To read music in general we must understand first the standard music
notation system, of course. 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 player 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. The complexity of the task, however, doesn't seem to
get us to the subconcious required reflexes.
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 problem in
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, though in reality it might be nothing but the
idealization of an unsuccesfully conquered professional area. Meanwhile, it
is a well paying secrete which usually we believe will be revealed to us if
going to the right schools and pros.
"...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 them, the amount of theoretical fingering choices being
overwhelming: 80 locations on a Fender's neck where to put a finger!
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 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. 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
Please, then, 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) that
would work solidly in every case, and avoid passing this problem on to the
next generation of players over and over.
Xavier Padilla is a bass player with more than 20 years of international experience as a composer, arranger, and performer.