Last time around we discussed how to improve our technique by focusing
on the plucking hand, overcoming the challenges associated with itís
role in playing the bass. This time, we will focus on the fretting hand
as we continue to work at developing and refining the way our hands
If you have ever watched a great classical musician perform, you have
probably noticed some key elements in his/her playing. World class classical
musicians are some of the most disciplined players with respect to technique.
Much of the music they perform demands intense focus, dexterity, and
consistency. In spite of the excellence demanded of them, however, a
great classical musician stays very relaxed and composed, and these
traits allow him/her to remain expressive, dynamic, and musical throughout
a performance. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of classical
music, it is hard not to appreciate the level of technical mastery demonstrated
by its performers.
Obviously, there is a lot to be gained as a bassist if we are to emulate
the technical discipline of a classical musician. Interestingly enough,
our basic technical approach as an electric bassist virtually mirrors
that of a classical guitarist. For example, look at the way a classical
guitarist holds his/her hands. Right and left hand positioning is virtually
identical to ours. The main difference in the plucking hands is that
a classical guitarist plays using his/her fingernails instead of the
fingertips. The technique of the fretting hand, however, is basically
the same. In this article, we will attempt to incorporate the relevant
aspects that apply to our fretting hands, specifically.
In most applications, the basic technique of our fretting hand remains
unchanged. For example, whether you are using a finger style, slap &
pop, or muting approach with the plucking hand, the fretting hand is
essentially doing the same thing. Iíve put together a list of 3 general
guidelines to follow when working to clean up our fingering:
1. Avoid using a ìflat fingeredî approach.
In other words, try to play more using the tips of the fingers.
This involves keeping the fingers of the fretting hand slightly curved.
(See Fig. 1)
The reason for this is so you can effectively minimize the surface area
coming into contact with the strings and the fingerboard. The result
is better intonation and greater accuracy with your fretting hand. To
demonstrate this, think about how a fretless bass is played. Playing
in tune requires one to pay particular attention to where the string
contacts the fingerboard. A move in the slightest direction forward
or backward with the fretting finger will pull the pitch out of tune.
The more narrow the contact point on our fretting finger, the easier
it is to play pitches accurately. Although a fretted bass affords us
the room to play in between the frets without fear of pitch variance,
this concept is still valid; a flat fingered approach presents a greater
risk of our notes ìfretting outî if our fingers are too far forward
or backward. (Obviously, this rule does not apply if we need to ìbarî
a chord or some other shape on the bass. In instances like these, it
becomes necessary to flatten the fingers at least temporarily.)
2. Keep your thumb at the back of the neck.
Whenever possible, try to avoid bringing your thumb over the top of
the neck. The higher your thumb is, the more inhibited your reach will
be for your fretting fingers, especially when playing the lower pitched
strings of your bass. A good place to keep the thumb is somewhere midway
at the back of the neck so you can maximize stability and reach. (See
Although your thumb effectively becomes an anchor for your fretting
hand, you DO NOT want to squeeze hard with it! There shouldnít be any
excessive force coming from your thumb when fretting notes on the fingerboard.
A good way to test this is to try dropping the thumb off of the neck
while your playing. (See Fig. 3)
Ideally, you should still be able to fret the notes using only your
other fingers. If youíve ever felt pain in the thumb joint or palm of
your fretting hand, try this test and see just how much you are depending
on the squeezing force of your thumb. Just as the plucking hand can
benefit from using a movable anchor, so can the fretting hand. While
you play, try allowing your thumb to freely slide over the back of the
neck in all directions so that it is basically ìfollowingî your fretting
fingers. This will insure that you are staying relaxed and subsequently
offer you maximum reach in all positions.
3. Maintain space between your palm and the back of the neck.
The main purpose of this is to maintain consistency in hand position,
regardless of what string you are playing. You will notice that if your
palm meets the back of the neck, it naturally pulls your thumb over
the top of the neck and turns your fretting fingers to a position less
perpendicular to the strings. (See Fig. 4)
This position makes it much harder to play with curved fingers and contributes
to a lack of reach because of the raised position of the thumb. To get
a feel for a more beneficial hand position, try placing your fretting
hand in a relaxed open handed position away from the bass (See Fig.
and then simply raise your hand to meet the neck of the bass. As your
hand meets the instrument, your thumb should naturally move into position
about midway at the back of the neck, and your curved fingers should
lay naturally over top of the strings. (See Fig. 6)
This is a great basic hand position to get used to using, and you will
want to maintain this position regardless of what strings you are playing
Here are a couple of other more general points to keep in mind that
will aid you in your technical development as a bass player. (These
philosophies can be incorporated into your plucking hand technique,
Avoid sharp wrist angles
The importance of this can not be overestimated. Sharp wrist angles,
combined with tension and fatigue, significantly contribute to bass
playersí hand injuries, and these injuries can sometimes be irreversible.
Although problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive stress
injury, and tendonitis are beyond the scope of this particular column,
their prevention is aided by the avoidance of excessive stress on the
wrists. In general, you want to keep your bass at a height that allows
a moderate wrist angle for both hands. You will find that if your bass
hangs excessively low, a sharper angle is incurred by the wrist of the
fretting hand. If you wear your bass excessively high, the wrist of
your plucking hand will incur the sharper angle. Even if a player wears
his/her bass somewhere in between, most end up struggling with wrist
tension when they are playing in the lowest register of the bass, closest
to the headstock. (See Fig. 7)
The problem is exaggerated when a player tries to maintain a large finger
stretch in that area, for example the 5 fret stretch from F to A on
the E string. (See Fig. 8)
Figures 7 and 8 are examples of the types of wrist angles you should
constantly avoid. An alternative solution to covering this distance
with an uncomfortable stretch involves ìreachingî into each successive
note while maintaining the same fingering. Don't worry about holding
your hand in a stretched position; instead, leave your hand in a relaxed
state, and as you play your notes in order one at a time, allow your
thumb and hand to slide into the next note. You can still maintain
a completely legato feel as long as you reach smoothly and quickly.
if you use this approach you will protect yourself from injury while
maintaining consistent hand position and proper technique.
The benefits of relaxation should be obvious to us as players. The
tensing up of our bodies robs us of our endurance, dexterity, and technical
agility. However, staying relaxed while playing is often easier said
than done. Relaxation begins with the shoulders. Most players that struggle
with tension in their playing usually carry most of their tension in
their shoulders. Next time you are performing or practicing, take a
moment to analyze the height of your shoulders, as well as the level
of tension in your forearms and hands. When you stop to take a break
in between songs or exercises, relax and analyze this again. If you
discover a significant difference in the way your shoulders, arms, and
hands look or feel, you probably are playing with too much tension.
The only way to get out of this is to ìpractice relaxing.î As silly
as it sounds to ìmake an effort to relax,î youíll find that the key
is to simply maintain a constant state of awareness of how much tension
you are carrying at any given time. You can put this to work for you
immediately by incorporating it into your practice routine. While you
are practicing, as soon as you recognize that your shoulders or other
parts of your body are tensing up, stop playing immediately. Drop your
arms to your sides, relax completely, and then lift your hands to the
bass and start playing again. As soon as you feel yourself start to
tense up again, stop playing and do the same thing. By doing this, you
are teaching yourself to become more in tune with your body while becoming
more adept at staying relaxed.
I hope that these points will help you to get to the next level in your
playing. Please remember that not all of these skills can be developed
overnight. Therefore, it is vitally important that you exhibit patience
as you work on these. What we donít want to do is fall into our old
habits out of frustration. Allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes
as you are developing, and above all else, try and have a great time
Until next time!