About 10-15 years ago I used to go through quite a bit of hand pain while playing bass. It was generally my right (picking) hand and mainly centred around my middle finger and the related tendon stretching down my palm and through my wrist.
A lot of this was brought about by playing faster and harder than I should while my hands were cold. It occurred more often during winter months and around the time I was learning tough pieces for exams or college auditions.
Eventually it sorted itself out but I can still get similar problems when I play too hard or fast for prolonged periods. However, I’ve noticed that it rarely happens on gigs, even in residencies where I might perform many sets every day for several months.
After pondering over this for many years I’ve come to realise that practice and performance are very different things. When you play live there is a certain amount of adrenaline involved, even when slow pedestrian music and you generally don’t play incredibly hard/fast pieces over and over again.
When practicing alone, you may play the same pieces over and over for hours, possibly to a metronome and at progressively faster tempos. I think this is where the problems lie.
I would sometimes come off a 5 month cruise gig having only played light stuff like waltzes and find my hands in better shape than I ever did while practicing Zappa for 8 hours a day. I couldn’t get my head round it, but it seemed that overdoing the practice could be actually having a detrimental effect. Even though I might have gained 20bpm on Saint Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast, I could have damaged my hands in the process meaning a few days or weeks away from the instrument.
So, I learned that, from a practice point of view, less could actually be more. Three to four hours per night of consistent gigging can be much more beneficial than religiously practicing difficult stuff for a similar amount of time. But what if you’re not in the position to gig to that extent? Well, this is where warmups and hand exercises can come in really useful.
I think the reason things become so much easier while gigging is because your hands are in a permanent ‘warmup’ mode. While performing easier stuff more regularly, the process of improving finger co-ordination is practiced much more slowly and naturally. Basically, you don’t analyse so much on a gig, you just DO it because there are so many other rogue factors to consider.
Obviously, the perfect balance would be gigging and practicing in equal measure but that isn’t always possible. Also, I am only referring to practice in a physical sense and in an exaggerated way. Only a minority of bass players practice Paganini caprices but the point is that if it applies to an extreme then I’m guessing it’ll apply to standard average practice.
So, the main point of this post is to highlight the importance of progressive warmups. On a gig it is less important because you are generally in a hot environment at the end of a day when you’re hands will have natually warmed up to some extent. You’ll also have that adrenaline kick which can get your blood pumping. Regular bass practice can often be on a cold morning when your hands are stiff.
There are a whole bunch of finger/hand exercises that you see mentioned in magazines and on the net. They can be fretboard specific things with imaginative names like “The Spider” or they can be separate finger strength/independence exercises applicable to many different hand-related jobs.
The following set of exercises are gentle and a warmup for massage. Perfect as a starter before moving onto more strenuous exercises or simply as a daily routine for keeping your hands supple and relaxed.
Greg Irwin Finger Fitness (Hand Health)
Some time in the 1990s I purchased the popular Hot Licks video Finger Fitness by Greg Irwin. Back in the 80s and 90s, instructional VHS videos were all the rage and every hotshot bass player of the day would have their own release.
Finger Fitness wasn’t an instrumental video but it stood out from all the other releases in the Hot Licks catalogue with the cover photo of Greg wearing his gloves and demonstrating a typical finger contortion.
It’s a great video and covers just about everything you can imagine in terms of finger independence and dexterity. The original VHS release has since been digitized and uploaded to Youtube (below):
If you’ve never heard or seen Greg Irwin and his amazing finger skills, here’s a mixture of cheesy 80s appearances:
Playing as a Warmup
A really obvious warmup for both hands is simply playing some simple basslines along to a CD or solo. Nothing too heavy, just basic riffs that don’t require digging in too much.
The Mark J Smith Simple Workout
I also have my own special finger warmup/workout exercise. It’s a combination of a bunch of finger permutation exercises I’ve seen in various articles and videos over the years. Michael Manring has his own systematic take on finger permutations for both right and left hand but I wanted a much simpler method and came up with a memorable, straight forward exercise.
The exercise simply takes the following two finger combinations across the neck and back again in a short basic pattern:
1, 2 – 1,3 – 1,4 – 2,3 – 2,4 – 3,4
These digital pairs are each taken across from E string to G string (starting at the 5th fret) and back down again but a fret higher. This is repeated rising a fret each time until reaching the 9th fret. Then the pattern moves back down, one fret at a time until resting back at the 5th fret. The exercise is obviously easier to understand when you simply play it as written.
Here is a PDF download of the exercise. I’ll also look into creating a video lesson of the exercise in it’s entirety.
Firstly, play the exercise fingerpicking every note. For a tougher, more workout orientated challenge, try using hammer ons for each pair.