Been playing for 12 years - should I quit?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by MisterStompy, Jul 18, 2021.

  1. Caution - long post. As the thread title suggests, I have been playing the bass for over 12 years now. During this time, I've always considered it my main instrument and thus "identified as" a bassist. But I have never been happy with my tone - and I've lurked this place along with others to know that tone is in the fingers. And after over a decade of technique (along with gear) experimentation, I think I've reached the conclusion that my fingers just won't do it. So would it be better to cut my losses and call it quits?

    I enjoy and have learned songs in a variety of genres. That said, rock and metal are an important part of my musical enjoyment. It was bassists like Steve Harris and Geddy Lee who inspired me to pick up bass in the first place and to practice. These players have bright, aggressive tones that cut through a mix and are clear even when playing quickly. As for me, I seem to have an unusually dull tone (and lower volume), which I initially attributed to beginner gear. But after a few years, when I started to hear other bassists play in person through the same gear, I heard a huge difference; me playing through a bass with the volume and tone knobs wide open sounds like pretty much anyone else playing with the tone almost all the way closed. Hell, I've even seen non-bassists / beginner bassists get sounds out of the instrument that are more pleasing to me than my own playing.

    So I knew the problem was me. Determined to fix the problem that is me, I have tried varying my technique in pretty much every conceivable way. This included, but was not limited to: playing closer to the neck, playing closer to the bridge, playing more at an angle into the instrument, playing more at an angle across the instrument, playing hard, playing lightly, playing with fingers more bent, playing with fingers more straight, playing more relaxed, playing more stiff, playing with different fingers, and even playing left handed. I had a bassist (who produced a clearer tone than me) try to explain to me what he was doing. I had him explain right hand fingerstyle to me as if to a beginner. I also looked closely at what his hand was doing. Still no luck. People often like to say that if X player were to play through a different instrument or rig, they would still sound like X player. Well, turns out I have a signature tone, and I don't like it.

    Over the years, I haven't just been practicing, of course. I played for my church for most of that time (until a few years ago), about every other week, often to fairly large audiences. I've also posted a video here or there on social media and shared with friends. I have always gotten compliments on my playing, from people with both musical and non-musical backgrounds (though never on my tone). I don't think the dull tone ever really impeded me on the context of church music, and some other genres. But I've always wanted to record my own rock and metal music. And over the years, I have always threw away any attempts I made in disgust after playing them back. If the type of song requires fast playing, it's mud.

    Finally looking to remove my fingers from the equation, I started to try playing with a pick starting a month or two ago. I liked the sound I could get. Though I have felt like I had become a beginner again. Passages that would be easy for me fingerstyle are a struggle. The instrument no longer feels like an extension of me, but a bear I'm wrestling. But I've never been the type to be put off by practice, so this was a mountain I would have been willing to set out to conquer. However, more worryingly, still more recently (last couple weeks) I have been beginning to feel pain in my left arm. I am not a big person, and what I found that was causing it was trying to play with a proper thumb-on-the-back-of-the-neck left hand around frets 1-5. In order to position the bass to be comfortable for my picking hand, the neck is a bit further from me. I can alleviate the pain by playing with the thumb over the neck, like a guitarist would, but then I lose speed. I've been looking at how other pick bassists hold their bassist but haven't been able to settle into anything truly comfortable.

    I don't know, man. I could try continuing to play with a pick, but get a short scale instrument (I have found the difference to be quite notable for me as a small person). Or some other solution that I'm not thinking of. But I'm getting tired of throwing money at my problems in vain. But I'm reluctant to quit because it just seems like a waste having spent years becoming proficient. I can always make music in other ways - I played piano for over a decade starting from when I was a kid, I've dabbled in guitar (but not super enjoyed it), and my drum rudiments are becoming...okay. But I like bass best.

