How to Play a Running Bass Line on a Finger-Style Guitar

Written by carlos mano
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How to Play a Running Bass Line on a Finger-Style Guitar
Complex guitar music usually requires playing with all the fingers. (The man playing the guitar image by Nadezda Kraft from

One of the advantages of playing the guitar finger style (instead of with a pick) is that you can play more complex music. Finger-style guitar is the standard for complex styles like flamenco, classical, some jazz, samba and bluegrass. Typically, finger-style guitar means activating the three bass strings with the thumb and the three treble strings with the four fingers--but this is not always the case.

Skill level:

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  1. 1

    Start thinking of your right hand as two separate things--the thumb plays the baseline and the fingers play everything else. It is helpful to think of your right hand as playing two parts--like the two hands on the piano. Boogie-woogie or roadhouse piano consists of a walking bass played by the left hand while the right hand plays the melody. This is exactly the effect you want when you play finger-style guitar with a walking bass. Often--especially in jazz and bluegrass--the baseline "walks" through the notes of the chord in the harmony. In classical and flamenco, the baseline is sometimes counterpoint to what is happening in the melody line.

  2. 2

    Learn (or create) the bass line first--this is what piano players do. Then learn (or create) the melody attached to the firm foundation of the bass. A walking bass is a series of bass notes that take small steps up or down the scale--reversing directions at key points in the composition. Simpler bass lines hit the tonic or sub-dominate of the harmony chord on the first beat of a measure. One of the main reasons for playing finger style is so you can separate the base and the melody and make a guitar sound more like a piano--while retaining the rich playful tone of the guitar.

  3. 3

    Learn how to backthumb. This is a technique that originated in flamenco that has spread to other guitar finger styles--especially classical and bluegrass. The usual way for the right thumb to strike a bass string is to push it toward the high strings and release it. Backthumbing involves activating the string in the other direction--pushing the string toward the guitarist's head and releasing it. This takes a little practice but it can greatly increase the speed and accuracy of walking bass lines and you will not have to keep moving your thumb to the top of the target string--you can strike it from either direction. Playing walking bass lines means hitting several notes on the same string and backthumbing makes this a lot easier.

Tips and warnings

  • Practice the scale (on the bass strings) you are going to be playing in until it is very easy. Then you can think of the walking bass line in terms of when it deviates from the scale. This will make it easier to play and easer to memorise.
  • You cannot do backthumbing if you are wearing finger picks. This is a very good reason not to wear finger picks. None of the great classical or flamenco guitarists wear them.

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