On the double bass, slap bass refers to a percussive style of playing used in rockabilly and psychobilly in which the strings are pulled away from the fingerboard until they snap back onto the fingerboard and slapped against the fingerboard.
With the electric bass, slap and pop playing is used in disco, funk, and related genres. It involves slapping the lower two strings with the bony part of the thumb and popping notes on the higher two strings by pulling the string until it snaps against the fingerboard, producing a percussive sound.
On double bass it refers to the technique that is a more vigorous version of pizzicato, where the string is plucked so hard that when released it bounces off the finger board, making a distinctive sound. A percussive sound can also made by smacking the strings with some or all of the fingers on the right hand in between the notes of a bassline, usually in time with the snare drum.
Slapping the bass is a technique used by many bands since at least the 1920s; it came into popular use in the 1940s. Slap bass provides a strong downbeat when the string is plucked and a strong back beat when it slaps back onto the fingerboard of the bass. It creates a very percussive sound and adds a lot of drive that is particularly good for dance music.
Yet another explanation is that snapping the strings against the wood of the instrument supplies a crisp, intense sound which can supply the foundation of a dance band. Slap bass was used by Western Swing and Hillbilly Boogie musicians, and became an important component of an early form of rock and roll that combined blues and what was then called hillbilly music—a musical style now referred to as rockabilly. The technique inspired the George and Ira Gershwin song "Slap That Bass".
Slap bass continues to be used in the 21st century, as it is widely used by modern rockabilly and psychobilly band bassists, including Kim Nekroman (Nekromantix), Geoff Kresge (Tiger Army), Scott Owen (The Living End) and Jimbo Wallace (The Reverend Horton Heat). Kresge's rapid slapping ability is all the more remarkable given that for much of his career he was an electric bassist. The top rockabilly and psychobilly bassists have developed the ability to perform rapid triplet slaps at the same time as they play a walking bassline. This video shows German rockabilly bassist Didi Beck performing a virtuosic slapping technique.
On bass guitar, slapping usually refers to a percussive playing technique most commonly used in funk, disco, soul, jazz, Latin, pop, and many other genres. The style sounds much more percussive than regular plucking of notes with the soft part of the plucking han fingers, and is also usually louder (although on an electric instrument, the volume can be adjusted with the volume knob or through compression) and more distinct than the sound of a bass guitar played with the usual plucking techniques.
The slap sound comes from the combination of two elements: slapping, which involves striking the string with the side of the bony joint in the middle of the thumb, a harder surface than the pads of the fingers (used in plucked fingering); and intentionally allowing the vibrating string to come into contact with the metal frets, producing a "toney" or buzzing sound that is normally avoided in plucked/fingered bass.
In the slap technique, the bassist replaces the usual plucking motion of the index and middle fingers with "slaps" and "pops". In the slap, the bassist uses the thumb to strike the strings (usually the lower E and A strings) near the base of the guitar's neck. In the pop, the bassist will use the index or middle finger of the plucking hand to snap the strings (usually the higher D and G strings) away from the body of the bass, causing them to bounce off the fretboard; this produces a prominent buzzing tone with a sharp attack and more high-frequency vibrations than present in plucked bass.
The bassist can play many notes quickly by rotating the forearm, alternately slapping and popping: during the pop, the hand moves away from the fretboard, "winding up" or getting in position for the next slap. The slap and pop techniques are commonly used with pull-offs and hammer-ons with the fretting (usually left) hand, to further increase the rate at which notes may be played. Ghost notes, or notes played with the string damped, are also commonly played in slap bass to increase the percussive feel of the technique.
The invention of slap on electric bass guitar is generally credited to funk bassists Larry Graham and Louis Johnson. Graham has stated in several interviews that he was trying to emulate the sound of a drum set before his band had found its drummer. Graham himself refers to the technique as Thumpin' and Pluckin'.
Selected slap bass players
Some prominent bass guitar players known for their use of slapping in their playing include:
- Les Claypool (solo artist, Primus)
- Bootsy Collins (solo artist; Bootsy's Rubber Band, Funkadelic, Parliament, Praxis)
- Fieldy (Korn)
- Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
- Mike Gordon (Phish)
- Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station)
- Louis Johnson (The Brothers Johnson, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson)
- Mark King (Level 42)
- Marcus Miller (solo artist, Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Luther Vandross)
- Khaled 'Bassbaba' Sumon (Aurthohin)
- Tetsuya (L'Arc-en-Ciel)
- Jayen Varma (solo artist)
There are numerous variants of the slapping technique. Some bassists use other fingers of the strumming hand to achieve this sound, such as bassist Abraham Laboriel, Sr., who uses his thumb to pop the strings, and his other four fingers to slap the strings. Bassist Victor Wooten uses a double thump technique which is like a slap, but utilizes both sides of the thumb for all the strings, fast enough to produce the equivalent of a drumroll on the bass guitar.
Funk fingers invented by progressive rock bass player Tony Levin create a similar sound by using a hard surface to strike the strings and intentionally cause string contact with the fretboard. Spank bass developed from the slap and pop style and treats the electric bass as a percussion instrument, striking the strings above the pickups with an open palmed hand.
The slap technique bears some resemblance to tambour, a percussive technique used in flamenco and classical guitar, although the tonal quality produced in this technique is quite different from that of a slapped electric bass.
Use in television and films
- The theme song for the television sitcom Seinfeld utilizes slap bass keyboard samples. A sample was also played in between scenes in each episode, often punctuating a scene or highlighting a punchline.
- The slap bass technique is used for the instrumental for theme song of the Nickelodeon show Kenan and Kel
- The 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall parodies Seinfeld's usage when the main character Peter (played by Jason Segel), who produces music for a TV series, inserts a goofy slap bass sample into a dramatic scene where "dark and ominous" music was needed.
- The original 1987-1994 run of the British children's series Fireman Sam uses slap bass in the theme song.
- In television sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris", a slap bass sample of Marcus Miller is used in between scenes in each episode, often punctuating a scene or highlighting a punchline.
- The theme song for the television sitcom ALF features a slap bass.
- In the popular British series The Mighty Boosh, the recurring character "The Hitcher" utilises his large thumb for playing slap bass.
- The 1990s sitcom Martin features slap bass riffs as well as many sitcoms of that period with soul, funk-oriented theme songs.
- A joke in the 2009 film I Love You, Man is the main character's enthusiasm for slap bass.
- Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. Cary Ginell. 1994. University of Illinois Press. page 252. ISBN 0-252-02041-3 see also: The Jazz Book.Double Bass Hill. 1975. p 278-84; The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz House. 1974. p 923-24
- Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. Cary Ginell. 1994. University of Illinois Press. page 252. ISBN 0-252-02041-3 see also: The Jazz Book. Hill. 1975. p 278-84; The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz House. 1974. p 923-24
- text from Experience Music Project in Seattle, WA
- "Larry Graham: Trunk of the Funk Tree", Bass Player magazine, April 2007
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