Thumpin’ and pluckin’: The story of slap bass, told through 10 of the best players
19.04.2021

Thumpin’ and pluckin’: The story of slap bass, told through 10 of the best players

Words by Will Brewster

From Larry Graham to Les Claypool, discover the technique of ten slap bass greats.

Every instrument has its own technical tropes and in-jokes that players like to poke fun at.

For instance, guitarists have flashy two-handed tapping and Floyd Rose dive-bombs to neg against; for drummers, it’s double-kicks and gongs, and for horn players, there’s no musical in-joke that’s prevailed longer than the ubiquitous ‘lick’.

While bassists are prone to copping the brunt of musical jokes from their compatriots as it stands already, there’s one popular playing style pertaining to the instrument that many like to rag upon more than anything else: slap bass.

Summary

  • Despite being easy to poke fun at, slapping is a versatile and enduring playing style that’s wedged itself firmly within popular musical culture.
  • After being developed by double bassists,  players like Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins refined the technique to revolutionise the role of the bass in a rhythm section in the ’60s and ’70s.
  • Bassists such as Marcus Miller, Flea, Victor Wooten and Mark King have been credited for popularising the technique among players further into the ’80s and ’90s.

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While being inherently linked to four-string funk pioneers such as Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic, the style of slapping – achieved via striking, or ‘slapping’, a string with the outside of the thumb – was originated by double bassists performing in jazz groups in New Orleans in the early 20th century, with players such as Bill Johnson, Pops Foster and Chester Zardis implementing the percussive technique to achieve extra volume and dynamic with their playing and cut through the rest of the ensemble.

As the influence of jazz began to grow and mutate around America in the ’40s and ’50s, slapping became more and more prevalent among double bassists, who employed it strategically throughout styles such as swing, rockabilly and early rock ‘n role. One particularly notable proponent of the style within rock music in the ’50s is none other than Elvis Presley’s bassist Bill Black, who can be heard utilising a thumb-heavy slap style in songs such as ‘Mystery Train’ from 1955.

However, it wasn’t until the emergence and refining of styles such soul, funk, jazz-fusion and disco in the ’60s and ’70s where slap bass as we know it to be today really began to embed itself as a popular playing technique.

By this stage, players had also begun to complement their top-string slapping with a a percussive ‘popping’ technique with their index or middle finger, essentially mirroring the pattern of the kick and snare and making for a down-heavy groove that proved to be integral to these styles.

While its awkward place within pop culture can perhaps be credited to its prevalence as a punchline or segue tool in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Everybody Hates Chris, there’s perhaps another key reason as to why slapping is the in-joke of bassists around the globe – and it all comes down to quality control.

At the end of the day, there’s simply just more examples of bad slap bass playing on record than there are good. For every great slap bass line found on a hidden jazz-fusion gem of the ’70s, there’s about five awfully produced nu-metal or alt-rock tracks with an obnoxious slap lead ready to match it, inevitably tainting the reputation of the technique in the eyes and ears of experienced players.

Nevertheless, learning how to slap is still a vital part of any bassist’s educational journey, and as such, it’s crucial that you hear the cream of the crop as opposed to the style’s most vile examples within popular music.

Below, we dive into the slap technique of ten noteworthy bassists from history to dissect the evolution of the style over the 20th century and how it’s perceived today.

Larry Graham

Very few – if any – other bassists can stake claim to developing slap bass more than Larry Graham. A key member of pivotal ’60s act Sly and the Family Stone during their golden era, Graham’s take on slap bass – referred to personally as “thumpin’ and pluckin'” – initially came about as a means of compensating for playing without a drummer, emulating the rhythm of the kick and snare to create a percussive groove on his electric bass.

Perhaps most famously employed on Sly Stone’s irresistibly funky 1970 single ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)’, Graham would later showcase his technical nous with the style on Graham Central Station tracks such as ‘Hair’, ‘Can You Handle It?’ and ‘The Jam’, where he used complex rhythms and strategic ghost notes to take the technique to a whole new level altogether.

