Improving your Technique: Habits and Awareness for Bass Players

Bassist's left hand

Most bassists are looking to improve some aspect of their technique. Certainly if there is something in our technique that is creating a problem, physical or musical, then we need to make a change. Sometimes this is a major change, other times this is simply a refinement. Oftentimes, it is the acquisition of technique that motivates a young student to seek out a teacher.

It is true that, for the greatest progress, it is often advisable to seek the help of a master teacher. By doing so we can save ourselves both time and frustration in our journey to mastery. However, it should always be remembered that the bulk of responsibility for our progress will always be on us, the individual player.

In addition to the constant application and reinforcement of concepts presented by the teacher in daily practice, the student must be aware of their mind, their instrument and their body each time they play. They must notice as much as possible about how the instrument responds, how they move their body, how their mind works, etc. Self-awareness is paramount to our technique.

This is true, because ultimately, an instrumentalist’s technique is nothing more than a collection of their habits. Improving our technique simply means building up good habits in a many areas. Of course, in order to change or refine our habits, we must first know what they are.

Awareness is further important because every time we pick up the bass we are solidifying these habits. Each and every time we play we are creating and/or solidifying our habits at the bass. We should know what we are solidifying.

Whether we take time to notice it or not, we are constantly creating/reinforcing, our habits on the bass every time we play. So, why not be intentional about it? In this way we can constantly be moving forward.

When developing technique, most students are given scales, exercises and etudes. Such material has been part of the music student’s daily diet for hundreds of years. This is because they are great vehicles for establishing and refining technique. They help us to focus on a particular habit, or collection of habits, in a pointed manner. When done properly, they shorten the time required to develop our skills.

Scales, exercises and etudes are indeed ideal vehicles to help us overwrite our bad habits and reinforce our good ones and a student neglects them at their own peril. If we are to get the greatest benefit, however, we mustn’t play such material mindlessly. We must be self aware and practice them attentively. Awareness is they key to improving our technique and is essential for mastery.

What do you find helps develop good habits that lead to good technique? Tell us about it in the comments.

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

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  1. Scales, arpeggios and chords are the necessary “dirty work” which I MUST do every day at the start of my practice session. After I get my “chores” done, I get to PLAY…work on a riff, groove, learn a new song, polish a line. Without the “dirty work”, my “playtime” quality will NEVER improve. Thank you and well stated!

  2. Would love to get someone to watch me in both a jam and a rehearsal and point some constructive tips out…

    • Two ideas: (a) play in front of a mirror and watch yourself play (people who ride horses in competition to this regularly), (b) video yourself playing and watch it. These don’t get you an objective opinion, but it might be helpful.

  3. so hard to me ^^;;;;.

  4. I’m aware of a… not sure if it’s a habit or not. I recently began getting fairly sever pains in my wrist (fretting hand) and I’ve noticed that it often causes me to ‘drag’ my fingers during quick shifts and patterns. It’s driving me crazy. I realize it is probably Carpal Tunnel, which does NOT enthuse me at ALL. Can’t afford the missed time for surgery. Any suggestions?

    • I had carpal tunnel in both my hands, actually due to my job. I opted for Endoscopic carpal tunnel release surgery because the pain, tingling and numbness was so bad. It was very worth it! You can’t “cure” it on your own, once you have it, you have it. What I would recommend to not get carpal tunnel is proper technique and warming up (scales- SLOW at first, speed up as you warm up), before playing. For a half hour. Or if scales get boring, make up your own patterns. I was out of work for 4 weeks for each hand. Its never come back and its been 8 years.

    • To Jeff Margavage: I am not saying this will be a “quick fix”, but I guess certainly worth trying. It is possible that how you have slung your bass which will alter the alignment of your Bass’s neck may be PARTLY at fault which is causing fatigue for your wrist and subsequently slowing down or causing a drag on your fingers. You might want to try adjusting the angle of how you rest your Bass onto your body to try and give your arm/wrist/fingers a more relaxed natural position. Not saying this is the case with you, but I have seen many a musician that positions their instrument slung way down low so that they look cool when performing. Although I “get” that mentality, the priority for me has always been positioning myself (or more accurately my Bass) for ultimate comfort and ease of playability. I want my hands to perform what I hear in my head and heart and accomplishing that goal is more of a priority than looking cool. Being able to (relatively) comfortably wear a heavy long scale Bass and play my style at an optimal level started when I made a few minor adjustments to how I positioned the Bass on my body. In any case, it is certainly an easier and less costly and intrusive procedure than surgery.

    • WOW. Thank you for all the advice, guys! Bass players ROCK!

  5. One of the many things I see constantly is the issue with the fretting hand. Many strive to use the technique whereby the thumb is riding is midpoint in back and the fingers form a slight cup. One of the major things that slow players down is angling the fretting hand and almost “strangling” the neck. Undue pressure is applied to the neck. You will notice pain beginning in the wrist and sometimes extending up into the forearm to the point where you actually begin missing notes because your fretting hand literally locks up. Remember that thumb is just there as an anchor of sorts and it is not the job of the fretting hand to lift up the bass nor support it to the point where you feel a need to hold it tight. Relax that whole hand remembering all those fingertips have to do is strike the note where you want it. The more relaxed you are the smoother and more accurate your groove and articulation will be. Try it with scales first.

  6. I was taught many years ago when I was suffering from pain in the left hand, on the best way to protect my hands from stress. A clasical guitarist saw my discomfort and told me that if I was to put the neck of my bass into the palm of my fretting hand as if there was nothing in my palm and I was touching my first and second fingers with my thumb.then to lower my elbow and slide my hand back and forward along the neck. This removes any tension to the hand and wrist. within two weeks I had completely recovered, and at 71 years of age can still play for many hours without discomfort.
    This may be of help to some.

  7. The best technique lessons I have ever learned have been from watching experts such as Mark King and Les Claypool. Seek out those whom you admire and copy. Practise. Adapt. Absorb. Commit to muscle memory. Relax.