    Anyways, I'm just looking for honest advice and opinions from other musicians (and I fully admit that the vent was a little bit satisfying), if anybody here would be so inclined.
    sqrat51, jamro217, PsyDocHill and 4 others like this.
  2. Everyone has limitations. Learn to embrace them and work within them. I can’t play very fast. These days my answer is not to worry about my top speed and simply play the speeds I can. I figure my top speed is 40 MPH whatever that means. It’s fast enough to make music and get somewhere even if some parts remain out of reach.

    Personally, I have found that emulating others and playing their music, especially that of world class bands like Rush, to be ultimately unfulfilling. You never really get there. And it’s easy to forget those bands find often it difficult to play their own music and sound like themselves. Studio cuts are the very best takes captured in a very controlled situation and then often mixed and mastered by excellent sound engineers. They are an illusion.

    I’ve pivoted to devoting my time to originals where I can play like me and sound like me. It just washes away these concerns and puts me in a different and more creative space where I can do no wrong. I merely focus on the challenge of doing my best to make the best music I can. That is, after all, what our musical heroes did isn’t it?
  3. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    If you want to quit, quit. It is your decision to make, and it should not matter what anyone else thinks.

    As far as the problems you mention, I have some possible ideas to consider.

    1. Tone. I remember having similar thoughts. Back when I was still a kid, I would regularly go to a music store where a really good bass player worked. When I played a bass, the tone was smooth, loose, and unfocused. When he played it sounded punchy, tight, and focused.

    Originally I played upright bass. Much of my technique on bass guitar was adapted from what I knew about upright. I used straight fingers on my plucking hand with bass guitar for many, many years.

    Late in my playing career, my organization hired a very young bassists who was really a prodigy. He was about 19 and had more technique than I will ever have. I was really impressed by his great tone, and how expressively he could shape notes. A key difference is he used arch plucking fingers instead of straight plucking fingers like me. So finally I decided to try this technique and guess what, it worked. I was able to develop a more punchy and focused sound, and also gained more ability to shape the notes in interesting ways.

    IMHO rather than striking the strings, you pull through the strings. By putting a bit more tension into the string, you get a stronger attack when the string pulls off the finger tip. I do want caution that you do not really need to wank super hard on the strings, you are just putting a little more tension on them.

    Also by varying the angle of the pull and release, you can vary your tone.

    For the record I had resisted using this technique previously because it was more taxing on my hand. But after dedicating myself to the change, I found that it did not take long for me to adjust. I still have a fairly light touch, so it's not necessary to use a lot of force all the time, although you certainly can use more force when you want to produce some gank, clank, or fret rattle.

    A significant other change is I transitioned from anchored thumb to floating thumb. So essentially I made a pretty major change to the way I used and held my plucking hand. Floating thumb facilitates better muting, and I also experiment with some four finger flamenco style plucking, and well as double thumb slap.

    2. Thumb pain on fretting hand. In the upright world we have this concept that we describe as using arm weight or pulling from the core. The idea is really to minimize the amount of force applied by the thumb. Rather than pinching the bass and strings between your thumb and fingers to fret notes, you learn to use arm weight or core strength to take the weight off the thumb. The force is transferred from your back all the way through to your finger tips; so the thumb is not necessary, and at most it provides a bit of lateral stability.

    Some other factors that could relate to this problem:
    A. The height that you wear the bass. I find that if I wear the bass too low that it is harder and degrades my facility with my fretting hand, and if I wear the bass too high it is harder on and degrades my facility with my plucking hand. So the ideal height can vary somewhat depending on the style of music you are playing.

    B. The way the strings are centered on the bass has an impact on several factors related to your fretting hand. Some related posts I have written:
    Is there a way I can play bass with my frets a bit too far apart?
    LH - Use of ring finger vs pinky (one finger per fret?)

    C. Setup: If the nut is not cut properly it takes more force to press the strings to the frets as you play closer to the nut. I have had to file the nut on many of the basses I have played over the years. My goal is for there to be even tension across all strings, and for there to be no perceived increase in tension as my fretting hand approaches the nut.

