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I was going to blog about something else today but I’ve spent most of my blogging time writing back to a friend who was asking for advice on playing bass lines that don’t easily fit within a single handspan. Posting it here wins me back that time and allows me to make sure the formatting is correct.

A good riff to work on for position shifting is the main hook from Beat It (mid-80’s Michael Jackson with, I believe, Eddie Van Halen on guitar). Taking it in A minor, the notes are:

A C E c’ a’ b’ a’ G G

A C E c’ a’ b’ a’ G

Tab is a good way of showing one set of choices I might make for frets and fingers:

G|--------------------D|-------10-7-9-7-5-5-A|-----7--------------E|-5-8----------------1 4 1s4  1 4S4 1 1

The second half is like the first but with one less note, so I’ve not tabbed it here. There are two types of transition shown in the fingering line below by “s” and “S”:

  • s: squeeze the fingers together – going from fret 8 with the 4th finger to fret 7 with the 1st smoothly puts you in a higher position
  • S: slide back down – doing it here rather than on the next note means your fingers are in a good position for the strong notes at the end of the phrase.

There are not that many different ways of shifting from one position to the other; the more difficult question for most passages is the timing of when to move. This judgement develops over time and forms part of your playing style (ie. there can be a range of valid choices) but somewhere in the middle of a phrase often works well. Take a bold shift early, setting yourself up for later, rather than waiting until the last possible moment and then having to nail an awkward jump perfectly and in time.

Try the riff starting in different positions. It should be easy to play even starting on a low F at the first fret on the E string. Also, experiment with alternative fingering options: it can sound even more fluid if you hold off the slide back down until the longer gap at the end of the phrase, playing the final G at the 10th fret on the A string with your 4th finger. Experiment, listen and learn.

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