Right Hand Endurance for Bass Players

Bassist's right hand

Photo by Hani Amir

Q: I’d like to ask something about right hand endurance. I’m playing in two metal bands, so some of our songs are rather fast-paced (I play 95% of the time with a pick). When rehearsing, everything seems just okay – no problems. But when playing live, my right tends to get this irregular muscular tension, and after a short bit of time I need to drop the pick and continue with finger-style. Do you know this problem or have you ever heard of other bass players with this issue? Do I just have to practice more right hand endurance? Can you show me some exercises, please?

A: The only thing I can think of that would cause tension during live performance where there is none during rehearsal is… tension, so to speak.

What I think is most likely happening is one of two things (or possibly both):

1. You are playing at a better relative volume to the band during rehearsals than you are live. Or possibly you just aren’t hearing yourself well enough live. I’ve come across this when practicing a particularly difficult passage. I’m fine in the shed, but on stage, I have a hard time pulling it off. With me, this is usually because I’m playing harder live as I tend to be very conscious about my volume. But when I’m practicing, I’m often at a volume that would be inconsiderate to the music (so I can hear myself well). In short, I practice with my volume cranked and then when I hit the stage, I wind up plucking harder because I’m not hearing myself as well.

The only real cure here is to force yourself to play lighter by turning your volume up either on your amp or in your monitor wedge (or in-ears – which is likely the better solution). No need to clutter up the stage volume. If you force yourself to play with a lighter touch, you’ll be more relaxed and able to play faster, for longer.

2. You are just plain tensing up on stage for one reason or another. This might be due to a tendency to get more “into it” in front of an audience and you’re moving much more and using more strength to perform and/or plain old nerves. All I can suggest here is that you breath deeply and try to relax.

Aside from general relaxation, the only thing you can really do is to make sure that you are practicing like you will be playing live. I generally sit when I practice and stand when I gig, but if you’re having a disconnect, it might be best to match the two experiences as best as you can. Stand up, use and pedals that you use during the show, move like you’re going to move (beware of the ceiling fan and other obstacles in the room if you are hyper-animated), and just play like you’re really playing the show. That includes keeping your volume at the same level (relative to the music).

As far as finger exercises go, it sounds like playing that music is enough of a workout. Just keep practicing your music and be aware of your body. Watch out for pain and do not try to play through it. Notice your body mechanics and make sure that your overall ergonomics are on point. If your body is relaxed, your mind clear and your sound is happening, you should be in the clear!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. The other potential difference between rehearsal and live is warming up. Even if you don’t consciously do a warm up in rehearsal, I doubt you go straight into something fast and technical from cold – but you are likely to do so when playing live.

    Perhaps spend 10mins or so getting you hands up to speed, unplugged before taking the stage.

  2. Bob Gross

    I tend to play with a light touch and let the amp do much of the work. When another bass player sits in and I forget to lower the volume a little on the amp they tend to be too loud. But I’ve found that by having a lot of headroom and playing with a light touch, I can control the tone with my fingers better. It also gives me more dynamic control without using a volume knob or a pedal. And most importantly prevents my hand from getting too tiredly cramped. Quicker passages are easier too. If you are using a pick then it looks like maybe on a gig you’re tensing up more due to the excitement of a live gig than in rehearsal.

  3. Steve

    My personal experience is tempo. Bands tend to play songs, especially faster tempo songs, even faster in a performance setting than they do in rehearsal. The adrenaline gets pumping and you have an out-of-control drummer who just takes off, and suddenly those licks that you’re pulling off in practice are coming off like Flight of the Bumblebee!
    This effects stamina and by extension, muscle control. Been there, done that.

  4. Doug McNamara

    if you’re sitting while playing with a pick, it’s possible that your righthand position and technique changes

  5. that bass guy

    Lots of “pick” advice here so I’ll chime in with a finger-style comment. Lots of bassists anchor their plucking hand on a pickup or string, or even the fingerboard. This causes stress in my opinion. I use a floating hand technique essentially identical to classical guitarists. My hand floats above the strings and is not anchored on the instrument. it is this anchoring that I causes the problem because you’re trying to keep part of your hand rigid to provide support while in the same group of fine motor control muscles you’re also trying to be fluid. By floating the entire hand is relaxed. I do let my right-hand thumb lightly contact the strings I’m not playing to keep string crossing noise to a minimum.

  6. I want to mention hydration. A common cause of muscle seizure and cramps is a lack of fluids. And common reason for that is gigs at bars and the substitution of beer for your usual water. :-)

    Drink lots of water and see how that changes your reaction.

