Does Playing Bass Hurt Your Fingers? (And How to Avoid It)

Playing the bass can evoke a range of emotions. It can be frustrating when we’re at the start of our journey, but once we learn the basics, it brings us a lot of satisfaction. One aspect of bass playing that isn’t often discussed is its physicality.

It’s common to experience finger pain when playing bass, particularly for beginners. Applying the necessary pressure on the strings when pushing on the frets can be strenuous and requires good finger strength. Likewise, a bassist can get blisters on their fingertips when playing fingerstyle bass.

Although finger and hand pains are part and parcel of learning to play bass, it shouldn’t be a constant or common occurrence. If you are getting a lot of discomfort during or after you’ve played, this may be a sign that you need to correct your technique or alter the setup of your instrument. In this article, whether finger pain is normal for bassists, what causes it, and how you can prevent it from occurring.

Bass Playing and Finger Pain

I still vividly remember the day when I got my first bass guitar from the local instrument store in my hometown in northern England. It was a black Gretsch with a short scale, and I could not wait to get it home to start playing it.

As a young teenager, I was pretty naive – and optimistic about the realities of learning to play the bass. I envisaged myself taking the Gretsch bass out of its packaging and figuring it out in a matter of minutes. I’d already played the drums for years, so I was confident in my rhythmic capabilities, and with four strings – how hard could it be?

Little did I know, my smooth and uncalloused fingertips were not yet ready for the wear and tear that pressing against the frets and plucking the strings would entail. Despite my beginner’s zeal, I had to put the bass down after a couple of hours due to the soreness of my fingers and the tiredness of my hands and wrists.

Looking back, with many years of experience under my belt, I know exactly why I experienced a lot of finger pain in those first few weeks of playing bass.

Firstly, my technique was, well, atrocious.

Secondly, I was strengthening the muscles, tendons, and skin to become conditioned to the physical aspect of playing the bass.

Thankfully, I didn’t fall into the category of aspiring bassists who don’t make it through that initial stage when your fingers are in pain, and you feel like you’ll never be able to play a note without it vibrating and buzzing like a muted smartphone receiving a message on a wooden table.

So if you can relate to my struggles when first learning bass, take comfort in the fact that I can now play for many hours per day without my fingers or hands hurting. With a combination of building strength, developing proper technique, and warming up before playing, you can also make bass-related finger pain a thing of the past.

Proper Technique: The Key to Pain-Free Bass Playing

The best way to stop experiencing pain when playing bass is to work on developing the “proper” technique. Indeed, every musician has their own way of doing things, which is what makes everyone individual and unique.

However, there are certain fundamentals that should be established when playing bass to make it as effortless as possible.

Resting Finger Placement

Firstly, you need to analyze your resting finger position. When you hold your fingers over the fretboard, ideally, one finger should cover one of the frets.

For example, if your first finger is positioned on the 3rd fret of the E string, which would be a G in standard tuning, your middle finger should be resting on the 4th fret, your ring finger on the 5th, and your pinky on the 6th.

If your fingers are either too cramped together or too stretched out, this will place unnecessary tension on the muscles and tendons, which could result in pain. Try to get used to keeping your fingers resting a semitone apart when moving up and down the fingerboard of your bass rather than overstretching to reach certain notes.

Wrist Position

Another common cause of discomfort for bassists is incorrect wrist placement in their fretting hand, particularly when playing the two lower strings (E and A). This usually occurs when the wrist becomes noticeably bent.

When you over-extend your wrist, this causes your fingers to move out of the optimal position and makes it more difficult to put the necessary tension on the frets. If you build the habit of bending your wrist, it can be difficult to rectify this problem, but it can be done through intentional practicing and drilling.

Here’s a method I’ve used in the past to improve my wrist position:

  • Place your fretting hand under the neck of your bass, with the palm facing up
  • Keep your wrist completely straight, with a little space between the neck and your palm
  • Move your thumb around the back of the neck, and your fingers curled around the fingerboard
  • Align your thumb with your middle finger or your index finger if this feels more comfortable
  • Retain this exact position while moving to different positions on the fretboard

After a short time of focusing on keeping your wrist straight while you play, it will start to feel more natural, and the likelihood of finger or hand pain will also decrease.

