In caring for your right hand when playing bass, the foremost goal is to develop a relaxed and natural position.
In my January 2011 column,
we began exploring ways
to help bass players keep their
hands healthy. In that first
installment of our two-part
series, I discussed the fretting
hand and also pointed out
how much of what I’ve learned
about electric-bass hand care
comes from my years of exploring
upright. If you missed this
column or want to review the
material, you can read it here.
Now we’ll focus on the right hand. In caring for it, our foremost goal is to develop a relaxed and natural position. I play fingerstyle with two fingers almost exclusively, so I’ll direct my comments to that technique. If you’re a slapper or a pick player, think about how you can adapt these ideas to your method of playing.
To begin, I think it’s crucial to keep the right hand open when playing fingerstyle bass. As soon as the other fingers fold into the palm, muscles tighten up in the hand—and eventually it will begin to hurt. Likewise, it’s important to keep the hand relatively straight and in line with the arm. I like to imagine my right arm floating over the bass rather than resting my forearm on the body edge or the face. This helps keep the wrist straight and aligned with the arm. Conversely, when the hand rests on the upper body, the wrist must bend while plucking the strings, and again, things tighten up. Floating the right hand also keeps pressure off the underside of the arm and allows the arm muscles to work freely with the fingers.
To keep your picking hand relatively straight and in line with your arm, imagine that your arm floats over the bass, rather than resting on the body edge or face. Also, resting your thumb on the E string—rather than on the pickup or body—encourages a relaxed, floating hand. Photo by Holly M. Berkowitz
Along these lines, I’ve found that resting my thumb on the E string—rather than on the pickup or body—encourages a relaxed hand that floats much more easily. A side benefit is that the E string is always muted when not played, which keeps your notes cleaner and the sound more focused.
Another point: If you’re playing faster, that doesn’t mean you need to play harder. In fact, the opposite might be true—when you’re playing a fast tune, it’s harder to keep the picking hand relaxed. Playing harder adds to the stress on your hand. I’ve noticed there’s a tendency for many bassists to play too hard. Besides straining your hand and causing blisters, this makes the volume of your notes uneven and can even cause distortion on the attack of the notes. If you think you might be playing too hard, try backing off a little to see if your note attack still sounds adequate. Your hand will thank you—as will your sound tech.
Besides avoiding misuse, try to protect your calluses. You probably can’t use playing bass as an excuse to get out of washing dishes, but if you do a lot of dishes by hand, consider wearing rubber gloves. Likewise, when doing yardwork, wear work gloves— cuts and splinters are uncomfortable or downright painful when it comes time to play!
I tend to keep my fingernails clipped short, especially on the right hand. I’ve noticed that once the nail on my middle finger grows out, it’s hard for my fingertip to contact the string without hitting it with the fingernail, and that’s not a sound I’m after. Sometimes I’ll get a little tear or split in a fingernail, so I always keep a nail clipper and emery board in my gig bag, as well as a couple of Band-Aids.
The next time you play or practice, think about how you use your hands and how you care for them. To skillfully play a demanding instrument like electric bass, your fingers and arm and hand muscles need to feel their best.
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.