The first bass guitar I ever got was a cheap Silvertone with a thumb rest, and for the first few years of my bass-playing career, I was something of a thumb rest evangelist. Resting my thumb on top of the pickups always just felt a bit too awkward and cramped, and for my punk rock-loving, perhaps-overzealous teenage self, it was a shortcut to really be able to play more aggressively than I could otherwise. In the intervening years, as my playing has evolved, I’ve definitely come to prefer the standard thumb-on-pickup position, but I still think it’s worth taking a look at the history of finger rests, and why, for some bassists, they’re still the way to go.
Surprisingly, the finger rest is nearly as old as the electric bass itself. An important note to make here is that, when the Fender Precision Bass debuted in the early 1950s, the change was markedly more drastic for bassists than it was for guitar players transitioning to early mass-market electric guitar models like the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster. While it’s a gross oversimplification to say that playing an acoustic guitar is the same as playing an electric guitar, most of the underlying principles are the same. With the transition from the upright double bass to the electric bass, much less of the existing body of playing techniques was carried over, and a lot of bassists in the fifties wound up sort of starting from scratch. So, when jazz bassist Monk Montgomery (brother of legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery) became one of the first notable users of the Fender P-bass, Leo Fender decided to add an extra chunk of plastic below the strings, to better accommodate Monk, who like his brother, preferred to pluck the strings with his thumb rather than his index and middle fingers.
Thus, the so-called “tug bar” became a fixture of bass guitars throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, and while it has clearly fallen out of favor since then, there are still a handful of players who stand by the now-vestigial feature, especially amongst those with a predilection for slap-bass. By gripping the bar with your non-playing fingers while using your thumb and index for slapping and popping, it functions similarly to the thumb rest, allowing for a harsher, more in-your-face attack. Although most players would rather have the freedom of movement that comes with a more traditional slap technique, the tug bar style is still viable for those willing to seek out the proper equipment and put in the time to master it.
This dichotomy, between more attack and more fluidity, is one we also see when comparing the standard two-finger technique on a thumb rest (the next evolution of the tug bar, once bassists had established the playing style that’s predominantly used today) versus the pickup. The slightly wider hand position really lets you dig into those strings, and really going to town on a bass with a thumb rest can be immensely satisfying. However, jumping back and forth from the thumb rest to the E string can quickly become clunky and tiresome, especially when it comes to more technically demanding material. Furthermore, it can be somewhat harder to fine-tune your playing volume the way you can when your hand is zeroed in closer to the strings, whether resting on the pickup or with a pick. The difference isn’t massive, but it’s enough to make a big difference, especially over the course of a two or three-hour gig.
All this said, do finger rests still have a place in the world of bass? In spite of their faults, I actually think they do. Especially with how cheap and easy it can be to mod a thumb rest onto your bass, customizing a finger rest to fit your preferred playing style is an appealing prospect for many players, and while I don’t think the good ol’ thumb-on-pickup method is going to fall out of favor anytime soon, finger rests offer their own unique advantages, and especially for upstart bassists, I’m glad there’s still the option of that stable anchor point to help them find their footing.