Playing on the open strings

Back when I was a kid I played bass in a succession of bands that, thankfully, never made it out of the garage. I was not a particularly good bass player, and that’s putting it as kindly as possible. Still, during my garage band era there was a period lasting approximately three months where I actually thought I might get serious about the bass. It was during that period I took a few lessons from a guy named Art.

bass guitarArt taught me two things that I remember. First, that it was pointless taking lessons if you weren’t willing to practice on your own time. Second, that it was okay to play on the open strings. And it’s that last one I’d like to focus on here.

Somewhere I’d heard or read that real bass players never played on the open strings. Strings are open when they aren’t being pressed, so another way of expressing the rule is that you should always have one of your left fingers pressing on a string when you play it. As there are four strings on a bass there are four notes you can play open, typically E, A, D, and G in a standard tuning. Only one of those notes (the low E) is unavailable at all if you insist on the “no open strings” rule, the rest can be played in alternate positions.

During one of our lessons I noticed Art playing an open string and when he was done I said, “I thought there was a rule you shouldn’t play on the open strings.”

Art said, “Let me ask you something: why do you think that rule exists?”

Of course, I had no idea, so after a suitable pause, Art went on: “It exists because the open strings sound different than the closed strings. For certain kinds of music, it would be distracting for the bass to play notes with different textures. But for other kinds of music it’s just fine. Some bassists really love the open strings and will always play open notes if they can.”

And that was how I learned rules in art are only guidelines, and if you know the reason for a rule, you know when it’s OK to ignore it. So when I hear other painters say things like “You should never paint with black” or “You should never use paint straight out of the tube” I remember Art, and I think about the open strings.