    • J Rod

      Yes, this is true, i discover that the hidratation can be a pain in the ass for your performance, in my case a expend a lot of energy when Im on stage with my band, after i start to hidratate better, i keep more energy to expend in my shows, otherwise mi hands get tired soon and my breath get heavy.. Just put some water bottles near to your pedalboard and take a few long drinks before each song and you will see the big difference :-)

  7. Slammin' Mike Wedge

    In my experience, another thing to be aware of is your BREATHING…. When we become tense and especially when lost in the moment of performing due to tension, this is often the first thing to go… It used to happen to me a lot when I was younger until I became aware of it…. It’s just something to be conscious about….When you feel that first bit of discomfort, be sure to take deeper breaths and become conscious of it….seems basic, I know but it’s gone a long way for me in those situations

  8. Mike Matthews

    Lots of good advice/reminders here. Again, great column Damian! (and my fellow brotha’s-o-bass!)

  9. Stretch and massage your forearms. YouTube has a few videos if you look for techniques to reduce carpal tunnel pain. I play double bass and was having a lot of trouble during a run of Les Miserable which is about 90 minutes straight of playing followed by a 15-20 minutes rest then another 60 minutes of playing. The stretching really helped!

    • Mike Matthews

      WoW Mike, how many pages are in that chart? haha If you happen to have a particular video that you recommend for this, could I trouble you to reply with a link. I’m sure that I wont be the only one who appreciates ya for it : )

  10. Danny Gordon

    Nerves when performing live are often not taken into account. It is different than rehearsal and the tension does manifest physically even if we settle in and relax at some point in the gig. My first show my left forearm and fingers cramped so bad I could barely play and it took a while to calm down and relax with no pain, all from nerves. I find myself holding my breath sometimes so just remembering to breathe and trying to relax and enjoy the experience of the show rather than making sure everything is perfect. Gig are supposed to be fun right?

  11. I gotta agree with Damian’s first point here. I used to have this same problem at every gig where I would play runs (even on recordings) and get into a live setting and suddenly I’m struggling to play the stuff I just recorded (to a click no less… so I’m aware at that point that I CAN actually play it when under pressure and intense situations). Gary Willis and Matthew Garrison recommend the same thing. I noticed that if my volume isn’t loud enough for me to be heard on stage when I’m muting notes with the right (or left) hand, perhaps there is something to this “how loud I’m playing” thing.

    College was tough because our director hated when upright players used amps (and basically any time the bass could be heard over the recording… he was really into those old crap recordings of Charlie Parker where you can’t really hear the bass, but can feel it… and most of those were done with crap equipment before they knew how to mic and produce enough sound from a speaker to hear the bass).

    Christian McBride came to another college in the area and said that groove doesn’t come from being able to play loud or hard on the instrument. He proceeded to hit the string as hard as he could. He was like, ‘This is slap bass. Is has a place, but it’s not all of music.’ He followed that up by playing a groove at a comfortable volume, what is typical of his fat sound. Also to note: he wasn’t playing the bass he owns during his entire stay. The difference was, everyone was quiet when he played, listening intently. Then he mentioned that a great instrument will speak louder. Not that getting a new axe/horn is going to fix your issues. But you have to let the amp do the work. That’s like asking a vocalist to be heard without a microphone. It’s kind of insane when you really think about it. Also a terrible way to blow out one’s voice.

    One of my teachers, Eric Bergeron (he played for Cirque du Soleil for a number of years) was a huge fan of Marcus Miller. One of my first lessons was about how fresh your strings are when you’re slapping and how loud your amp should be. He said, “Too many young guys beat their hands to hell trying to do this stuff. I had a teacher that asked me, ‘Why are you playing so hard?’ ” It was like he was asking, “Why are you mad at your instrument?” Haha. Eric was known for his slap solos twice a night, 5 or 6 nights a week (and they were and are ridiculous). Different things have different solutions. I slap quietly on the bass compared to my finger technique (thanks to the upright), so sometimes I drop some compression or EQ when I go into something slap-related in order to get the amp to speak the way I want it to (here’s the weird thing, the amp is also a part of the ‘instrument/tool’ like the bass. Never wanted to admit that personally, but if a sound is different in a sonic way–whether it be dynamics, tone, or articulation–it does create a difference in the performance.)

    Thanks for reading my novel. And happy playing!

  12. Keith Devereux

    I have the opposite. Fine during rehearsals but after a while I need to use a pic as the tendons in my fingers seem to tighten up. By the end of a set my fingers are so locked together I can’t put the pic down. After maybe 30 seconds my hand relaxes I can take the pic with my other hand. I have fibromyalgia which affects my hands badly. I play light, use a very low action, lowered until it rattles then backed off and light strings 40-95. At some point I’m going to have to stop playing Bass completely as what I have is progressive. I’ve started playing guitar but really miss the deep rumble of the bass.

  13. Govind

    Strength training helps too. If you work out, build your grip strength using grippers and doing deadlifts.

  14. Siegfried

    I saw a demo video a while ago in which the guy pointed out that if you use your fingers to pick the strings (and think most people use the index and the middle for that) it’s good practice to keep the remaining fingers (ring finger and pinky) folded… pointing to the inside of your hand instead of pointing ouside so to speak.

    I started practicing this and found it releaved a lot of stress from my right hand, specially during faster parts

    i believe this was the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGZikYZsyNc