Positions & shifting. Help!

Hey all: I’ve got a question which oddly remains unanswered through all the courses I’ve followed, including this one. First: thumbnail sketch: I’m a darn good tuba player with a DMA, played with NYPhilharmonic, Boston Symph, etc. I know music theory, but would dearly love to become truly functional on the bass. What I’m not getting: when/why to switch positions. I went through Ed Friedland’s three books, and he seems pretty blasé about positions: whatever works. Other methods are somewhat doctrinaire about being in the ‘correct’ position for a minor key, etc. So: what’s the lowdown? I can’t imagine working bassists know all this theory, and are shifting so they can ‘own’ that mixolydian lick. A little help, please?


I’m pretty sure what you are asking is far more simpler than I read it. What do you mean by shifting?

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Moving your hand up (say…) three frets. Most everything could be played in one position. So why shift, and when?


When it makes a passage easier to play, mostly. You get a little bit different timbre playing higher up a string as well. Think top of cello range vs bottom of violin range, same pitch but very different overtones.


All things being equal assuming we know every notes on the fingerboard like the back of their hand. :sweat_smile:

Personally, shifting is about desire tone and transition to where you want to be or going. If you want a warmer tone aka, more muddy with overtone stay on a lower string E and A for example. You can move to the upper strings D or G but you’ll get brighter tone of the same notes crisper. How musical do you want to be. Choice, choice and more choice.

Sometimes it’s about the transition you are at the 7th fret and want to move back down to 3rd or 2nd fret you can just shift down toward the neck on the same string instead of moving up down the lower string like A and E. This we are only talking about left hand ( fretting hand) how you plug with your right hand is also another factor. This is more of what tool you have in the bag, are you shifting your right hand from plugging closer to neck and shift to plug near the bridge to get different tone. Everyone’s kung fu is different so it depends.

Oh well if you have complete control of your dexterity and strength to back it up then the economy of motion would be just the way to go especially in the studio situation. That said, it would look too effortless in a live situation when moving you hand up the neck present more dramatic movements which looks like things are much harder to do than it is.

As for where to play is a harder and more complicated answer than it look simply because we have preferences on how we go about adding articulations and fills that would dictate where you want to play your notes. Some like to fret all the notes so they have control and some love the open string pass for many reason.

Life will be pretty simple and awesome if we have only one way to play a note but sadly it’s far more colorful than grey so we get to spend eons figure out what’s best when.


If you mean where to put your hand throughout a song, rather than what @Al1885 is referring to which is choice of where to play a note when you have choices, then the rule is quite simple and why you haven’t found an answer…whatever works for you.
This only really comes into play for me with tricky passages that I seek to miss timing on, and I’ll try different “positions” (fingers on frets) until the transitions are easier. But, what’s easy for me might not be easy for you.


It’s a very difficult question to answer in the abstract, but would be much easier with a concrete example.
If there’s a song or passage that you have a specific question about, I’d feel great jumping in and saying why here, etc.

I was just thinking about this with the song Chameleon by Herbie Hancock.
I had a student come in playing it how their middle school band director asked them to.
It uses mostly frets close to the nut - the ones they learn to identify first.
It’s not how I would play it, and it’s not how the Headhunters bassist plays it live, but it’s the right notes.

@Al1885 and @John_E already addressed most of the other points.
Just a specific song example I ran into recently where the place it was played made a tonal difference, but no difference on the written page.
And it was dictated by level/ability/facility rather than sound or accuracy to the original.


Hi @toobaman,

So, if I understand you correctly, you want to find a link between your classical setting and pop/rock/modern music?

As far as I can see it, it would be like on upright bass. Perhaps one of the upright players can chime in on that.

My experience was that electric bass players usually learn the notes and then apply scale shapes or arpeggio shapes, which you link to each other or extend up and down.

Since you know all the notes on the fretboard after a while, all you need is to think about where you’re going in the scale or chord progression. Then you can just go to, say, the fourth and play an arpeggio or fill over that. Easy in theory, kinda hard in practice.

Your best bet is to learn the fretboard, some shapes and then study songs. :slight_smile: And that’s also a lot of fun! :partying_face:

You could have a look at this guy here, that’s what I found for you regarding this topic.

By the way, I saw a tuba player at the Christmas market (with a small four piece band), made my day! :+1:


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This is what often is exploited by playing on a 5-string - you can remain more in position.

But, still… it should be your conscious choice as a player/musician to play the notes on the fretboard where it best fits a) the tone you want to achieve and b) your technique, especially considering what comes before and after. It’s always about context.

@gio’s example on Chameleon is great: there are several ways to play this, and it’s up to the bass player to decide on what’s best (or potentially the best compromise) on tone and economy of hand/finger movements.
I used to see it as a somewhat tricky chromatic walkup where one finger per fret should be used (and it is a great exercise for that). But, somehow I felt like I painted myself in a corner as I was left with my pinky on the hightest note of that walk-up, but then quickly needed to move my entire hand awkwardly elsewhere. Then I saw a professional play it, and she used only index finger for the four chromatic notes and let that finger shift up on the fretboard, as she then was in perfect position for the rest of the motif.

Luckily, there is no gospel when it comes to bass playing; but it certainly is great to be aware of the different options, such that you can make educated choices and decisions.