Aside from your straight alternating bass, you can learn additional techniques with your thumb that spice up your rhythm and give your playing a more orchestrated feel.
Players like Blind Blake and Reverend Gary Davis used a lot of fancy right thumb techniques. If you break these down, they are actually quite simple but add a significant amount of excitement to your playing.
Listen to Georgia Bound by Blind Blake to get a sense of what’s possible.
It’s best to wait on learning these advanced techniques until you have the basic alternating bass technique locked in. These advanced techniques serve the goal of freeing up your thumb, allowing to perform whatever bass figures you want at any moment.
Changing Alternation Pattern
The 1st technique is changing the notes you hit within an alternating bass pattern.
For instance, in a G chord, alternate the 6th, 4th, and 5th strings instead of just the 6th and 4th.
Below is a tabbed out exercise to apply this technique:
Whatever bass notes you have fretted and any relevant open bass strings are fair game for this technique. Just keep in mind that an alternating bass usually starts with a lower pitch then goes to a higher pitch.
Being able to freely execute this technique will give your playing more variation and prepare you for more complicated bass runs as you progress.
The 2nd advanced alternating bass technique is called leading in. This technique is typically used during a chord change, but has a lot of utility beyond that.
To understand what leading in sounds like, check out this video demonstration (tabs for the song are below):
To perform this technique, hold down a G chord and hit the 6th string, 3rd fret but Play through the note and hit the 5th string, 2nd fret.
I have tabbed out the 8 bar-blues in G so you can practice leading in:
When I learned to lead in, I felt like a lightbulb had gone off. I realized that you don’t play both notes, but push through the top note into the bottom one. Learning this technique made me dial into freeing up how I move my thumb when playing bass notes.
A lot of players took this technique and used it as a rhythmic tool, playing it in the bass to give a cool stumbling sound. Check out You’ll Like My Loving by Otis Harris, an unknown Texas bluesman. You’ll notice Harris uses this technique through out the song to give a persistent stumbling bass line.
The 3rd technique is string snapping, a move you’ll hear a lot of delta blues players use.
Check out this video of Alvin Youngblood Hart playing Pony Blues. He snaps the bass throughout to give the song a hard driving rhythm.
A common chord to use this technique on is the ‘Delta E7.’ You slide up snapping the 5th string against the fret board. Here is a video explaining this technique and accompanying tablature:
Think about every note you play as instrumentation. The alternating bass is like a drumbeat or a bass player; when you snap your strings it’s like adding in an extra instrument into your one-person band.