Later on in his career, Graham would work heavily alongside fellow funk icon Prince, who is also a strikingly good proponent of slap bass in his own right. He’s also the uncle of Canada’s own rap mega-star Drake – make of that what you will.

Bootsy Collins

One of funk’s most prominent ambassadors, Bootsy Collins is a bona fide legend of the bass guitar.

After cutting his teeth alongside James Brown’s live ensemble The J.B.s and playing on cuts like ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ and ‘Soul Power’ in the early ’70s, Collins was recruited by George Clinton to join his vast Parliament-Funkadelic empire in 1972, with the collective’s Afrofuturist aesthetic and psychedelic sound allowing for Collins to develop his chops and assert himself as one of the instrument’s all-time greats.

Stylistically, Bootsy employed a slap technique not too dissimilar to that of Larry Graham’s, slapping on the all-important ‘One’ and following through with strategic pops to provide upper-mid embellishments, with an envelope filter effect often being added to inject some extra-squelchy emphasis – as heard on one of his most popular tracks with Bootsy’s Rubber Band, ‘Stretchin’ Out’.

Stanley Clarke

Widely celebrating for revitalising the role of the bass guitar within jazz music in the 1970s, Stanley Clarke helped to bring jazz-fusion to the masses in the ’70s alongside fellow greats Chick Corea and Steve Gadd in Return to Forever.

Favouring a short-scale Alembic bass in the studio and onstage, Clarke became acclaimed for his intuitive use of strummed chords, string bends, slapping and ghost notes to make his mark on the scene, and the speed of his two-finger plucking technique is rivalled by none.

Perhaps the most renowned example of Clarke’s slap and strum technique in action is on 1974’s ‘Lopsy Lu’, where he demonstrates his uncanny four-string dexterity across a sauntering 6/8 groove with sublime precision and feel.

Louis Johnson

You’d be setting yourself up to receive a summons from the funk police if you brought up slap bass and failed to make mention of Louis Johnson. The man is so synonymous with slapping the bass that his nickname among session players was ‘Thunder-Thumbs’, and his frequent use of the Music Man StingRay to perform his rapid, mid-heavy basslines helped to popularise the instrument as a go-to tool for funk and soul bassists.

Although he achieved considerable acclaim as part of the Brothers Johnson, it was within the studio with other artists where Louis Johnson’s slap technique really came to the forefront, with the sheer accuracy, tonal definition and groove of his playing making him one of the most in-demand session bassists of the ’70s and ’80s.

Johnson’s playing made keynote appearances on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller – including the disco romp of ‘Get On The Floor’ and the smash-hit single ‘Billie Jean’ – as well as George Benson’s Give Me The Night and Michael McDonald’s yacht-rock standard ‘I Keep Forgettin’,’ and led him into sessions with other iconic names such as Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin and Herbie Hancock.

Marcus Miller

One of the biggest criticisms attached to slap bass is the tendency for players to mitigate groove in favour of speed or technique – something that should be considered a big no-no in the playbook of any funk bassist.

A perfect case study of how to avoid falling into this trap can be found in the playing of session legend Marcus Miller, who shot to fame in the 1980s after playing on records for the likes of Miles Davis, Luther Vandross and smooth jazz trailblazer Grover Washington Jr.

While Miller is certainly capable of playing a flurry of slapped notes at lightning pace, it’s his tasteful approach to groove and melody that really helps discern him from being another speedy slap junkie – one such example being on his insatiable solo cut ‘Power’.

However, for a truly great showcase of Miller’s slap style at its best, you can’t go past Luther Vandross’s ‘Never Too Much’: it’s a textbook lesson on how to play slap without making it overpowering in the mix, and still holds up as one of the best grooves of the ’80s.

Doug Wimbish

A sorely underrated player best known for his work with funk-metal pioneers Living Colour, Doug Wimbish is absolutely vital within the story of slap bass.

His playing formed the funky backbeat of some of the earliest songs in hip-hop history – think Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, ‘White Lines’ and Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Apache – and his playing has made it onto records from artists as varied as the Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, Annie Lennox and James Brown.