    D. String type, EQ settings, type of amp and speaker, etc. If you don't have the type of tone that helps you hear clearly, you tend to overplay, which is taxing on the muscles. I use old round wound strings, but I adjust the amp to be pretty darn bright so I can hear the attack and overtones. I notice that when the strings are fresh that I don't need to crank up the mids and highs as much. My tone is actually still pretty smooth as I don't normal produce much gank.

    I suggest that you Google and read about "masking frequency slotting".

    Good luck with your decision and/or continued journey.
  4. MrLenny1


    Jan 17, 2009
    New England
    Tone is an endless quest. Trying to get Geddy's sound would require Geddy's sound man.
    I always seek out a good teacher when I'm stuck on something.
    They can help out immensely in a few lessons.
    Several years ago I was a 50 year old bass player taking
    lessons from a 21 year old bass teacher. It worked.
    PsyDocHill, BlueTalon, Artman and 9 others like this.
  5. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Lots of excellent suggestions already. A couple more:

    Where is your speaker in relation to your ears? If it's on the floor, you may not be hearing the sound accurately.

    Have you had your hearing tested? New hearing aids can feel like you've taken the wet blanket off your speaker cab.
    MarkJC8, Splash7, IvanBassist and 8 others like this.
  6. Rob1957


    Dec 3, 2020
    If you are unhappy and want to quit then quit
    No one here or anywhere else can make that decision for you.
    You will receive a lot of good advice here …whether you choose to follow any of them or trying them is also up to you only
    Reg Braithwaite and BOOG like this.
  7. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    Have you thought about growing your RH nails a bit? Might get you the tone you want from the technique you already have, and bring back the 'connection'...
    PsyDocHill and BlueTalon like this.
  8. I've been playing guitar and bass since I was a teenager; I'm in my late 50s now. I've never been in a real band, though I've been told by several others I'm good enough to be in one, and I'm only an intermediate player. Even if I'm not at the level I'd like to be, it still gives me enjoyment. To me, that's all it matters.
    Lackey, BlueTalon, frustum and 7 others like this.
  9. Chrome Dome

    Chrome Dome Chrome Dome Supporting Member

    Sep 17, 2013
    Piqua,Ohio 45356
    Been playing bass over 45 years,never gave it a thought about quitting! Enjoy it too much! Not the greatest player,but enjoy the style,and technique developed over the years. Have always played Southern Gospel music,some bluegrass,mostly gospel music at Church. Traveled on weekends,with Gospel Quartets,filled in with some groups that needed a bass player,at different times. Never ever thought about quitting. Enjoy it while you still can. My thoughts from the heart!
  10. bmusic

    bmusic Supporting Member

    Oct 22, 2017
    Los Angeles
    Nah, don’t quit. It’s your favorite instrument!

    Try to enjoy the journey.
  11. buldog5151bass

    buldog5151bass Kibble, milkbones, and P Basses. And redheads.

    Oct 22, 2003
    You should never be satisfied. Two questions:

    1. Do you enjoy playing?

    2. Speak to others you play with. Do they think your tone is decent?

    If the answer to 1 is yes, why quit? If there truly are tone issues, try some lessons, and explain your concern to the instructor.
  12. pglaser01


    Mar 19, 2013
    St. Louis, MO
    If only I were that good....
    “But I have never been happy with my tone”

    Ha! no no….you’re definitely one of us.
  13. Element Zero

    Element Zero Supporting Member

    Dec 14, 2016
    My brotha. I feel ya. I’ve been playing for 26 years and I’m STILL tone chasing. I’m pretty set on my basses as they were rather significant investments and I’m beyond happy with my amplification.

    Strings “can” make a HUGE difference. I love the sound of fresh strings. Clean, bright and zingy is real close to heaven for me. Unfortunately, strings are pricey so it’s hard for me to maintain that sound long term. Clean hands every time and string boiling are part of my routine, but they still only last so long.

