Hows' about a rather lengthy explanation from Carol Kaye? firstname.lastname@example.org www.carolkaye.com
Left hand fingering, thumb and wrist placement are very important to place
correctly to avoid all tenonitis and potential CTS problems. In my 28
years of teaching the bass, none of my former students (some of whom are
legendary pros in their own careers) have suffered CTS and/or tendonitis
and I've never had those problems either. It's vital to place the hand and
use the thumb, wrist and fingers correctly to avoid problems. You should
not hurt at all to play, and this includes jazz soloing.
Unless you have extra-large hands, this technique should work for you:
look at your hand and notice that the thumb is to the side of the index
(1st) finger. As you start to finger the bass, place the thumb sort of in
the middle of the neck, pointing slightly towards the nut, slightly in back
of the fret where the 1st finger is laying (like its placement in your
And as you play up the neck (up means up in sound, towards the bridges),
your left thumb will naturally fall in back of the 1st finger more and more
so that by the time you're playing on the 9th or 10th fret, the thumb is
maybe 2 frets lower than your index finger. This keeps the balance of the
left hand even and unstressed. If you're playing with your thumb in the
middle of your hand, please change this, this will cause CTS and tendonitis
in your wrist and arm, it's unnatural and strains the hand.
While very large-handed people can sometimes finger the bass like a guitar
(John Clayton was blessed with large hands and could easily and in a
relaxed manner finger 1-2-3-4), most people have just normal to small hands
and should start to finger the bass 1-2-4-4, sometimes assisting the 4th
finger with the 3rd laying on top of it.
The 3rd and 4th fingers share a ligament and as such the 3rd finger is your
weak finger altho' it is a long finger. Your 4th finger has the muscles on
the side of your left hand to support it and the balance of playing the
wide-fretted bass is fine between the 1st, 2nd and 4th fingers most of the
time for rock (jazz is another picture, more on that later).
So practice going chromatically up the neck: O 1 2 4 4 while holding the
thumb in the same position slightly behind the 1st fret, it will pivot to
thrust the final 4th finger up -- Take your fingers with you as a group,
don't let that 1st finger lay down and stay there once you've played a note
with it, take it with the rest of the fingers -- the URB fingering doesn't
work on the elec. bass which has its own fingering and hand position
technique. Play with each finger individually while using the stationary
thumb as your pivot, it is your home base and will thrust the hand up while
keeping your place. Do your chromatic exercise on every string 1-2-4-4-O
of the next string etc.
Now you're winding up on B on the G string. Change the position of your
thumb and put it slightly behind the 2nd fret (where your 1st finger will
land while going down the neck) and finger from B on down 4-2-1-1, going
past your thumb 1 fret, then O, don't move your thumb, then on the D string
same thing: 4-2-1-1-O of A, and so forth. This gets you used to the
slight pivoting action your hand should be doing going down the neck.
There will be times you'll use the 3rd finger in rock, like below the high
Root jumping down a string to the 5th (same fret) and a few other opportune
times like that (playing Root with 1st finger, 5th with 3rd finger and on
to the 10th with the 2nd finger, it all fits) but you want to avoid
(totally) the subsituting of the 3rd finger for the 4th.
No. 1 reason, because you will find your wrist turning sideways to
accomodate the habitual use of the 3rd finger (direct cause of CTS), using
it which is a weak finger, you use other muscles in your hand to do this
that you shouldn't be using), plus your hand and wrist will suffer
consequences of doing this over and over and then your arm and shoulder
will be so involved with pain after awhile of doing this, setting up some
bad physical problems. It's best to use the natural strength of the thumb
with the balance of the strongest fingers of your left hand: 1-2-4.
Now when you're doing your arpeggios and some other kinds of light
fingerings (the individual pressure of each finger is not playing quite as
hard), it's OK to use the 3rd finger, just never in place of the 4th tho'.
I always use the 3rd finger when playing bebop jazz soloing on the bass but
carry the stance (continually) of the 1-2-4 as the total strength of the
hand, using the 3rd finger a lot more than in the heavy playing of
rock/funk patterns and soloing.
Once in awhile (and I stress this ONCE), you can use your fingers stretched
out for a short time (never all the time, this again causes severe physical
problems, tendonitis, etc.) as the fast tempo of some particular tough
pattern dictates it, but never keep your left hand fingers stretched taut
as taught on some videos -- those people have suffered some things they
will never tell you about, and those exercises are WRONG, you should never
suffer any pain or cramping to play -- if you do, you are doing it wrong.
Use your thumb as a pivot, and keep your fingers grouped together (they are
in their most-relaxed state then) as you play and you'll easily play safely
and have stamina and energy all night long then. Minimal warm-up of
pressing each finger against the left thumb for a few seconds before you
play should be sufficient. But there is always a "playing warmup" too,
mentally speaking that you probably will want to do -- the pressing of each
finger is enough tho' to be safe physically with.
Utilizing the thumb pivot (don't move it, and in fact only shift the whole
hand and thumb -- if you can -- at the end of a pattern, or where you have
extra long notes, rests, or take advantage of the open strings to shift
with) to play a pattern like the following one, will give you some good
practice to get used to this technique (reading well has a lot to do with
good fingering techniques too):
In the key of C, play the notes of a C9 chord like this ---- R 5th b7 9th
1st, 4th, 1st, 4th fingers, take your fingers with you when playing the
9th, leaving the thumb in one spot (it will twist a little, that's
pivoting), then the following notes: b7th 7th 8th 1-2-4, play this a
few times to get used to the pivoting. For those of you who don't know
your chordal tones yet, the notes are (going up in sounds): C G Bb high D,
then down to Bb B C.
