Gareth Montanarello

Edge Case Fingerings

It's been a few weeks since I have written anything, but I am back with some (possibly pedagogically-questionable) thoughts on bass fingerings.


Conventional bass fingering avoids using the third finger or extended hand positions. The first, second, and fourth fingers are used to span a whole step, and larger intervals are played by shifting or pivoting the left hand. This system works well most of the time, but every so often a passage comes up where breaking the rules leads to easier execution. These passages, or as I like to call them, edge cases, tend to be fast, short figures that cover the interval of a third on one string. I call them edge cases since they fall out of "normal" playing conditions and require extra planning, usually in the form of third finger or hand extensions, to perform successfully.

I included some common excerpts from the standard rep to explain what I am talking about and demonstrate how I approach these playing situations.


Since many of the fingerings in this article carry injury-causing potential, I feel like I should remind people to be careful and consider all options before committing to anything unconventional. As I mentioned before, this article is about the infrequent edge cases that require special fingerings to play successfully. None of what I wrote here is intended for normal use, so don't hurt yourself!

I also don't want anyone to think that I am claiming to have the definitive solutions for any of the passages mentioned. These are just the options that work well for me!

Third Finger

Despite its inherent disadvantages, the third finger can be a useful tool for playing bass. Some schools of playing advocate using it instead of the second finger, but I prefer to use it to play the whole step that sits in the middle of a minor third. An example of this occurs at the end of the first page of Mozart's Symphony #39:

The figure in measure 93 contains the two main factors I look for when deciding whether or not to use my third finger- speed and interval span. Since the left hand has to cover a minor third with two fast pivots per beat, I simplify things by playing each D with my third finger. This eliminates the pivots and facilitates playing the passage at tempo. It also improves my intonation because I can keep each finger poised over its respective note when not in use.

Extended Hand Position

I generally classify fingerings that use the third finger as open/extended hand, but for this section, I am referring only to fingerings that cover a major third using the first, second, and fourth fingers. This cello-like hand position has little application on bass, although it was a lifesaver for this finger-twisting passage in Death and Transfiguration:

Strauss bass parts contain countless opportunities to use "edge case" fingerings.

For fast passages like these, I try to reevaluate my usual shifting habits to find ways to minimize movement. That sometimes means breaking traditional fingering rules and in this case, that meant using third finger and extended hand positions. I had a lot of trouble with the descending F-Eb-Db grouping in the first measure, so that's where I decided to use the extended fingering.

Those three notes, as innocuous as they seem, pose two main issues: they precede a shift to thumb position, and a shift back to Db is required if using a traditional fingering. Neither is a problem at slow speeds but at tempo, the Db shift is a hindrance to smoothly reaching the high Bb (in my opinion). I like the extended fingering because it makes the transition to thumb position easier by getting rid of the problematic shift. After the thumb position notes, I return to normal fingerings for the rest of the passage.

Also, credit to Philip Alejo for his extended fingering suggestions.

Thumb Outside of Thumb Position

I use my thumb outside of thumb position for reasons similar to when I use my third finger or extended hand positions- to avoid tricky shifts in fast passages. There is a good example of this in the final movement of Mozart's 40th Symphony:

I play measure 49 with my thumb on the D string on the Bb at the base of the neck. This puts the D, C, and A within the reach of a standard whole-half-half (or semi-chromatic if you like the Petracchi method) hand position and eliminates the coordination issues that arise when playing the measure with traditional fingerings. There is a similar fingering in the Mozart 39 excerpt I posted above, too.

I also use my thumb outside of thumb position when playing solo music. Here's an example from the first movement of the Arpeggione Sonata:

This fingering is an adaptation of one that Stuart Sankey wrote in for a similar passage in thumb position. For beats 3 and 4, several clumsy shifts are avoided by using the thumb to put the C-Eb and F-A thirds in one hand position. Using the thumb this far back on the G and D strings is certainly unconventional, but I think it's the most seamless, agile option for such a surprisingly difficult measure. The hardest part of this fingering involves getting the thumb on the neck coming out of beat 2, but that can be eased with some dedicated practice. It also looks more virtuosic than some of the other options, and as you know, us bass players can never look too virtuosic.


Those are just a few of my thoughts on the extremes of bass fingering. I arrived at the solutions in this article after lots of experimentation and discussion with other bassists, so if you have anything to add, please let me know in the comments below!

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