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Fretting Hand Specifics

For this installment, I’d like to get back to basics and share with you some tips that address the mechanics of hand technique. We will focus on the fretting hand this time around as we continue to work at developing and refining the way our hands work together.

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 lesson, 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. I’ve put together a list of 3 general guidelines to follow when working to clean up our fingering

1. Avoid using a “flat fingered” 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 figure 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 “fretting out” if our fingers are too far forward or backward. (Obviously, this rule does not apply if we need to “bar” 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 generally 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 figure 2:

Although your thumb effectively becomes an anchor for your fretting hand, you DO NOT want to squeeze hard with it! There shouldn’t 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 figure 3:

Ideally, you should still be able to fret the notes using only your other fingers. If you’ve 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 “following” 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 figure 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 figure 5:

…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 figure 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 on.

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, as well):

Avoid sharp wrist angles.

The importance of this can not be overemphasized. Sharp wrist angles, combined with tension and fatigue, significantly contribute to bass players’ 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 lesson, 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.

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 figure 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 “reaching” 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.

Stay relaxed.

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 “practice relaxing.” As silly as it sounds to “make an effort to relax,” you’ll 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 don’t 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, make sure to have fun!

Until next time-

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