This should help you. Also, you can play the basic triad R 3 5 with the
fingers 2 1 4 but you'll slightly move back to get the 1st finger -- this
becomes automatic, it's OK to move down past your thumb a little, but you
can move up many many frets while keeping your thumb stationary in a
pivoting stance, you also keep your place very well with this technique
while reading music.
The player who moves his wrist and whole hand and thumb around continually
without using the thumb as a pivot is working too hard, and over-using
their hand, wrist, and arm extensively. There is no need for this. Just
follow the above steps and you'll be fine.
With the extra-large hands, probably fingering 1-2-4-4 also below the 5th
fret would be a good idea. Then use the 1-2-3-4 in rock hard patterns,
this will fit your hand but be sure to use your thumb as a pivot regardless
of the fingerings you use. It will not only save you from any physical
problems but will extend your accurate playing, and subconciously open up
more creativity with this extended way of playing while avoiding needless
physical problems. Any questions, please email me.
Carol Kaye email@example.com
Added 8/9/06 The Electric Bass seems like a very easy instrument to play and it is for awhile. But...so many just pick up the bass and start playing it with no idea of the technique that they really need in order not to get hurt playing this "big guitar"...first of all, it's not a guitar, even tho' it has a neck with frets on it and sort of a shape like a guitar. The similarity ends there.
The pressure it requires, plus the angle of the hand (dictated by the shape of the bass and long neck, all first designed by Feddy Tavares when he worked for Leo Fender in designing the first Fender Precision bass), plus the weight of the neck that continually has a gravity problem (most of the early necks were neck-heavy, pulling down all the time requiring you to hold them up = extra pressure), this will make someone play it at first with poor technique.
You can get by with bad Left Hand technique if you only play 1-2 hours a week, but for everyone else, you'll slowly start having aches pains and eventually suffer from either a nagging painful condition or worse, some tremendously bad physical problems because of bad playing techniques. Don't do it, you can easily learn not only the safe technique but it's the fastest and most-efficient and easiest technique to learn...do it right and you'll never have problems (unless you stand up and play with a heavy bass, that's another problem - nothing over 6 lbs doctors say but I think 8 lbs is OK).
Thankfully, most basses made lately have a more-balanced, if not perfect, neck so you don't have to expend much energy in holding up the neck.
Most people think, including most of the current teachers out there, that you finger it like a guitar ie.: 1 finger per fret - wrong. Some teachers will erroneously put you through tortuous and wrong finger-stretching exercises which go against the way your left hand is built, causing tremendous crippling problems later on down the road, and this can eventually even require you to have surgery....don't do it. Each finger has its own ligament EXCEPT the 3rd and 4th finger which share a ligament...don't try to stretch those fingers - you'll hurt yourself. You can use them wisely with correct technique and fingering.
First of all, be aware of the 3rd and 4th finger sharing a ligament. Do not finger 1-2-3-4 on frets of the elec. bass. The size of the frets dicate a different fingering - do not put tension in your hand by stretching to play that neck...use fingering this way:
1-2-4-4 your 4th finger is actually stronger than your 3rd because it has the whole side of the hand to support it once you build up strength in all your fingers by pressing them individually against your thumb, the same strength you need to play on the bass neck.
ALL carpal tunnel sufferers are/were people who fingered with their 3rd finger in place of the 4th finger - some to the point that they required wrist surgeries, some never to play again.
Look at your wrist when you finger with the 3rd finger, it turns sideways to accomodate the length of the finger, and that is the problem! Your wrist should remain flat, and not turn sideways in order to play the elec. bass neck.....That causes the carpal tunnel.....only in rare cases (like jumping down from the 4th to 3rd finger underneath on the same fret, root to 5th) can you use the 3rd finger safely.
And of course, when you've gained in lessons and want to play jazz soloing which is very light in touch (no hard blues rock-funk playing there!), you can sometimes use 1-2-3-4, but never teh 3rd finger in place of the 4th (no octaves with 1 and 3, always use your fingers 1 and 4 for octave playing). If you have extra-large hands yes, above the 7th fret you can safely finger 1-2-3-4 which fits the size of your hand....
Fingering and thumb-pivoting techniques are shown in-depth on the Bass DVD Course, the Music Reading DVD as well as also on the Teaching - Playing - Hangin' DVD.....plus you can see pictures of the Left-Hand on pg. 2 of the Playing Tips pages (EDUCATION button) also.
Take your time and really get this technique which works with the body's natural build for safe, fast, and super-efficient ways of playing...you'll never get hurt, and you'll play easily with the utmost speed and no-energy expense with the correct techniques. Just know that people who write books with unsafe terrible fingerings and non-pivots are not experienced teachers, nor have spent much time in the education (let alone top professional live playing) fields.
There are a couple of experienced players who wrote books with wrong fingers because they have extra-large hands and probably think everyone should finger like they don (wrong!).....but one even admitted to me he had "someone write his book for him"....he's got a few books out now, all written by someone else. Don't go along with the majority out there who teach technique wrong...you'll pay for it with suffering and maybe even surgery. I've taught over 5,000 students one-on-one and they've had terrific playing careers, and none ever suffered from technique problems...others can't say that.
Having the right strings helps too...the easy-playing dynamic powerful-sounding Thomastik Jazz Flats feel like silk and play easily for the greatest sounds and greatest response also...be sure to get your Jazz flats at a huge discount (see ACCESSORIES in CATALOG)....you'll have the finest for years of trouble-free playing at the greatest of ease when you have both the correct playing techniques with the strings you love to play on and hear.