What Street Fighter II
taught me about slap bass
Instrument: Bass Guitar
By: Dan Monk
Uploaded: 20th August 2021
Click to watch the VIDEO LESSON above
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When I was in my first band, I had ideas above my station. I knew exactly how I wanted our music to sound, so I wrote everyone else's parts for them. Clever parts. Impossible parts...
As a humble 14-year-old, my skinny, uncallused fingers couldn't yet play the music I heard in my head, least of all on a monophonic instrument like a bass guitar. But with the help of MIDI sequencing software, I realized I could design multiple instrument parts and my computer would play them back to me, note perfect. Guitar, bass, drums, vocals... This was it. THIS was how I was going to compose for everyone in the band.
Except, well... what do you think happens when you give a 14-year-old Dream Theater fan the ability to play literally anything?
Fast tempos, octave skips, impossible riffs, ridiculous double kick drum parts... I was writing parts that no human could possibly play. My guitarist wasn't happy. "You can so tell a bass player came up with this." he said.
And he was right. Writing for guitar is not like writing for bass, and I didn't know guitar. I didn't compose on a guitar. I didn't appreciate the techniques, and I certainly didn't understand what the strengths of the instrument were.
But hey, the computer could play it, so...
Listen to the original version
Guile's Theme was composed for Street Fighter II back in 1993. The entire soundtrack is fast, cool and very, very 90s.
The original piece was composed to be played by the sound chip on Capcom's CP System II arcade board. It features a twangy, FM-synthesized "slap bass" sound, the throaty, snappy tones ringing out clearly even in the noisiest arcades. And it's fast. Oh, it's fast.
But was it ever intended to be playable?
Trying it out on bass
The range is about right for a 4-string bass guitar. The notes never dip below a low F#, so you could play it in standard tuning. It's in the key of C# minor too - not great but not terrible either.
However, what really stands out to me are special FX like these:
It's a slap bass part in octaves. This is what leads me to suspect it was composed with the instrument in mind. Maybe even composed on a bass guitar. Octaves are a staple of funk bass lines, and they sound great when slapped. Slap low, pop high, alternating like a kick and snare drum. Guile's Theme sprinkles in plenty of these, which leads me to suspect it'll be fun to play on the real thing.
You can so tell a bassist came up with this.
Why octaves are a bass player's best friend!
Octaves are easy to play. It's a shape every bassist knows.
Octaves are neat. Octaves create a sense of movement in bass lines without excessive note changes.
Octaves are easy to improvise with. They're dead easy to use. You barely need to plan ahead
Octaves are idiot-proof. If the first note sounds good, the second note will too!
Octaves are inoffensive. You're unlikely to tread on anyone else's toes in the band. For example, if you're playing the root notes in a chord progression, octaves are unlikely to clash with the notes played by other instruments.
Training up your fingers
Guile's Theme is tons of fun to play, but it is a workout! There are tons of quick note changes, and on its own, right-handed slapping isn't exactly the quickest way of producing notes on a bass guitar. The original track features rapid-fire semiquaver runs in the bass part, every note a perfect, punchy "slap". Easy enough for a computer to perform perfectly every time, but how are you supposed to do it on a bass guitar?
How do you play THIS on bass?
I'm sure you could tremolo pick the notes with a plectrum, and I know there are bassists out there who could double-thumb their way through it, but I'm not Matt Freeman or Victor Wooten. I need a solution that fits my own playing style.
I've always followed Flea's school of fast bass-playing, where speed comes not just from the right hand, but the left hand too, with each hand working together to fill in the gaps. The solution for creating speed here is by using slaps and pops interspersed with hammer-ons and pull-offs:
Here, the right hand starts each semiquaver run, popping or slapping the first note in the sequence before the left hand takes over with hammer-ons and pull-offs. Good bass-playing is about using the left and right hands together, and here's a perfect example of both.
Getting used to playing each run takes a bit of choreography between the right and left hands, but all of this can be achieved by simply choosing one run to focus on, slowing the tempo until the part is easy enough for you to play, and then playing it on repeat. Literally, looping that one bar over and over without setting a limit. Let your muscles get used to the patterns. As the part improves, you start speeding up, bit by bit, until you can play at full speed, or faster still!
This is how we can turn tricky song sections into simple, mechanical exercises - the sort of drill you can play on repeat without thinking. Often, I'll put on a movie and sit down with my bass, just playing round and round that one tricky part, building up muscle memory while as I train my fingers up to play the part. It starts to become a bit of a meditation and actually gets really satisfying. Before you know it, you can play it perfectly every time.
So lastly, I want to point out something that might not be immediately noticeable in the video. If you look carefully, you'll see my pinky, ring finger and middle finger regularly making contact with the scratchplate on my bass, most often when my right hand is rested during longer notes.
right here --------->
That's actually deliberate.
What I'm doing here is keeping my right hand anchored to the bass. By regularly keeping contact with the scratchplate, I'm able to maintain precision and control, even when playing the fastest parts. This is something I've learned to do with my acoustic guitar playing to keep my fingerpicking accurate. But I never actually tried using this on bass guitar until I learned this tricky piece. Guile's Theme needs it!
And honestly, once I did, it cut the difficulty in half.
It works like this:
Pick up a bass guitar and get into playing position. Now try raising your right hand in front of your face so it's not touching any part of the instrument. Now, with an overconfident, floppy wrist, slap your E string and let your hand bounce away. Chances are you'll get a nice twangy "thunk" out of your bass and you'll look pretty silly doing it.
Next, try the same thing again, but this time, start with your right forearm held in contact with the body of your bass. When you slap now, notice how much that forearm contact keeps you grounded. Notice how the bass is held a little sturdier against your body, and notice how you can get a little extra "oomph" when your right arm can pull against the bass itself. Notice how quickly you can recover when your hand doesn't bounce off away from the instrument.
Try one more time. Keep your right forearm in contact with the bass, thumb above the E-string, ready to strike, just as before. But this time, place your little finger against the scratchplate. Now when you slap, see how much more control you have. See how nice and twangy a tone you can create with as little movement as possible. Try it again with both your pinky and ring finger. Try it with your middle finger too and see how it affects the movement of your hand. You can even curl your fingers under your thinnest string and try slapping like that. It creates a lot of extra power in your slap. Plus, it stops the unplayed strings from ringing out accidentally.
Essentially, what we're doing is creating a strong, steady set of anchors across the bass: fingers, forearm and our own body. The more anchor points we create, the more control we have over the bass. With this technique, we can perform fast, accurate slap bass parts that never become frantic or sloppy. My only regret is that I never learned tried this technique on a bass until now!
To sum up
So what did Street Fighter II teach me about slap bass? Well... THIS:
How to adapt a piece of artificial bass-playing to the strengths of a real bass guitar.
How to play with the precision, speed and shiny tone that only a computer could produce.
How to never let yourself be outplayed by a video game composer. Rise to the challenge! Don't let the programmers win. You might just learn a thing or two along the way.
Ahh, Guile's Theme... I could never stay mad at you.