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On Bass: Caring For Your Hands, Pt. 2

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