Mr Funk Bass shows you how
At last, Mark King reveals the secrets of slapping in words (Tony Bacon) and pictures (Jon Blackmore). (If you're still not satisfied, you can contact Mark with further questions by writing to him at One Two, or you can wait for his forthcoming bass-techniques video.)
How do both hands interact when playing slapping style?
Mark says that the combination of the hands is a lot more important than some players realise. Naturally, your right-hand has got to be fast, but the trick as far as he is concerned is to get a sort of "drumming" going between the two hands.
The thumb of the right-hand is used to slap; the fingers to snap. The left-hand fingers are used both to hammer on and to dampen the strings. Thus you build up a "linear motion", as Mark describes the interaction of the two hands.
As Mark moves up the fingerboard, away from patterns where he's using open strings, he finds his left hand increasingly used for dampening the strings, bringing out a more percussive tone when needed. "Some people playing bass in this slap style seem to think it's all got to come from the right-hand," says Mark. "But it's very much a combination of the hands, a kind of syncopation between them." When you practice this dexterity, he points out, always keep your foot tapping out the beat. "I can't emphasise that enough," he emphasises, "you've got to keep time for yourself: you'll need it, especially when you start speeding up."
Will thumb-slapping sound different depending on where I hit the strings?
In Mark's experience, it certainly will. Above, he shows what he's found to be the least useful position (left) and the most useful (right). Near the fingerboard itself you've got the wood to hit against with the thumb and string; further back towards the pickups the string is less "constrained" and will just flop a little when you hit it – and sound like it's flopping, too, "I've noticed with this upsurge in the thumb technique, that people are not hitting the string at the place which has best effect. You have to start achieving a sound with this technique, and there are places on the bass where it just won't happen for you," Mark elaborates.
Players who started with finger-style and are trying out slap style tend to translate their accustomed positions into the new style – and this doesn't always work for the best. Take those "right" and "wrong" positions above – finger-stylists might automatically opt for something near the "wrong" position. Worse still, thinks Mark, is playing with the thumb pointing down and away from you. He's found the best attack and sound comes with the thumb erect, pointing toward him. "It's an idea of sound with this technique," he stresses again. "You can hear the difference, and what works best."
Can you give some advice on playing finger-style, too?
In fact this is a developing area in Mark's playing. He started with slap-style as he'd moved on from drums and it seemed the most logical way to play. He's slowly coming to terms with the hidden intricacies of finger-style playing – using (usually) the first two fingers of the right-hand to pluck the strings, in what you might call "conventional" mode.
Mark tends to play near the bridge for finger-style, where he gets a stronger sound because he finds the strings are "tighter" here, compared to their relative "looseness" nearer the pickups and fingerboard. "Your fingers can really bounce around there," he says, although you can of course move the position around when you need a softer, less honky tone. Marks rests his thumb on the top of the back pickup of his Jaydee when playing finger-style (he's had to stick an old Rizla packet on top of the pickup "because it's wearing away"), but you'll need to find the most comfortable position for your style. "A good idea is to listen to flamenco guitarists like Paco de Lucia if you want to develop your finger-style, they know how to get their right-hand fingers into gear, flying around like you wouldn't believe." Lastly, make sure you're not being limited by your instrument. "Get a playable bass," he stresses.
Is there any point trying to play chords on bass?
Mark certainly thinks so, and keenly integrates two-, three- and sometimes four-note chords into his lines and progressions. "Invariably, our tunes start from bass lines. I do tend to think in patterns, everyone suffers from that. It's a problem, in that you tend to play what you know. I tend not to stick to a root in a line; I like lines that move about a lot, around the fingerboard. But I find that chords can be useful to vary the sound."
Above are a couple of examples of simple shapes that Mark uses, but he says that you should try your own and, again, use whatever strikes you as good, or right, or even both. "Chordal playing has actually been ignored by a lot of bass players," he reckons. "But chords can be very impressive when you want power bashing out. And, more subtly, you can really start to play around with the harmonies within your own instrument when you begin experimenting with chords." You can vary the way you sound the chord by combining the different right-hand techniques already discussed, adding a kind of flamenco "flick" for particularly emphatic moments. Mark often combines chordal range with the extra tonalities offered by harmonics (see next item), using harmonic roots and placing chords around and about them (or vice versa) to suit the piece in question. Try it.
How do you play harmonics, and what use are they?
According to Mark, harmonics can be found all over the bass. There are two main methods he uses to play harmonics: for the first and well-known method, a left-hand finger is placed over a harmonic point on the fingerboard and pulled away from the string as it is sounded.
The other method is shown above (left). Mark explains: "Lay the tip of your index finger on a harmonic point, and then pluck with your thumb behind the finger." The finger tip should be 12 frets above the note on the fingerboard of which you need the harmonic, although Mark finds it "not that important" to keep rigidly to that distance. In fact his right hand barely seems to move when he's playing a harmonic piece in this fashion.
Another helpful trick to use with harmonics is to let the harmonic ring, and then bend the string behind the nut to alter its pitch. You need a reasonable distance between string and headstock to get much pitchbend: "I tend to wind my strings high on the machine head shaft to give as much leverage as possible. You can bend a long way on my Jaydee." Mark also has the benefit on that instrument of a twin ballbearing "roller" nut, so that a string will not stick in the nut after you've bent it. "The string just slides off the perfectly round surfaces – wonderful idea."
What difference do string gauges make?
"String gauges are very much a personal thing," says Mark, "but there are overall advantages and disadvantages. With the G-string, for example, I couldn't bend a 45 like I can bend my 30," which you can see clearly demonstrated above.
But he finds light strings infinitely more playable, more bendable, and with more attack for his style. Superwound are now actually marketing as a set the strange gauges he mixes (30/50/70/90), such is his influence. "That seems to have taken off," he nods. "A 45-105 set is just too heavy for me: mine can be a bit rattly down the bottom, but they open up many more doors."
And what about the effect of all this on your hands? Mark now gaffer-tapes up his thumb for live work, having had it split a few times and threaten gig schedules by its refusal to heal. "For other fingers, keep playing." Forget old wives' tales about soaking the finger tips in surgical spirit or vinegar, but don't let your hands soak for long periods when you're taking a bath. "That's terrible for them. But old mother nature will take care of you eventually. Just play. Often. They'll harden."
So, as the Level 42 rehearsal finally gets underway, one last tip from Mark, and a final reflection. If you want the bass to reach the back of the hall, even on small-ish gigs, try mixing in a subtle, close-up delay at the amp, less than 10mS. "It cuts it right to the back of the hall," grins Mark. And then reflects, on cue: "The bass is a very playable instrument. I don't know why people don't play it more." So, let's show him...
Interview by Tony Bacon
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