by David Hamburger
Monotonic bass fingerpicking is a solo guitarist’s technique for improvising blues in a down-home, back-porch vein. By playing bass with your thumb and picking out a few funky single-note licks with your fingers, you can hold your own all-night blues jam without ever getting up off the couch.
This lesson will give you a chance to learn a little Greek and pick up some new self-accompanying blues guitar licks at the same time. Monotonic basically means “single note” (mono means single, as in monocle or monopoly, and tonic means note), so a monotonic bass is a single-note or drone bass. As a way to sit and pick by yourself, it’s ideal. Your thumb can just thump away on a single string, keeping a groove going and staying out of the way, while your fingers dance around on the upper strings playing a melody. Texas bluesmen Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins were two of the better-known exponents of this style, but if you’re willing to spend a little time getting your groove together, you can be, too, no matter where you live.
Begin with the Bass
Start with just the bass. Everything in this lesson is going to be played in dropped-D tuning, so get rolling with a steady quarter-note groove on a low D note (Ex. 1). If you want, you can try muting the bass notes with your right hand to get a thumpier sound (see “Palm Muting”).
Since all groove and no licks is some kind of violation of the guitarists’ intergalactic code, it’s important to get your fingers working. First, play a descending D blues scale with your fingers while your thumb keeps the bass going (Ex. 2). Every time you pick the low string with your thumb, you’ll also pick a note on the upper strings with one of your fingers. This kind of move is called a pinch. Example 2 is a series of pinches, all played with the same rhythm.
Play Melody Notes with or After the Bass
Now for a little syncopation, or jostling of the rhythm. In Ex. 3, every pinch is followed by a single note played on the upper strings, which is followed in turn by a single bass note. Syncopations are what make monotonic-bass blues guitar interesting, and if you can keep the bass going in a steady quarter-note drone, all you have to remember is that every melody note is either with the bass or after the bass—either a pinch with a bass note or a single note following a bass note.
When you go to another chord, you’ll need to grab a new bass note to drone on. The next chord in a standard D blues progression is G7, but dropped-D tuning makes a low G hard to reach, so we’ll play the third of the chord instead, B, which is the second fret of the fifth (A) string. This chord is notated as G7/B and is pronounced “G7 over B.” Practice droning on the B note with your thumb, then try Ex. 4. The first bass note is played by itself. The second and third bass notes are pinches with the melody notes on top. The second pinch is followed by a single melody note, which is in turn followed by a single bass note.
Add Walkups Between Chords
In Ex. 5 the same lick is played in both measures, but in measure 2 the lick occurs a beat earlier than in measure 1, which means that the first pinch comes with the first bass note of the measure. The bass line changes on the last two beats of the measure, creating a walkup, a moving bass line that leads into the next chord, in this case a G7/B, since we’re going to repeat these two measures. Once you can groove away on D and G7, practice switching chords while keeping your thumb going. Ex. 6 can be repeated in a loop to work on this kind of coordination.
The classic 12-bar blues progression includes three chords: the I, IV, and V chords of whatever key you’re in. In the key of D, those chords are D, G, and A. Ex. 7 shows a chord-based A7 lick you can play over a monotonic bass on the open A (fifth) string. Before playing a whole tune, you might want to spend a little time practicing the switch between D and A by looping Ex. 8.
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Now it’s time to play the blues. “Blue and Monotonic” is a 24-bar blues in D that incorporates everything you’ve worked on, plus a few variations. The descending phrase in measure 2 is just a slightly syncopated version of the D blues scale, while the up-the-neck double-stop lick in measure 3 is a classic blues guitar figure. The G7 licks in measures 9–12 and the A7 licks in measures 17–18 have only one or two more notes than the ones you’ve already played. If you have trouble with any of these licks, take them a measure or two at a time. Figure out which notes are pinches and which notes aren’t, and when you have that measure worked out, move on to the next one.
To get that thump in the bass, try palm muting. Rest the part of your palm that moves when you move your thumb on the bass strings. Slide your hand back until it’s resting right where the strings meet the bridge. Now pick the low string with your thumb. You should hear a dry, woody thump of a note. If you’re getting more thump than note, keep moving your hand toward the bridge.
If you’re getting more note than thump, move your hand back toward the soundhole.