    I’m happy with my tone (for the most part) while I’m playing but am rather disappointed when just messin around at home. I strive for that tight bottom end and slightly aggressive midrange type of tone that’s popular with with many gospel style players. My 2 mains can EASILY get there… however… it’s still not to the caliber of what I’m want ie Andrew Gouche, Alain Caron, Melvin Lee Davis, John Myung’s tone on Train of Thought and A Change of Seasons amount countless others and nearly everyone I’ve heard playing a MTD or Ken Smith lol.

    Don’t quit. Please man. If you LOVE to play, PLAY!!! Tone is, subjective. In the heat of the moment (FOR ME) my tone isn’t nearly as important as the feeling and rush I get when I’m playing with killer musicians who simply want to play with other killer musicians.
    PsyDocHill, BlueTalon, Artman and 2 others like this.
  14. Killing Floor

    Killing Floor Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2020
    Austin, TX
    Play bass if you enjoy playing bass. Quit playing bass if it does not bring you joy. Life is finite. Make the most of it and don’t fill your free time with occupations that you do not love. Simple.

    But try buying a bunch of pedals and also try to fire a drummer. These help.
    PsyDocHill, Mili, Gothic and 4 others like this.
  15. HardNHeavy


    Apr 17, 2014
    i certainly wouldn't quit if you enjoy it so much. All the suggestions here are spot on!..Might try using a particular pedal to achieve your tone. I dont use them myself, as my basses and amp provide all i need...but dont give up.
  16. Thanks for the responses!

    In response to 2, the pain came in my elbow and wrist rather than the thumb. I think it is a result of my contorting my arm to a certain degree to get a "proper" fretting hand angle all the way out there.

    I guess I should also note that I was already playing 1-2-4 when possible for years where the frets were further apart due to difficulty with one finger per fret.
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2021
    Wasnex likes this.
  17. Father Gino

    Father Gino Supporting Member

    Nov 3, 2018
    Farthard, Connecticut
    Short scale with a pick is pretty nifty. Not sure if it’s the best for Metal, but it can certainly be bright. Try a pick for another 12 years and see where you get. If you haven’t seen him before, look up Bobby Vega on you tube for pick inspiration.
    If it’s no fun for you, why bother? Only you can answer that question.
    DavidEdenAria likes this.
  18. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    As far as your tone goes it sounds like you are letting perfect be the enemy of pretty good.

    You don't want a perfect tone but a reliable tone.
    one that is consistently good enough across a variety of situations
    that's why P-Basses are the default workhorse bass: reliable, effective tone.
    Will you sound as awesome as Steve Harrris on vinyl? of course not.
    You don't have his gear and more importantly his engineers and their gear.

    If you give up perfection you may find things are pretty good

    to me it sounds like your not positioning your neck for optimal access. Check my avatar . See the angle of my bass? Getting the headstock closer to my face eliminates a unnecessary stress on my left arm/hand, makes it easy to thumb-on-back-of neck and access frets 1-5. Everyone is different , so the maxim is position your bass to suit your body, not the other way around. Copying Famous Guy is rarely the solution. I get that your trying to serve your picking hand but there must be some room for adjustment if it kills your left hand.

    That said, technique issues are best solved with a decent instructor in person, but barring that you can
    consult the holy trinity of beginner bass technique videos
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2021
    weird_hermiston and Wasnex like this.
  19. 31HZ

    31HZ Glad to be here Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Feb 26, 2006
    Central VA, USA
    I'm not in a band that needs a bass player with a gigantic pedal board, but I love to play through it anyway because a dialed-in clanky/dirty sound gives me so much joy.

    There are multiple ways to get the tone that you are describing that perhaps you have yet to explore: strings, setup, pedals, amp, cabinet, technique, etc.

    Not that long ago, I reconciled that there would never be an "end" to the quest, which freed me to fully embrace (and enjoy) the journey. I hope that you find a way to continue on your path, and may your journey bring you joy and fulfillment.
    GTHintz likes this.
  20. RichSnyder

    RichSnyder Columbia, MD Supporting Member

    Jun 19, 2003
    Get some in person lessons from a legit instructor. It will be the best money you're spent in your quest. Ad good ear plugs if you're playing loud.