How many times have you played a continuous four hour gig? Have you ever had to go from the studio to a gig? Or play two gigs in one day? If you have, you understand the important of having an optimized playing technique. If you have not, and are going to try, you need to prepare yourself to be as efficient as possible to maintain your stamina and avoid injury. In this lesson we’re going to highlight five different aspects of your playing technique that can optimized to ensure you remain injury free and can still play just as well hours after you start. These technique-tweaks apply to both electric bass guitar players and upright bassists.
1. Learn to play sitting down. This may seem surprising for certain players, but you need to practice playing and sitting comfortably. If you’re in a marathon gig you might need to give your legs a rest and don’t want to be fighting yourself. Bass guitarists – when you sit the bass should be balanced comfortably on one leg, your left arm should not be holding the bass up (assuming that’s you’re a right handed player). If you’re left hand is holding the bass up you’ll lose some dexterity and your shoulder will tire. Use your right arm to balance the bass with slight downward pressure. Be careful not to lean into the bass too much with your arm, otherwise you can cut circulation to your leg and it will fall asleep or get sore.
Upright bassists this will be a bigger challenge. You’ll have to experiment a bit to learn how to play sitting down, particularly with finding the right stool. Some bassists manage to work out a sitting position where the bass rests on their body exactly the same way as it does standing. One thing to keep in mind is that you may be more comfortable if your stool is tilted forward slightly. Once I found the proper height for sitting I found that having the stool tilt forward (both of my feet are flat on the ground) is more comfortable. At first I used books as props, but then cut the stool legs to be shorter in the front by about an inch. Also be sure to hold the bass in such a way that the bridge is facing out from your body (so you’re not bowing into your leg) and so that your bow can rest comfortably in the proper string position without you having to reach or lean down. It is better to make big adjustments in your left hand to maintain a consistent bowing setup – the left should accommodate the right.
2. Lower your action. The “action” of a stringed instrument refers to the height of the strings off the fingerboard. You want your action to be as small as possible without buzzing. This way you do not have to work as hard to finger a note. Pick up your bass guitar and hold the body up to your face so you’re gazing down the fretboard. Do you see a bend in the neck? A slight bend may be normal for your instrument, but if you see a significant dip (or the dreaded “wave”) in your neck you need to adjust your truss rod. This is fairly easy to do, but if you do it improperly you can seriously damage your instrument. Look up the specifics on your instrument on how to adjust the truss rod properly – normally you do not go beyond a quarter turn of tightening at a time. If your truss rod adjustment doesn’t straighten out your neck you can also use passive pressure to help straighten it. Hold the bass so that the worst bend area rests on your leg (with the strings facing the ceiling) and the body sticking out to the side – you’d be holding the upper part of the neck and head in your lap. The passive weight of the bass body can help straighten the neck over time. DO NOT do this for more than 10-20 minutes at a time. After you have your neck straightened out use the height adjusters on the bass bridge to lower the action as far as possible. You should test every note to ensure that you do not have any buzzing. Additionally you can make the action heights different for each string (in ascending order, so the E string would have a higher action than the A and so on) if you prefer. Play with it and find the system that works best for you, you should find that you need much less force to press the string to the fretboard. You can always take your bass to a shop and have it professional “set up” – make sure you specify that you want the action to be as low as possible.
Upright bassists you hopefully have an adjustable bridge on your instrument, if not you may want to seriously consider getting one. Adjust each side equally to lower the strings to a comfortable height with no buzzing. An additional consideration is to make sure you can always pluck the string the way you want – depending on the style of upright bass you play you may want the string height to be a little higher.
3. Develop impeccable left hand form. What does your left hand look like when you play? Is it a smooth relaxed and effortless motion? If not, you need to make a few adjustments. First, make sure you are not squeezing the fingerboard (this goes for both bass guitar and upright bass). You should be able to play without having your thumb on the neck. For electric bassists your thumb should rest against the back center of the neck and slide freely with your hand. NO SQUEEZING. If it’s not crucial to your style of playing do not let your thumb stick up over the top of the fretboard (it limits your finger dexterity). With your newly lowered action you should not need your thumb to squeeze and press down notes. As an exercise try holding the bass body against you with your right hand, and then play with your left hand only (just tapping the notes) without letting your thumb touch the bass. Your thumb is a guide and anchor not a grip. Upright bassists this applies to you as well, you should be able to play without having your thumb touch the bass.
How do your fingers look when you play? The strongest shape for your fingers to have is an arch. Try to curl your fingers so you play on tips, not the flat part (unless you need to bar chords or notes). Again this applies to both upright and bass guitarists. Your hand should be shaped so that your thumb and middle finger would make a circle if connected.
Finally, how high do you lift your fingers off the fretboard? Do your fingers have a tendency to fly away? As an experiment, determine the smallest height you need to lift your fingers off the string to not play a note (or harmonic). That should be your optimal finger height – anything more is wasted motion and will only slow you down. This is the same whether you play bass guitar or upright – find that optimal height and stick to it! A friend of mine had a student who built a ridiculous cardboard contraption that he attached to his upright bass that kept his fingers at the optimal height during practice. I do not think you need to go that far, just be aware that this will have to be a conscious effort for some time.
4. Shift intelligently. Do you shift with a purpose? If not, you should. Depending on the type of line you’re playing you can optimize your shifting movements to be the best match for an ascending or descending phrase. If you are playing an ascending phrase, and opt to shift rather than play across the strings, always shift up to your first finger if the line continues to ascend. This way, your hand is already in a good position for the rest of the line. For example, if I was going to play a G major scale on only the G string with a bass guitar, I would play open G, A with my first finger, B with my fourth finger, shift and play C with my first finger, then D with my third finger, shift and play E with my first finger, F# with my third finger and G with my fourth finger. Descending I would shift so my fourth finger played the D and B and use my second finger on C. Do you see why this is efficient? My fingers are moving in the same direction as the line in anticipation – if I’m ascending I shift in such a way that my second, third, and fourth fingers are already higher on the string than the note I’m playing, likewise when descending I shift so that may third, second and first finger are lower on the string than the note I’m playing. If the line is moving all over the place you’ll have to figure out the best method, but as a general rule of thumb this method will let you shift less and always shift in the direction of the line.
5. Relax. The biggest thing you can do to improve your overall gig stamina is learn the relax. If you have a lot of tension while you play you’ll never last long. Focus on your breathing and only using the muscles necessary to playing. Tension is a marathon gig killer.
There you have it! These five technical optimizations will help you keep going through those all-night gigs, and let you be ready to do it again the next day. These will all require some effort to internalize, but the payoff is huge. Once you are completely relaxed while playing, and have kinetically efficient technique, you’ll notice that your overall agility will increase (speed and accuracy) and your tone will improve.