As well as being renowned for bringing Spector basses to the masses, Wimbish is revered in the bass world for his unique ‘Flamenco Slap’ technique, which draws influence from the Spanish fingerstyle method of rasgueado. 

He’s also a masterful use of effects pedals, which he often uses in conjunction with his slap style to make for some of the most bizarre bass tones you’re ever likely to hear on record.

Mark King

As the low-end custodian of British new wave act Level 42, Mark King brought slap bass to the pointy ends of the charts all over the world in the ’80s with hits like ‘Running In The Family’ and ‘Something About You’.

Initially drawing inspiration from funk purveyors such as Larry Graham and Louis Johnson, King would make a name for himself as a bassist through his penchant for precise sixteenth-note slap sequences and an intelligent use of ghost notes – all while singing lead vocals – to earn the respect of bassists around the globe.

While his lightning fast slap-and-pop runs do tend to err towards flashy instead of funky on numerous occasion, King has still shown time and time again that he’s one of the greatest identities linked to slap bass, and when it comes to technique and finesse, there’s no denying he’s in a total league of his own.

Flea

Depending on who you ask, Flea is either the greatest thing that ever happened to slap bass, or the absolute worst – no in-betweens.

As the shirtless, slap-happy bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Australian-born artist brought a unique, high-energy approach to slapping-and-popping to the group’s brand of funk-infused alternative rock, with his playing on early Chili Peppers records like 1985’s Freaky Styley and their metal-inflected 1989 Mother’s Milk – featuring their commercial breakthrough ‘Higher Ground’, a furious slap-heavy cover of the Stevie Wonder classic – being key examples of his frenetic approach to slapping-and-popping.

However, Flea’s lightning fast approach to slap bass ultimately proved to work against him as the Chili Peppers began to achieve worldwide popularitywith his technique being regurgitated by bassists in countless other alternative acts of the ’90s to result in some of the most tepid alt-rock and nu-metal basslines of the era.

Despite this, Flea has managed to incorporate slapping into subsequent releases in a much more tactile, groove-oriented manner to considerable acclaim. Songs such as ‘Aeroplane’, ‘Can’t Stop’ and ‘Dark Necessities’ are all seminal examples of his slapping done tastefully, while other slap-free songs such as the ridiculously groovy ‘Mellowship Slinky in B Major’ and the melodic tones of ‘Soul To Squeeze’ being among his best works.

Les Claypool

Although it’d be easy to lump Les Claypool within the same boat that Flea unwittingly found himself on in the ’90s as slap bass began to sweep back into mainstream consciousness, in reality, the technique exemplified by both players couldn’t be any more different.

The Primus frontman’s approach to bass guitar is simply unparalleled: his use of tapping, slapping, whammy bar acrobatics and strumming puts him in a whole different playing field, with tracks like ‘Jerry Was A Race Car Driver’ even seeing him unleash his tapping chops on a fretless six-string bass to mind-boggling effect.

Perhaps the sheer absurdity of Primus’ discography has hindered Claypool’s virtuosic slap bass style from resonating with mainstream audiences, but some would even argue that that’s a good thing. Listen to to his furious, hopped-up playing on 1991’s ‘Tommy The Cat’ for a quintessential specimen of his slap technique, and pay good attention to just how much is actually going on in the back of your headphones. Definitely worthy of a deep dive.

Victor Wooten

He mightn’t have appeared on as many iconic records as some of his contemporaries, but it’s probably safe to dub Victor Wooten as one of the most technically gifted slap bassists of the modern era.

He’s revered for his uncanny double thumb slap and tap technique and an uncanny knack for balancing groove and virtuosity, which is best demonstrated throughout his own fusion supergroup Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and can be heard across albums from the likes of Bootsy Collins, Tommy Emmanuel and more.

A keen educator, constant student of the groove and one of the most vibrant personalities within the school of funk-fusion, Wooten’s legacy only continues to prosper through his tendency to go viral online with jaw-dropping renditions of tracks he’s appeared on, as well as classic covers of songs like ‘Beat It’ and ‘Isn’t She Lovely’.

When Wooten plays, everybody listens – that much is a given.

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