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Dealing with Stamina Issues on Bass

Bassist's left hand

Q: I’ve been playing upright for the past few months, and I’m having some stamina problems in my left hand. Someone said that maybe the neck is too thick. Do you think having the neck thinned out would help with my stamina? Thanks! – Marian

A: It’s great to hear you are playing upright bass these days! Welcome!

Thinning out the neck of your double bass might help, but it might not, and it may not even be cause of your stamina issue. Also, thinning the neck may, or may not, have adverse effects on the bass itself. So, here are some things to consider before you put your bass into surgery.

First off, make sure you aren’t simply pressing too much with the left hand, especially with your thumb. Over-pressing is common, especially in our early stages. Whatever the size of your bass neck, we want keep the thumb as loose as we can.

A second thing to consider is where you are placing the thumb. Sometimes a person can improve their stamina simply by experimenting with where they place their thumb on the back of the neck. It’s all about an ergonomic and comfortable position of the hand.

Of course, sometimes working around the size and shape of our double bass neck with our technique isn’t enough. That’s when we to start considering physical changes to the neck of our double bass, as a double bass neck that is either too big or too small for an individual player and can, indeed, cause problems.

Most players intuitively know if a bass neck is the right size for them. It just feels right in the hand. If the neck feels too thick or too thin for you, or if it feels just right, you are probably correct.

If you want to be slightly more precise about it (and assuming you are using a modern, or standard, left hand technique), try this:

  1. Put your left hand in playing position, as if you were going to play in first or half position.
  2. Keep the hand relaxed, and the fingers on the D string, but don’t actually press down any notes.
  3. If you need to press your thumb significantly toward the palm of your hand to touch the back of the neck, then your neck may be too thin for your hand.
  4. If you need to push your thumb away from the palm of your hand to fit the neck, then it may be too thick.

One thing to remember is that the thickness of a double bass neck is not just a result of how thick the maple part is (the lighter wood), but also how thick the fingerboard is. Sometimes the neck itself is not so large, but the fingerboard is very thick, or vice versa.

Oftentimes, if you want a thinner neck, you would want to thin the fingerboard, rather than shave the actual neck. It’s a bit safer for the instrument in the long run, since the neck needs to be thick enough to avoid warping over time, and fingerboards come and go throughout the lifetime of an instrument. Also, if we thin the fingerboard, rather than the neck itself, the result is the same as far as how it feels in our hand. Conversely, if the neck is too small for your hand, you can sometimes enlarge it by getting a thicker fingerboard installed.

With all this in mind I would suggest the following when considering your left hand stamina, and the thickness of your double bass neck:

  1. Make sure you aren’t simply over-pressing in your left hand.
  2. Check the size of your bass neck as it relates to your individual hand using the procedure listed above.
  3. If it’s too thick or too thin, experiment with the best placement of the thumb on the back of the neck before committing to bass surgery. If you have trouble finding a good thumb placement, a good teacher can be invaluable.
  4. If neither 1 nor 3 above improve your stamina issue, then consider some bass surgery with a reputable luthier. If you decide to increase the neck’s thickness, a new fingerboard may be in order. Keep in mind that fingerboards can only get so thick. If you decide to thin things out, see if it can be done on the fingerboard side before committing to shaving the neck down. If you do commit to shaving the neck down, a good luthier will let you know how much the neck can be thinned without creating structural (i.e. warping) issues.

Good luck, and welcome land of the upright!

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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4 comments

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Ron Lukowski

Ron Lukowski

I suffer from Deypotrins Contraction Disease. 3 years ago , I had procedures on both hands. In between today and those procedures,I was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. Excellent Professionals kept me alive. The downside, my DCDreturned.

Is there some sort of connection?

Brian

Brian

I found out over the years playing the UB restricts the blood flow to my left arm. By working out in the gym with light bungee cords and pumping fluid in my forearm for 20 min or so and stretching with the big rubber bands that most gyms have, all my discomfort slowly went away. It took about 2 months. Now is part of my daily workout. And I play 90 gigs a year plus 10 to 15 hours of practice a week. Believe me it works!!!!

that bass guy

that bass guy

Other obvious things to consider:
1) Get an adjustable bridge. String basses are big pieces of wood, very susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity, which all translates to changes in string height. An easy gauge for good string height is to put the pad of your baby finger under the string at the very end of the fingerboard closest to the bridge, as if you were going to pull up on the string. The string should be at least low enough that it slightly compresses the pad. You could go a lot lower than that but you’ll lose volume and maybe get string buzz as well.

2) Holding down the strings on a string bass is not so much about pressing the strings as it is using your arm weight to hang from your hand and “pull” the string into the neck. In higher fingerboard positions you will see bassists raise their left elbow. Obviously part of the reason to do so is to clear the body of the bass but also to again use the weight of the arm to press the string into the neck.

3) Here is a great video that shows how to hold the bass https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gn6xlVSax4. A good position is not only critical to hand health but overall sound. If you’re feeling pain in your hand or wrist, and you’re strings are at a good height, it’s possible that you have the instrument turned too far to your right as you stand behind it. This could be putting a bend in your wrist that is a sure-fire way to get CTS. Look at videos of bassists in symphony videos and study the position of their hand in relation to their lower arm.

3) Lastly, get some flexible strings. Their are lots of different strings on the market and some of them are much more flexible than others due to their gauge and metals used. I have been using Corellis for many years. In fact, the ones I have on my bass right now are 10 years old and they sound great. They are made of tungsten, so they don’t corrode like other strings.

Hope this helps. Playing the string bass is work, but if it’s torture, you’re doing it wrong.

Jimi flessas

Jimi flessas

What about possibly lowering the bridge height and possibly making it a faster neck