play quickly with three fingers… but if you mix the two together, it’s not so tough!

Two Fingers

Speed with two fingers – use a metronome

Speed takes a while to develop in your right hand. Your metronome will be your best friend as you work on this aspect of playing.

Try taking whatever song you’re working on and playing it slow. Maybe just take a section of it, but you’ll want to set your metronome to about 75% of the tempo of the song. Play the song at this speed until you can really nail it. Then add a couple BPMs to your metronome and play it some more until it really feels comfortable. (I read somewhere that Steve Vai makes sure he can play each lick perfectly 21 times in a row before he goes on. If he messes up on the 21st time, he starts all over again!)

Anyway, you don’t need to do what Steve Vai does, but definitely make sure you can play the part a few times before you increase the speed of the metronome. Keep gradually adding a couple BPMs until it starts to feel uncomfortable and you start playing sloppy.


Be your own worst critic

This brings me to a very important point: be your own worst critic. You should be very honest with yourself about your playing. More simply: if you can’t play it well, then you can’t play it.

To illustrate this point, let’s take the example you gave of a song that has 16th notes at 120bpm. Let’s say you started out playing this song at 80bpm. After a few passes you played it at 82. Then, after a few more tries, you bump it up to 84bpm.

The song is feeling easy for you to play, so you gradually increase the tempo, but, when you hit 100bpm, you can’t quite keep up. Sometimes it feels good, but sometimes it doesn’t. This means that 96 or 98bpm is the fastest that you can play well (whichever tempo came before 100bpm). Write this tempo down somewhere and put a date next to it.

As soon as you reach a point where you can’t play it well no matter how many times you try, you should take a little break and mark down the tempo. You don’t want to be a bass player who plays fast and sloppy, you want to be a bass player who plays fast and clean.

If you’re not honest with yourself about your ability, you might just keeping pushing yourself to play faster, not really noticing that you’re playing fast, but doing an awful job of it.


Keep track of your progress

Another important point: don’t expect to be able to play everything the first time you try, but do keep track so you can measure your progress. Nothing feels worse than not being able to play the song that you want to play, but nothing feels better than looking back at your records and seeing that you keep getting faster.

Keeping records is a good practice to have with any activity, and playing bass is no different. Realize that you can’t play every bass line with only a day’s work, but also realize that you can play any bass line you want as long as you start slow and gradually speed up. It might take days, weeks or months, but you can do it.


Push yourself, but don’t hurt yourself

Anyway, back to the example where you’re trying to play 16th notes at 100bpm…

So, you can’t quite nail the song at 100bpm, but you want to play it at 120bpm. You’ve marked down the fastest you can play the song well, so now it’s time to push yourself a little. Try the song at 105bpm. You won’t be able to play it perfectly, but, if it doesn’t feel too bad, try the song at 110bpm. Eventually you’ll get to a point where you really just can’t play it, or maybe you’re getting tense in your hands. This is when you should stop.

Give your hands a break for a few minutes, but then try to play the song at 100bpm. In our hypothetical situation, you couldn’t play it perfectly at 100bpm at first, but maybe now you can! This happens to me often. After pushing myself a little beyond my ability, I find that I can step back and play faster than I thought I could.


Warming up takes a while

If the first thing you do when you pick up your bass is try to play a difficult song, you probably won’t be able to nail it. I’ve found it can take me hours to warm up. At the end of a three hour practice session, I can blow away anything I was playing in the first 30 minutes.

With this in mind, at the end of your practice session, try going over things you practiced in the first hour. You might find that you can play them faster and cleaner.

Please, if you’re going to practice for more than an hour, take breaks! A 10 minute break for every hour of practice can save your hands. This is a topic for another article, but you need to take care of your hands with some light stretching and warm ups if you start getting into longer practice sessions.


Good luck!

Paul, I hope this answered your questions. Feel free to post again if you have any more (or if you want me to explain something more clearly).

To the others who are reading, I hope this has helped you in some way.

Keep practicing! 🙂

-- Michael


  1. Thanks a lot for the detail explanation!! I think I should first improve my 2 fingers stability and speed first before picking up the fancy 3 fingers technique since I am not playing metal music.

  2. Paul,

    Glad I could help. 🙂

    Yes, I would recommend getting comfortable with two fingers. You can do so much with two fingers and you might find that you never need to play with three fingers.

    – Michael

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