Understanding Calluses: Your Fingers’ Natural Defense

We’ve covered the type of pain that occurs on a bassist’s fretting hand, but another common issue is soreness on your dominant hand when playing with your finger rather than with a bass pick. This technique requires you to pluck the strings, usually with your index and middle finger on your strongest hand, and the repeated friction can quickly make your fingertips feel tender.

The skin on our fingertips is not likely to be used to the pressure and friction required for playing bass, so the skin will wear away, likely causing blisters. When these blisters heal, callouses appear, which are harder layers of skin developed for future protection.

The more calloused our fingers get, the less soreness we experience when playing the bass. Someone who has been playing bass for decades is likely to have very hard callouses on their fingertips on both hands and, consequently, probably won’t feel any soreness even if they play for many hours.

Developing a Warm Up Routine

Playing bass is a physically demanding activity and can take its toll on our bodies. Aside from the obvious areas that are used for playing bass, such as the forearms, wrists, hands, fingers, and thumb, it also engages the muscles in our upper arms, shoulders, neck, back, and lower body if we stand up to play.

Just like with any other physical activity, it’s vitally important to warm up our body before playing the bass. We need to loosen up and ease ourselves into it in order to avoid injury and improve our playing.

Here are some tips for warming up each important part of your body, ready for a practice session, performance, or recording session on the bass. Warming up is especially important if you’re going to be following a drummer who likes to play fast and powerfully!

Stretching Your Arms & Wrists

Your arms and wrists are two areas that have to work very hard when you’re playing the bass, regardless of your technique.

A great way to loosen up these parts of your body is by gently stretching them so that the muscles and tendons become prepared for bass playing.

You can do this by simply placing your palms together in a prayer-like position, then slowly moving your fingers downwards so that they point into your lap. This stretches both your wrists and your forearms simultaneously.

Preparing Your Hands and Fingers for Bass Playing

Playing bass is intense on your fingers and hands, so warming up these body parts is extremely important. This can be done by simply making a gentle fist, then releasing it, straightening your fingers, and repeating.

Doing this for a couple of minutes will loosen up all of your fingers and thumbs and warm the muscles and tendons in your hands and arms up too.

Gently stretching your fingers individually by pushing on them with your other hand is another great way to prepare them.

If you’re predominantly playing single notes, then you can warm up by running through the major and minor pentatonic scales on your bass. For bassists who like to play more than one note at once, check out our detailed post on playing chords on bass guitar, which will give you some good ideas for exercises to implement into your warm up routine.

Maintaining Good Posture While Playing Bass

To avoid neck, shoulder, or back pain while playing bass, it’s important to build the habit of good posture. Whether you’re sitting down or standing, it can be easy to slump forward, which unnecessarily strains your body.

Focus on keeping your head up as much as possible, and if you need to look down at your bass, make sure you only do this when it’s absolutely necessary. Being able to play without looking down is a great skill to develop, not only because it can improve posture but also because it can make your performances more engaging for a live audience.

Try to imagine that you’re balancing a book on your head while you’re playing bass. This will cause you to straighten up and use your core strength to support the rest of your body.

Related Questions

Is bass more painful than guitar?

In most cases, learning to play the bass requires more finger strength than playing guitar, which often leads to more discomfort. This is because the strings on a bass are considerably thicker than those on a guitar, and the action is usually higher, meaning more pressure is needed to push against the frets with your fingertips.

How long does it take for your fingers to get used to bass?

The length of time that it takes for your fingers to become accustomed to playing bass depends on how often you play. If you practice every day, callouses will form within two to three weeks, and any pain you feel should subside. If you play only a few times a week, it can take 4-5 weeks for your fingertips to harden.

Do bassists tape their fingers?

Bassists are unlikely to put tape on their fingers, as it could come loose while playing, making it difficult to navigate the fretboard. However, using tape can help beginner bassists understand where certain notes are or keep their fingers in the right position by placing it on the neck and fingerboard.

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