Health & Fitness for The Working Bassist – Part 1: Basic Technique
Common injuries that rob bassists of stage time
Let’s start with an overview of the most common types of injuries bassists experience, the dreaded tendonitis, also known as repetitive stress injury, which will usually be felt in the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, or neck and shoulder. As repetitive stress injury suggests, overuse is the cause of symptoms which can include pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness. The idea is that constant activity of a muscle or of groups of muscles, such as the plucking, picking, or fretting motions of the bassist, causes these muscles to become overworked, with pain usually the first indication that anything is wrong.
When muscles are overworked, they pull on tendons, which attach to these muscles and further attach the muscles to bones, and as the offending activity continues the body reacts to this overuse causing pain. Frequently by the time pain is felt the problem has been occurring for some time. Typically the root cause is practicing too much too soon, lack of warm up, poor technique, indifferent instrument set-up, significant change in practice routine, or similar playing associated activities. Also look to repetitive or overuse in one’s non-playing life.
Pain — do not ignore this vital warning
Many bassists’ first inclination when experiencing pain is to ignore it and play through it, either because they think things will take care of themselves, they don’t have insurance or ready bread for a doctor visit, an instructor or another bassist has recommended doing so, or because in the beginning the pain will often deceptively go away, and they then think everything is okay. Also many bassists remember hearing ‘no pain no gain’ at some time or other and think that applies to playing music. It does not, and it is a crock.
When experiencing pain, usually beginning in the wrist or hand, either right or left, it’s important to stop and listen to our bodies, and find out why we are experiencing pain. Often if we stop playing for a minute and shake out our hands, the pain will go away. We then will go back to playing the same way, with the same result recurring several minutes later or a little further down the line, often progressing up the forearm and tightening up muscles there. Rather than pushing on, bassists will be best served by stopping and assessing their technique a bit.
With your plucking hand, we will assume the right, pain will usually start at the crease of the wrist on either side of the hand and sometimes work its way up the forearm. In almost every case this is the result of holding the wrist in an exaggerated state of flexion (i.e. the way we hold our wrist when bending it to pluck the strings). The more you bend that wrist, the more cramped the muscles become which causes unnecessary tension.
Holding the wrist at such an exaggerated angle also inhibits blood and oxygen flow which muscles need to function. Inhibited blood flow also contributes to nerve interference. This is why bassists feel pain when this problem occurs, this is your body’s way of letting you know you are doing something with too much frequency or incorrectly, in this case—plucking bass strings while holding the wrist incorrectly— it is a little of both.
Addressing the problem—proven tips for enhancing your playing experience
The good news is this problem has a relatively easy fix. The bad news is, like any unproductive habit, one needs to be mindful of it to break it if avoiding the consequences is a priority. By now, most bassists who have been playing for a while think about their right hand technique as much as they think about breathing or walking – they just do it.
The “auto pilot” nature of many playing behaviors and techniques suggest the value of becoming more consciously aware of your body and the signals sent in the form of discomfort or pain. Such signals are reliable indicators that subtle changes in playing behavior and technique, which, with patience, will also become second nature can be adopted to successfully address the pain and underlying problem causing the pain.
So how to fix it? For one, the fingers of the plucking hand should not be straight, but rather they should hang loosely and naturally over the strings. When playing a note, let the plucking finger rest on the string and gently roll off.
When playing finger style, many players tend to rest the thumb on the top of either the bridge or more commonly the neck pick up while plucking with the other fingers on the strings. This is not desirable as it exaggerates the wrist flexion just discussed. Even worse is resting the wrist or forearm on the top of the bass and plucking upward. Doing this tends to create a hook with the hand, creating excessive flexion of the wrist at about a 90 degree angle which again causes unnecessary tension.
You will notice when plucking with a two finger technique that your pinky will stick out due to this tension. The idea is to try and keep the wrist as close as possible to a neutral position, or how the wrist looks when you hold it and the hand perfectly straight. Obviously, this isn’t a practical fix for bassists, because the only way to have a purely neutral wrist position would be to put your arm and shoulder at such an angle as to cause problems there, with the result being immediate discomfort, but by being aware of the situation and making relatively minor adjustments troubles can be greatly minimized.
One way to break the habit of using the pick up as an anchor is to adopt more of a floating technique. By anchoring your thumb on a string and leaving a string between your thumb resting on a top string and your plucking fingers. In this way you won’t have that hook at your wrist, and will be less likely to rest your wrist or forearm on top of the bass. Your wrist will be at a 45-60 degree angle rather than 90, and you will be at less risk of cramping up and experiencing discomfort.
