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Fumbling Fingers: When Common Tasks Take Their Toll on Bassists

Blurred bassist hands
Photo by Gonzalo G. Useta

For some of us, finding the time to playing bass is a luxury. We don’t get many opportunities to sit down and groove, learn our favorite songs, or hit the woodshed to practice technique. Work takes up too many hours in the day and after having to make dinner, spend time with our friends or family, and take in a TV show, we’ve lost the precious time we had set aside for our instrument. We’d love to be able to hit the ground running without having to work on maintaining particular skills, but at the end of the day, we’re human. Although we want our fingers to be quick and nimble, our brain to remember every song, and our improvisatory skills to be sharp and clever, they usually aren’t. Each time we pick up our instrument, our bodies take some time to reboot.

So why does it seem like we need to warm up and shake off the dust when we pick up our instrument? It’s very different from grabbing a baseball after a dormant winter and trying to throw a few pitches. Or starting a new gym regime that involves lifting weights for the first time in five years. We use our hands all of the time, right? Yes, that’s exactly right. But, lucky for us, there’s a big difference between using our hands to drive, brush our teeth, or prepare a meal and using our hands to play bass. So what makes things so different?

If you think about your daily routines: turning door knobs, typing on computers, carrying grocery bags, etc., you’ll realize that they come as second nature. We don’t think about how we use our hands; we just do. Most of these activities involve the larger muscle groups and we rarely have to think about how accurate we are when we grip a spatula or hold a book. Playing bass is quite the opposite… it’s one of the only activities (aside from typing) that involves a considerable amount of accuracy and perfection. We must focus, remember proper hand position, and re-establish the amount of effort needed to perform a task (such as pressing the string onto the fretboard). Picking up our instrument may be easy and comfortable one day, or hard, sterile, and unforgiving the next. While consistent practice has the greatest impact on how comfortable it is to play our instrument, here are a few common activities that take a huge toll on our hands and cause our fingers to fumble more than we expect.

Cooking a meal. As one of the most common daily tasks, cooking can easily do a number on our hands. Chopping vegetables, browning meat, or mashing potatoes requires a tight grip on our kitchen tools. Don’t cut yourself, use potholders, and beware of splattering bacon grease. If you’re also the lucky washer-of-the-dishes, try to keep a moisturizing soap or lotion handy. It’s easy for your hands to get dry if you’re constantly washing your hands during the cooking process and if you’ve got a mountain of pots to wash.

Building or doing handywork. If your job or hobby involves using a hammer or carrying two-by-fours on a regular basis, chances are you’ll have a lot of warming up to do once you grab your bass. Heavy lifting is usually not the best thing for your back and wearing a bass for a four-hour gig will be a double whammy. Having to grip tools, especially saws or wrenches, requires the large muscle groups in our hands that will need to be loosed up and stretched out before shedding scales. And, if you’re doing work outside in the cold, that may cause your skin to be dry and your knuckles to crack and bleed.

Playing sports or working out. Whether you’re lifting weights at the gym or playing a game of basketball or tennis, it’s important to be aware of how this will impact your hands. Again, the name of the game is gripping (weights, rackets, bats, etc), and if you’re involved in a contact sport, be careful not to break a leg or fracture a finger.

Traveling. Grab your bag. Grab your other bag. Walk through an airport or a train station. Sit in a tiny compartment. Walk another long distance carrying some bags. Oh yeah, and grab your bags again.

Moving Gear. This goes with the territory of being a working musician, but there are some things you can do to ease the wear and tear on your hands. Although you probably have plenty of lifting, carry, and cable wrapping to do, be careful while you’re setting up, tearing down, and loading out. Using a hand truck to transport gear may be a little less macho, but far more efficient. And, as the weather gets cold, keep a pair of gloves handy. In addition to keeping your hands warm, they’ll protect you from the elements and give you a better grip on the gear.

While some of this may seem obvious, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up my instrument and have been dissatisfied by the lack of fluidity and flexibility in my hands. It’s easy to get discouraged when your hands don’t do what your brain thinks they should and the metaphorical rubber gloves don’t make playing any easier. By no means am I suggesting that you don’t cook dinner or that you skip going to the gym — these are all good, and necessary, things to do in our daily lives. I am mentioning how some of these activities put stress on our joints and muscles… enough that we need to work a considerable amount to get our normal dexterity back.

Remember to give yourself plenty of time to warm up and don’t get down on yourself if you can’t initially play 16th notes as quickly as you could a few days ago. Stretch, reboot, and you’ll be back in business.

What are some of your favorite stretches or warm up exercises? Please share in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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