Proper fretting hand placement and care for bassists
To stay in shape and keep playing, we need to devote some care to both the fretting and picking/ plucking hands. Most problems arise from misuse rather than overuse. Surprisingly, much of what I’ve learned about what an electric bassist must do to take care of his or her hands comes from my years of playing upright semi-seriously. If there was ever an instrument that challenges the body, it’s upright bass. I bought my first upright some 20 years ago—a big-bodied American Standard behemoth with a 43” string length. Keep in mind that a standard electric bass is already a challenge with a mere 34” scale length, and most uprights are closer to 41.5”. On the upright, to play a whole-step (such as from F to G on the E string), requires a span from the 1st finger to the 4th finger with the hand wide open.
As you might guess, for the fretting hand, good use of muscle groups is crucial on the upright, and this is true even on the electric bass. Likewise, there’s a temptation to pluck too hard and in a way that defies how the human body is designed to work. Both picking- and fretting-hand challenges are relatively similar between electric and upright, although to different extents.
It’s easy to overstretch your fretting hand on electric bass, especially when playing the lower frets near the nut. To make things easier on my fretting hand, I play with a 1-2-4 fingering on electric bass— a technique that’s standard on upright. If you guessed right away that this approach only lets you cover three frets in one position, you’re right. But that’s okay. On electric bass, you just need to combine a 1-2-4 fingering with thumb pivoting. That is, rather than stretching your fingers to cover four frets, your thumb stays anchored behind the neck while you swivel the hand back and forth around the thumb to extend your reach.
A few years ago, on a plane trip back from Amsterdam to the States, I sat next to a woman whose work was the equivalent of sports medicine for musicians. When I mentioned I played upright bass and had some fretting-hand problems, she suggested I learn to play “from the tail.” She explained that fretting-hand fingering on bass becomes easier when you don’t play by pressing down strings with your hand alone, but instead, by imagining that your fingers are moved by your arm, which in turn is helped by the shoulder, and finally, with a big assist from the back and clear down the spine to where your tail would be if you actually had one.
To accomplish this on upright, you need to keep your “fretting hand” elbow up and your hand curved. Otherwise, the muscle groups beyond the wrist are out of the picture. To transfer these mechanics to electric bass, I keep my fretting hand’s thumb behind the E string, my wrist in line with my arm, and think about how my hand connects to the shoulder. In addition, rather than holding the bass neck parallel to the floor, I tilt it up nearly 45 degrees, which helps the fretting hand fall naturally into the correct position. Finally, it’s important to keep the fingers curved, slightly apart, and relaxed.
Likewise, to execute the thumb-pivot technique, keep your fretting hand open and curved, so that all the muscle groups get involved. If you switch to a baseball-bat grip, you cannot thumb-pivot, and only the finger muscles are brought into action. When I was learning upright bass, my teacher told me to imagine I was holding a pop can in my hand and to keep the hand shaped in that position while playing. This is overkill for electric bass, but still gets across the idea of keeping the hand curved, rather than folded into a V shape.
There’s a lot to consider with body mechanics as it relates to bass playing. In my next column, we’ll discuss the picking/plucking hand and ways you can care for it, as well as ideas that apply to both hands. See you then.
Dan Berkowitz is a professor by day and a bassist when the sun goes down. He plays upright and electric bass for blues, jazz, orchestra, and musical theater. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.