Slap Bass Music Definition Essay

Slapping and popping are ways to produce percussive sounds on a double bass or bass guitar by bouncing strings against the fretboard.

On bass guitar, slap and pop involves striking the strings with the bony part of the thumb or popping notes by pulling a string until it snaps against the fingerboard. It is often used in disco, funk, and other genres.

On the double bass, slapping refers to pulling strings until they snap against the fingerboard in rockabilly and psychobilly.

Double bass[edit]

On double bass it refers to the technique that is a more vigorous version of pizzicato, where the string is plucked so hard that when released it bounces off the finger board, making a distinctive sound. A percussive sound can also made by smacking the strings with some or all of the fingers on the right hand in between the notes of a bassline, usually in time with the snare drum.

The earliest players of this technique in American music include Steve Brown,[1]Bill Johnson, Pops Foster,[1]Wellman Braud, and Chester Zardis.

Slapping the bass is a technique used by many bands since at least the 1920s; it came into popular use in the 1940s. Slap bass provides a strong downbeat when the string is plucked and a strong back beat when it slaps back onto the fingerboard of the bass. It creates a very percussive sound and adds a lot of drive that is particularly good for dance music.[2]

Yet another explanation is that snapping the strings against the wood of the instrument supplies a crisp, intense sound which can supply the foundation of a dance band.[1] Slap bass was used by Western Swing and Hillbilly Boogie musicians. It became an important component of an early form of rock and roll that combined blues and what was then called hillbilly music—a musical style now referred to as rockabilly. Bill Black, who played with Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore was a well-known slap bass player The technique inspired the George and Ira Gershwin song "Slap That Bass".

Slap bass continues to be used in the 21st century, as it is widely used by modern rockabilly and psychobilly band bassists, including Kim Nekroman (Nekromantix), Geoff Kresge (Tiger Army), Scott Owen (The Living End) and Jimbo Wallace (The Reverend Horton Heat). Kresge's rapid slapping ability is all the more remarkable given that for much of his career he was an electric bassist. The top rockabilly and psychobilly bassists have developed the ability to perform rapid triplet slaps at the same time as they play a walking bassline.

Bass guitar[edit]

On bass guitar, slapping usually refers to a percussive playing technique most commonly used in funk, disco, soul, jazz, Latin, pop, and many other genres. The style sounds much more percussive than regular plucking of notes with the soft part of the plucking hands fingers, and is also usually louder (although on an electric instrument, the volume can be adjusted with the volume knob or through compression), brighter, and more distinct than the sound of a bass guitar played with the usual plucking or pick techniques.

The slap sound comes from the combination of two elements: slapping, which involves striking the string with the side of the bony joint in the middle of the thumb, a harder surface than the pads of the fingers (used in plucked fingering); and intentionally allowing the vibrating string to come into contact with the metal frets, producing a "toney" or buzzing sound that is normally avoided in plucked/fingered bass.

In the slap technique, the bassist replaces the usual plucking motion of the index and middle fingers with "slaps" and "pops". In the slap, the bassist uses the thumb to strike the strings (usually the lower E and A strings) near the base of the guitar's neck. In the pop, the bassist will use the index or middle finger of the plucking hand to snap the strings (usually the higher D and G strings) away from the body of the bass, causing them to bounce off the fretboard; this produces a prominent buzzing tone with a sharp attack and more high-frequency vibrations than present in plucked bass.

The bassist can play many notes quickly by rotating the forearm, alternately slapping and popping: during the pop, the hand moves away from the fretboard, "winding up" or getting in position for the next slap. The slap and pop techniques are commonly used with pull-offs and hammer-ons with the fretting (usually left) hand, to further increase the rate at which notes may be played. Ghost notes, or notes played with the string damped, are also commonly played in slap bass to increase the percussive feel of the technique.

The invention of slap on electric bass guitar is generally credited to funk bassists Larry Graham and Louis Johnson.[3] Graham has stated in several interviews that he was trying to emulate the sound of a drum set before his band had found its drummer. Graham himself refers to the technique as "thumpin′ and pluckin′".[3]

Selected slap bass players[edit]

Further information: List of slap bass players (electric bass)

Some prominent bass guitar players known for their use of slapping in their playing include:

  • Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station), credited with inventing the technique for electric bass
  • Les Claypool (solo artist, Primus)
  • Bootsy Collins (solo artist; Bootsy's Rubber Band, Funkadelic, Parliament, Praxis)
  • Fieldy (Korn)
  • Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
  • Mike Gordon (Phish)
  • Robert Trujillo (Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves)
  • Stuart Hamm
  • Louis Johnson (The Brothers Johnson, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson)
  • Mark King (Level 42)
  • Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Stick Men)
  • Marcus Miller (solo artist, Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Luther Vandross)
  • Lee Rocker (Stray Cats)
  • Khaled 'Bassbaba' Sumon (Aurthohin)
  • Jayen Varma
  • Doug Wimbish (Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Living Colour, Mick Jagger)
  • Victor Wooten (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones)
  • The Hot Club of Cowtown (Jake Erwin.)
  • George Anderson (Shakatak)
  • Nathan East (Fourplay, Daft Punk)
  • Mark White (Spin Doctors )
  • Wayman Tisdale
  • Gabriel M. Quinn of Rooners, Pardoner, and Well Hung


There are numerous variants of the slapping technique. Some bassists use other fingers of the strumming hand to achieve this sound, such as bassist Abraham Laboriel, Sr., who uses his thumb to pop the strings, and his other four fingers to slap the strings. Bassist Victor Wooten uses a double thump technique which is like a slap, but utilizes both sides of the thumb for all the strings, fast enough to produce the equivalent of a drumroll on the bass guitar.

Funk fingers invented by progressive rock bass player Tony Levin create a similar sound by using a hard surface to strike the strings and intentionally cause string contact with the fretboard. Spank bass developed from the slap and pop style and treats the electric bass as a percussion instrument, striking the strings above the pickups with an open palmed hand.

The slap technique bears some resemblance to tambour, a percussive technique used in flamenco and classical guitar[citation needed], although the tonal quality produced in this technique is quite different from that of a slapped electric bass. Japanese musician Miyavi is well known for creating a unique slapping style of playing electric guitars.[4]

Use in television and films[edit]

  • The theme song for the television sitcom Seinfeld utilizes slap bass keyboard samples. A sample was also played in between scenes in each episode, often punctuating a scene or highlighting a punchline.
  • The slap bass technique is used for the instrumental for theme song of the Nickelodeon show Kenan and Kel
  • The 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall parodies Seinfeld's usage when the main character Peter (played by Jason Segel), who produces music for a TV series, inserts a goofy slap bass sample into a dramatic scene where "dark and ominous" music was needed.
  • The original 1987-94 run of the British children's series Fireman Sam uses slap bass in the theme song.
  • In television sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, a slap bass sample of Marcus Miller is used in between scenes in each episode, often punctuating a scene or highlighting a punchline.
  • The theme song for the television sitcom ALF features a slap bass.
  • In the popular British series The Mighty Boosh, the recurring character "The Hitcher" utilises his large thumb for playing slap bass.
  • The 1990s sitcom Martin features slap bass riffs as well as many sitcoms of that period with soul, funk-oriented theme songs.
  • A joke in the 2009 film I Love You, Man is the main character's enthusiasm for "slappin da bass".


  1. ^ abcCary Ginell, Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 252. ISBN 0-252-02041-3 see also: The Jazz Book. Lawrence Hill, 1975, pp. 278–84; The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz House. 1974. pp. 923–24.
  2. ^Text from Experience Music Project in Seattle, WA.
  3. ^ ab"Larry Graham: Trunk of the Funk Tree", Bass Player magazine, April 2007.
  4. ^"Wrasse Records Biography". Wrasse Records. Retrieved May 2, 2014. 

External links[edit]

Look up slapping in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Bassist Flea playing bass with slapping technique
Demonstration of the slap technique on a 6 string bass.
Jimbo Wallace from the Reverend Horton Heat band is a slap bass performer.
The typical position of the slapping hand
Mark King of Level 42 using the slapping technique in a concert in 2017

What is it? The most reviled totem of 1980s musicianship ever, and the most virtuosic expression of bass guitar playing. But is the disgust warranted? Or are we just hating on bass players for wanting to play something other than just plodding root notes behind the guitarist?

Who uses it? Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone/Prince) is the style's originator and champion. Bootsy Collins is its star-shaded intergalactic pin-up. Level 42's Mark King is slap bass's whipping boy. Les Claypool (Primus), Billy Gould (Faith No More) and Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) aided the technique's late-80s transition into rock. Our Spotify playlist celebrates the good (Mike Watt), the bad (Rick James) and the ugly (Power Station).

How does it work? Slap playing is based around two techniques – slap and pop – that a bassist may rapidly alternate between in any lick. The "slap" involves the bassist whacking the bony part of their thumb against the strings, close to the neck of the guitar. When "popping", the player will wrench the played string or strings away from the guitar and let it twang hard against the fretboard upon release. The point is to create a percussive, loud, buzzing tone, with guitar solo-like techniques of hammer-ons and pull-offs replacing the usual root-note pulse.

Where does it come from?Larry Graham is generally credited as inventing slap bass guitar. Graham has said that he was simply trying to create a drum-like sound to flesh out the rhythm in the then drummerless Family Stone. There is a tradition of slapping on double bass, though, dating back to the 1920s, which found a natural home in rockabilly.

Why is it classic? Like guitar solos, slap has a Marmite appeal. To be fair, it's mostly in "white music" – mainstream rock and pop especially – that people seem to find it objectionable. Slap is an integral component of funk, and its fluid, frenetic, spiralling groove reconnects the artform back to jazz.

What's the best ever slap bass song? Slap bass at its most pure has to be Sly and the Family Stone's Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) – the first ever recorded instance of the technique for bass guitar.

Five facts and things!

It's hard to say whether it's a fear of funk (don't be afraid!) or the style's natural tendency to encourage muso show-offs that prompts its rejection. But certainly at the height of post-punk's flirtation with funk, slap didn't sound anything other than necessary and dangerous in the hands of A Certain Ratio, 23 Skidoo and Gang of Four.

The most improbable slap-bass genre ever? It should be metal – a funk-void in love with straight lines and intersecting vectors. Given that metal has always been a genre in which virtuosity is rewarded, though, it's not completely incongruous that slap aficionados like Robert Trujillo (Metallica/Infectious Grooves etc) and Tony Choy (Atheist/Pestilence/Cynic) command such respect. Maybe not Korn, though, eh?

The slap style of double bass playing is kind of a column in itself, but anyone intrigued by the technique should check out these tutorials by Lee Rocker and Milt Hinton, for rockabilly and jazz respectively.

Don't have a Mighty Boosh-esque mighty slap-bass thumb? Can't get enough funk out your fingers? Use Funk Fingers! Funny finger-extension things invented by Peter Gabriel/King Crimson four-stringer Tony Levin that supposedly enhance the funk of slap.

I know what you're thinking. So this is an article about slap bass right, and you've managed to get to the end of it without mentioning the Seinfeld theme once, what gives? Is it not the most iconic and popular use of slap bass ever? Well, no. The Seinfeld "slap bass" is actually played on a keyboard.


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