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.
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.