A Place to Rest Your Fingers

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.

21 Comments

  1. Lars on March 31, 2021 at 3:17 pm

    I’m all about the thumb rest. My old EB-3 has a homemade rosewood rest that was on it when I bought it at age 16. I feel out of place on basses without a good place to park…

  2. Robert Chandler on March 31, 2021 at 3:32 pm

    I actually agree with you. My first bass was a used Fender Precision fretless which had a thumb rest. I have never found playing without a thumb rest to be comfortable. I never like the way resting my thumb on the pickup felt. And, some single coils actually have the coils exposed. Don’t like that at all. I have always purchased thumb rests and installed on subsequent basses. By the way, I still have that fretless after 40 years!

  3. Peter on March 31, 2021 at 3:36 pm

    Absolutely! One of the biggest finger rest revelations I’ve had was playing a Jazz bass with both p/up covers on, with my thumb on the neck cover and being able to pluck only between the pickups I found that all of a sudden J-Bass tone(s) made more sense to me. A subtle little shift of finger placement but big sonic difference for me

  4. Joseph Friedl on March 31, 2021 at 3:37 pm

    I have removed the thumb rests from every bass i own and have ever owned. It’s just a preference thing for me – gets in the way. My thumb sits on the E or B when not being involved and moreover, I use my thumb more as a mute on my 5’s anyway.

    My father strummed with his thumb and didn’t use one finger. And he was effective with that style. I’ll summarize with this: it’s strictly a style / preference accessory. The bottom line is simply – JUST PLAY

  5. Doug Robertson on March 31, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    Anchor point has always been the bridge pickup for me for finger playing…been using a pick recently for better attack and tighter rhythmic control on old school metal/rock tunes.
    Interesting comments re the thumb rest.

  6. MoBass42 on March 31, 2021 at 4:26 pm

    There are pros and cons to a thumb rest. I do have one on my P-Bass near the neck because it just feels right with the style I play on that instrument. But, it does hold me back if speed and fluidity are needed. That’s why I don’t have one on some of my other basses. In general, I like to have one on vintage styled instruments, even if I don’t always use it. Sort of like using a pick. Different tools for different jobs.

  7. jim collins on March 31, 2021 at 4:33 pm

    I’ll rest my fingers happily on a new bridge.

  8. Richard C Autorina on March 31, 2021 at 5:53 pm

    It’s my favorite Bass Bridge on the Market. This is the one I look for before any other Bridge!

  9. Jeff Moe on March 31, 2021 at 7:45 pm

    I used to rely on the thumb rest in my early days. Later, I was anchoring on the low E. Slipping off and hovering if I used the low E. Many years later, I switched to 5 string and still find myself anchoring on the B some of the time.

  10. Jimmy Mounce on March 31, 2021 at 8:44 pm

    I let my thumb float most of the time. I need that bridge.

  11. Christopher S Buyak on March 31, 2021 at 10:34 pm

    I didn’t want to drill into my bass so I got Sugru and fashioned my own thumb rest that is removable.

  12. Oren Galiki on March 31, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Great! Thanks for that

  13. Jimi Glenister on April 1, 2021 at 5:01 am

    As double bassist finding a bass guitar with a small inch and a bit sized rest in a specific place made no sense. It seemed that the non-guitar playing engineer in Leo Fender watched and listened but did not quite get it. On Double bass the thumb rests in a very dynamic way on several places on the fingerboard sometimes players even hook it underneath. With the versatility of the electric bas the player has the option of changing tone by playing close to the bridge, up over the fretboard at the neck or places in between. There is also the problem of the lower strings rumbling when laying on the higher strings – Jaco with his prehensile thumb used his little and ring finger to dampen the lower strings resting his thumb in various places like the pick-up. For those of us with a less flexible thumb, we use the thumb to mute those free low strings. A dedicated thumb rets just seem too restrictive and for beginners a cementing of bad habits. Who am I to say anyway………as long as the music is crafted.

  14. Rick Walsh on April 1, 2021 at 10:51 am

    I honestly believe that fi8nger rests still have a place on Bass guitars in this day and age. I would love to see them be added back on!

  15. James MacAllister on April 2, 2021 at 9:27 am

    Very interesting article on the thumb rest on fenders p-bass . I traded my Hagstrom for a 64 p-bass and it had the thumb rest mounted on the top edge of the pick guard ,at first I didn’t like it much,but I noticed myself not only using it but eventually addicted to having my thumb on the rest while playing as I was able to get that rolling sound with my index and middle finger . That was in 1971 and I ended up selling that bass and today I still use a p-bass ,this one I bought new in 2016 and while looking at accessories while in the store I happened to notice a fender thumb rest,the funny thing about it is when I went to mount it on my bass the instructions and template called for it to be mounted in the exact location as my old 64 p-bass.

    • Stuart Robertson on April 27, 2021 at 9:49 am

      I could use a bridge to build my bass project this summer.

  16. Tim R on April 16, 2021 at 11:58 am

    Always anchor on the Top string or the pickups. I just can never get used to a different bar, especially a tug bar.

  17. Dex Ruiz on April 24, 2021 at 7:02 am

    I prefer thumb on pick up.

  18. Yvan Shank on April 24, 2021 at 6:24 pm

    My first bass was a Japanese made Lero which was a EB-0 copy. The thumb rest was on the pickguard… I promptly moved that thing above the strings as it should have been!

  19. Brett Cline on April 24, 2021 at 10:05 pm

    My EB-3 doesn’t have one so I find myself resting it in awkward spots.

  20. Michael Gordon Simpson on April 26, 2021 at 2:23 pm

    I’ve always used the obnoxiously large bridge pickup surround on my ’74 Rickenbacker 4001 as a thumb rest, and now it feels odd to play a bass without one…

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