That pesky left hand…

Repetitive Stress Injuries, or RSI’s, are a constant threat to musicians. Countless hours of playing can all of a sudden creep up on unsuspecting performers and take their toll in a very nasty way. Like any person who’s spent too much time in the shed, I’ve had my flirtations with tendinitis, and have had to spend many hours correcting and refining my technique so that I don’t injure myself further.

A very common problem in the study of electric bass is that because it is so new of an instrument (just over a half century) it doesn’t have the hundred years of ergonomic study that other instruments might, and so injury occurs at an alarming rate.  Originally, musicians simply took the prevailing concepts for other instruments such as guitar and upright bass and applied them to the electric bass simply because there was no other framework for playing the instrument. Unfortunately, not much has really changed in the popular pedagogy for the physical approach to the instrument since it first was conceived, and there a lot of mistruths and misunderstandings about playing bass that have been passed down.

The left hand is my main point of contention, really, because a lot of things that work on guitar and upright bass result in things that are very bad on electric bass. Check out these three instructional YouTube videos, for example…

There are plenty more out there, but this is just a small taste. There are three main concepts in these videos that are frequently taught that are directly borrowed from electric guitar and upright bass and do not work safely on electric in some circumstances.

1. Thumb pointed up, middle of the back of the neck. This is actually borrowed from both upright and guitar, and doesn’t work in the electric bass’ lower positions because it inevitably produces an extreme left hand angle in order to get the thumb pointed upwards. You might notice that this isn’t the case starting around the 5th-7th frets. This isn’t surprising at all, because that’s where the electric guitar’s scale length begins, and so that technique is still valid there, but beyond that, your hand inevitably begins to bend sharply at the wrist if you force your thumb to point upwards.  Electric bass is not an ergonomic instrument at all – playing it horizontally like a guitar produces forces your body to contort to some odd positions and it’s difficult to get it to work safely and naturally with your body. Now, there are ways around this, notably with angling the bass at less of a horizontal angle, but this may be difficult with some basses or some straps.

2. “C” shape with thumb and first/second finger. This is borrowed from the upright bass. This works fine on upright because having the C shape with the elbow raised creates a lot of leverage against the tension of the strings, but diffuses all tension from the wrist, which is still straight and relaxed. If you simply rotate this ideal apparatus to the horizontal plane (for playing electric bass), the arm needs to be raised very high and the elbow jutted very far out in order for the fingers to be able to reach to the lowest string on the bass, and even still, the strap needs to get the bass at about a 45 degree angle. Few people play this way. Instead, this word of wisdom about upright bass was simply transferred out of context to the electric bass, and as a result, a lot of people end up playing with bent and stressed left hand wrists.

3. One finger per fret, fingers perpendicular to the strings. This is borrowed from guitar, and works well from the 5th-7th frets up, since that’s where the guitar’s scale length begins. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against OFPF in the lower positions, but care has to be taken in angling the fingers and pivoting from the forearm and thumb in order to keep the wrist loose and relaxed. Instead, a lot of instructors teach the idea that OFPF means keeping all the fingers curved at the same angle all up and down the fretboard, and that they have to be perfectly perpendicular. A lot of people get the impression that this sort of thing is very “proper” and “classical.” It’s not. It can be dangerous without careful regarding how the fingers, wrist and forearm interact in order to keep the wrist angle from becoming extreme.

So what’s the solution? What’s the “correct” way? Basically, a little bit of body awareness goes a long way, and understanding that the safest physical state is the most relaxed state. That’s the idea behind one of my many YouTube ramblings.

The problem with getting too dogmatic about this is that I honestly haven’t talked to many people who “swear by” the other way of thinking, so I wouldn’t know their perspective. However, I do know that for me, and a lot of others like me, this whole “neutral position” idea has gone a lone way into getting me playing my rather awkward instrument in the safest way possible.

It does kind of make me cringe when I watch videos like this, though…

Man, Yves. I really hope you know what you’re doing there with your fretting hand, because if that were me doing that for any length of time, I’d be down for the count.


2 Responses to “That pesky left hand…”

  1. 1 catefneely July 29, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    This person has listed some books and other references, although I don’t know how effective they are–

    I have some basic books about Alexander Technique which is part of becoming aware of the whole body, not just the part that hurts, and how that awareness can lead to better function.

    If guitar players didn’t have to bend their hands in weird ways and carry 400 pound instruments, this would not be an issue…

  2. 2 Markus September 1, 2010 at 10:54 am

    I found this via talkbass. Thanks a lot. I think you are dead on with this.

    I used to play bass without ever thinking about technique. When I started to play again after a 7 year break, I thought “This time I will learn proper playing”.

    Unfortunately, I trusted a guy on the internet that advocated high strapped bass, with a very bent left wrist (a necessary thing he said), strict ohpf etc etc…

    Got me mild tendonitis and ulver nerve symptoms :/ Getting better now that I simply try to play natural and relaxed. Your take on the subject just reassures me. Thanks.

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