In order to achieve groove, you have to play smooth. The smoothest form of playing is legato. Even the name itself sounds smooth, and rolls right off the tongue. The problem is, legato on bass guitar takes a ton of finger strength.
Legato consists of two things; a hammer on, and a pull off. So what are they?
Hammer ons and pull offs are fretting hand techniques. This means they don’t involve your picking hand at all.
Hammer ons are achieved by playing a note on the guitar, and simply pressing onto your next desired note with enough force to make picking that note unnecessary. A pull off is the reverse hammer on; it is achieved by playing a note and simply pulling your finger off to the next note without picking. Bass legato is the act of playing a string of notes without picking.
The technique itself is extremely simple and easy, but because bass strings are so thickly gauged, hammer ons and pull offs can be quite difficult. This means the entire battle will consist of building adequate finger strength.
The safest way to build finger strength is to practice. Try picking an open note on your bass, preferably on the thickest string, which for four stringer will be E, and five stringer will be B. Allowing the open note to ring out, try fretting your middle finger onto the fifth fret of the string.
You may get a buzzy, fuzzy note, but that’s okay; this is why it is necessary to build finger strength. Because you played the fifth fret note, A, without picking, you performed a hammer. The best way to build strength is by starting off just like that; hammering on open notes.
These are usually the hardest hammer ons, which require the most amount of force from your fingers because the string isn’t already depressed. This is why it is the best place to learn though, as it will help build foundational strength for longer legato runs.
Once you find it easy to perform a single note hammer on, the next step will be a simple hammer on to pull off. Once again play an open E, and once more hammer on the fifth fret to A, but this time, instead of holding on to the note, release it once more.
This is a legato technique, because it involves simultaneous, fluid notes without plucking or picking, thus causing them to flow into one another without any rests between. Once your fingers are used to this motion and you have enough strength, try hammering on and pulling off the notes for a continuous amount of time. This is a legato run.
To further build finger strength, play a chromatic scale starting on the first fret of your E string. Without picking, play all of the notes, one by one, all the way up to the forth fret. When you reach it, slowly return to the first fret, letting your fretting hand do all of the work.
If you find this technique becoming increasingly easy, you are on the road to mastering hammer ons and pull offs. The final step is application of the technique. Try using hammer ons and pull offs within the context of some of your favorite licks. You will come to notice that they sound smoother and have a better groove.
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