For example (based on a 4 string model): if plucking the E string, the thumb should be at or on the pickup. If plucking the A string, same. If plucking the D, the thumb can rest on the E string and finally if plucking the G string the thumb can rest on the A string. Pino Palladino plays in this way. Pino told me he specifically developed this manner of playing to avoid wrist and hand problems, and he further reports he has been successful in side stepping such problems.
Taking the forearm off of the top of the bass also will eliminate the likelihood of nerve compression at the elbow which can radiate down to the wrist and hand and can also induce muscle cramping.
Before and after playing, say with the right hand, make sure you do some wrist rotations, simply turning your wrists in either direction, loosely, several times each direction. Doing so will help keep the wrists loose and pain free. Try to keep the wrist loose during playing using small, precise strokes rather than using excessive motion. Muscle tightness while picking commonly manifests itself in the muscles of the thumb and forefinger often extending into the forearm. Wrist rotations are a good idea for bassists employing finger style playing as well, but are particularly important when using a picking technique.
Positioning your fretboard hand for more rewarding playing
Next up let’s talk about some positioning examples and things to think about for the left hand, i.e. the fretting hand when playing electric bass.
The classic “proper” technique is to position the left thumb in the middle of the back of the neck, between where the first to fourth fingers will be on the fretboard, creating a triangular shape between them. The thumb should also be placed at or just below the middle of the neck to create an anchor around which the rest of the hand will move as necessary. This positioning helps to keep the pinky down, keep the wrist fairly straight, and will activate muscles only as the other fingers are being used; reducing the chances of triggering repetitive stress injuries and their painful consequences. It is quite helpful to keep fingers spaced one per fret and keep the palm off the neck. Then, keeping hands and arms relaxed will help minimize the chances of repetitive stress injuries being experienced. However, if pain does occur stop playing and reassess technique.
Some bassists will use more of a circular type technique with their left hand, placing little emphasis on thumb placement but concentrating on keeping the left hand in a ‘c’ curved shape like a claw and extending that ‘c’ shape to the whole arm. This technique also keeps the shoulder relaxed because in this position, the elbow acts as a counter balance. Employing this technique makes it easier to get around the diameter of the fretboard.
Let your fingers do the walking—but do so with proper technique
If you keep your fingers curved while playing in this style, your fingertips won’t flatten out as you fret, you won’t pinch the string and the hand won’t be in a state of hyperflexion for long because its position will be ever changing. If you arch your fingers when playing this will allow the strength generated by the forearm muscles to pass efficiently to the fingertips without being impeded.
Repetitively pressing down with the left hand on the fretboard puts pressure on the finger flexor muscles due to the constant pressing down on strings; the potentially negative aspects of this activity are magnified by the thickness of bass strings. It is recommended bassists try and adopt a lighter touch and not press so hard, perhaps experimenting with different settings on their amp or even a more powerful amp. I have also found it helpful to experiment with bass volume settings and lower the action to reduce unnecessary exertion.
To recap right and left hand technique for injury prevention:
- Keep right hand fingers hanging loosely over the strings, not straight. This will help you keep your wrist in less of a flexed position and closer to neutral which will lessen the chance of wrist pain.
- Try to limit anchoring thumb on the pickups and adopt more of a floating technique to avoid excess wrist flexion. This will lessen chance of wrist pain and tendinitis.
- Try to keep your wrist angles on both hands as close to a neutral position as possible- 45-60 degrees is much preferable to the usual 90 we bassists tend to gravitate toward. This is the number one way to avoid pain and tendonitis in the hand, wrist, or arm.
- Don’t rest the right forearm or wrist on the instrument—this will help to avoid nerve compression and muscle cramping.
- Do use proper positioning in left hand placement on the back of the neck. This will help to avoid weakness and the tendency to use excess pressure when fretting, leading to wrist and hand pain.
- Try and adopt a lighter touch and not press so hard on strings. Less pressure equals less effort equals less pain.
- Experiment with different settings on your amp or even a more powerful amp. Let the amp do the work.
- Consider adjusting action on your bass to be lower if it is quite high. Don’t work hard if you don’t have to.
In future installments we will talk about posture, common and not so common injuries and how to manage and of course, prevent them, as well as show some stretches and other tips that will help you along your road to injury prevention.