Note-Reading Fingering System for Electric Bass

To read music, of course, we must understand first the standard music notation system. But to read music with an instrument it is required to know, in addition, the particular fingering system of that instrument. That means that reading with an instrument is a more complex task, for it supposes the good combination of these two independent systems. While one is related to the eyes and the other to the hands, in the end both are nothing but conventions that need to be learned separatedly first, as each contains lots of specific information on its very own.

It is a general belief, though, that written music teaches the pla

yer along how to finger any instrument, taking for granted that sight-reading notes from the staff would lead our hands automatically to the right places. Unfortunately, this can only be effective for instruments whose "closed physical structures" produce what is called "fixed fingering systems", as in the case of saxophones and trumpets. These instruments simplify enormously the inmediate fingering of first-time seen material - and therefore the conversion of new music into live phenomena - because all the notes they read find strictly "non-flexible" correspondencies on their bodies, every pitch disposing of just an exclusive physical place on them.

The electric bass, on the contrary, being an instrument widely characterized for allowing many fingerings - and places of the fingerboard - to a single note, prompts instead the player to continuously choose where and how the information is going to be handled. Its "open physical structure", in itself a precious inherent flexible condition that favours the freedom to personalize our playing, turns suddenly into an obstacle: the paradoxal condition of been limitated
by having so much to choose from.

In a sight-reading situation, knowing where all the notes are on the neck not necessarily means to know how (that is, an exclusive or prioritary way) to finger them immediately. The electric bass fingerboard presents, in fact, too many wheres,
and therefore too many hows.

(Not only that it has many "wheres" for almost each note, but that each "where" doesn't contain exclusive "hows". Prioritary hows, in turn, are only possible if two or more wheres are related as previously prioritary wheres!)

If we didn't have always that many options at hand while in a sight-reading situation, the mission of finding instantly related fingerings on the bass wouldn't, as it does, consist on an obvious display of choosy mental efforts. We would instead focus better on interpretation and follow more confinedly the part.

A comparative regard upon the greatest variety of musicians shows that sight-reading with an instrument is a task generally best covered by instrumentalists other than electric bass players. Whereas for most instruments "where" and "how" mean more or less the same thing, on the electric bass these words can be so particularly dissociated that some diligent (but too courteous maybe) professional rules, like giving the bass players the parts before anyone else, are sometimes fully justified. Definitely we need an alternative method (a system) to show us how to finger on
the electric bass any written part instantly!

Too often we tend to think that the solution lies outside our instrument. Incidentally, the general qualified advice of teachers and professionals is to strive for improving our ability on what actually are only "page matters", i.e. the half of the story: "train hard yourself on sight recognition for pitchs, intervals and rhythms; get a degree of efficiency at absorbing musical contents through the standard notation system". It is presumed implicitly that by doing so the relative "instrument matters"
would fall along into place.

From those qualified, official recomendations, the aspiring bassist infers that reading much ahead on the staff is what it's all about, a "gain-time" solution that really works against the abundant fingering choices always available. But that's a deviation, a misleading omission which unfortunatly most educators and players have been insisting on for decades, disregarding the essential open structure of the electric bass as a real potentional problem in sight-reading.

The topic of fingerboard employment has been usually smoothed out behind the obscure nomination "reading skills", aluding to those mysterious capabilities that all experienced players are suposed to have but not one finally breaks down into a system for others (sometimes under the excuse that "what works for me not necessarily works for you"). A doubtful, anyway, proprietary circunstance which evokes top clearences to sacred places, self spreading mistifications, etc., although in reality it might be nothing but the idealization of an unsuccesfully conquered professional area. Meanwhile, it is a well paying secrete for some, which usually we believe will be revealed it to us if going to their schools.

"...let us hope it isn't made up of just tricks..."

The problem lies decidely not in the page. Our bass neck have a totally variable structure which does not tell alone the player an exclusive way to approach it, the amount of theoretical fingering choices being overwhelming: 80 locations on a Fender's neck where to put a finger -almost as many as the piano- for just 36 pitchs !

At the same time, there are mostly 5 different possible fingerings (if we use a standard position of one finger per-fret and occasionally extend one onto a fifth fret) for each of these 80 finger-places. That makes about 400 fingerings in all (5 x 80), to which it must be added the fact that multiple locations do exist on the fingerboard for almost every single pitch to be found on the staff. This, again, is an enormous exponential increment of fingerings to choose from, which can only further complicate -potentionally- reading. It tell us that out of all 36 pitchs actually contained on a typical Fender, 6 are located simultaneously in 4 different places of the fingerboard, 10 found in 3 different places, other 10 in 2 places and only a small remainder of 10 pitches located each in one exclusive place of the neck!

On the "fixed" structure of other instruments either do not exist multiple pitch locations, or these are contained in much smaller quantities. A saxophone or a trumpet, for example, only very exeptionally allows more than one fingering for playing a pitch: generally just 3 notes can be played differently within the saxophone's full extention, and there are only about 6 of the same sort in the trumpet's (against 74 alternative fingerings -out of 26 multi-location pitches- on our bass!).

On the other side, while those wind instruments allow the player to "assume" the music that's being played from a steady physical base, the electric bass player is obliged to move constantly in search of a place (position) on the neck where to finger the notes. The best way to move accordingly, says the common belief, is by looking for keys in the music as to quickly define positions and fingerings ("key positions"). This also supposes to reduce the amount of alternative fingerings to choose from along the course of a piece. Nevertheless, this key dependency presumes that players would always be conscious about the current key, which in reality is not so. Instrumentalists aren't always informed of the key by the page, nor the notation system is intended to count on their ears. Even sometimes there are not tonalities at all in a tune (atonal music) to provide key positions or sugest
any of our eventually well learned modes.

Let us be clear, electric bass players have tried for years to get away with what they've got, developing fast and complicated shops that rely exclusively on their capabilities for looking much ahead into the page (a skill they'll try to develop not just in order to avoid been surprised by tricky lines, but to quickly figure out fingerings for upcomming written passages -which already shows a double responsability). Subsequently, they would be constantly turning back their eyes rapidly into the fingerboard as to perform imperative shifts without failure, but then getting to finally watch the conductor (if there is any) only in their dreams!

The eye-to-page effectiveness is in obvious contradiction with the eye-to-neck dependency.

Of course, we are not talking here about being able to read common patterns, clichés, familiar styles of music, nor about the limited and discriminating staff that's usually given to the average reading bassist in professional contexts, but about being able toread "whatever", a Bach sonata, a Zappa excerpt, long melodies, the kind of material the a trumpet player is given...

Dear collegues of the bass community, the electric bass has already achieved a subtantial ammount of technical inventions in its relative short live, but let us get to work and find once and for all a solution to this dilema (one that would work for all of us). The books we own don't have it. The one we are looking for hasn't been written yet. So let us find a fixed fingering system (which I believe to be the apropriate kind of system to address this problem, since the "fixed" principle is what allows other instruments to read more effectively), a kind of complementary technique that would work solidly in every case, and avoid passing this problem on to the next generation of players over and over. Is that invention impossible?