Dealing with death grip

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by Bocete, Jul 22, 2009.

  1. Bocete

    Bocete My E string is 36 1/4" long

    Sep 30, 2006

    I'm not sure what death grip is, but from searching it seems that that's my problem.

    A few weeks or months, I'm not sure, I've been feeling some pain in my left hand (fretting) wrist. Maybe tendons as well a bit, they sometimes feel weird. So I've decided to refine my technique.

    I like to think that I play with proper posture. I do think it's important and have spent a lot of time dealing with it: floating thumb and plucking similarly to Gary Willis has left my right hand playing effortless, fast and consistent.

    My left hand looks as if I'm playing properly, but I apply too much pressure. So, here's a set of questions:

    I should note that I primarily play fretless, fwiw.
    1. When fretting, my left hand thumb is somewhere between the index and middle finger when looking from above, with the thumb a bit below the middle of the neck. It gets uncomfortable when playing the E string: my wrist angle comes to almost 90 degrees. So I move the thumb to a bit above the middle of the neck: like it's floating. I'm about to get a fiver so plucking the B string would get even harder. Is fretting thumb floating-anchor a bad idea? It feels and looks natural and good on the wrist, but I haven't seen anyone do it.
    2. As for dynamics: when I play lightly I can easily fret lightly. When I dig in, I have a real hard time not applying unnecessarily high pressure with my left hand as well. The thing is, I like to dig in every now and than, my music demands it. Are there any excercises to help me separate right and left hand strength in my mind?
    3. More than a few people have advised some pressure to be applied from the whole of the left arm: like pulling the neck backwards. Then, the fingers do only the fretting. It should allow you to play without even anchoring the thumb: however I'm not able to do that without applying pressure to the body with my right forearm (which I don't do, and think it's a bad idea), otherwise I just keep pushing the neck. I'm really lost here, any advice/help? Should I even bother with this?
    4. Finally, in order to relax my wrist someone has advised letting the whole arm fall besides your body and rotating or shaking the wrist. It feels good. Any other excercises to warm up/relax the wrist?
  2. This is the key.. this is what you are missing. Always use your arms for applying pressure, not your fingers..

    Use the right arm to stabilize the body/neck. Keep your left wrist mostly straight. If you need extra pressure on the left, use your elbow/bicep.

    Playing without your thumb on the neck should be like walking on a balance beam without putting your arms out - possible, but a little unbalanced feeling :)
  3. scottbass

    scottbass Bass lines like a big, funky giant

    Jul 13, 2004
    Southern MN
    Funny thing - my problem with fretting-arm wrist and forearm pain went away when I changed basses!

    I play only fretted 4-strings, so this may or may not be applicable to you. I used to play primarily my pre-EB Stingray, except at really bad joints where I played my OLP Stingray clone because I didn't want to leave my real Ray on stage between sets. I used to get the muscle/tendon pain halfway through the third one-hour set to the point that one or two of my fretting fingers would lock up in a permanent grip and I couldn't play with that finger at all. Exercises helped some, but the problem never completely went away. It also happened earlier in the evening - and was more painful - when I was playing the OLP clone bass.

    About 16 months ago I switched to a new (2008) American P bass. I now play my Stingray on only 3 or 4 songs per gig, and the P bass on the rest. The problem went away completely as soon as I switched - no kidding! I suspect it has to do with the geometry of the neck profile.

    I realize this may or may not be relevant to your situation - or anybody else's, either. But that's what happened to me!
  4. also, jacking your bass up to your chest will probably allow for the best form, though you have to balance that with looking like a dork :p
  5. Stickk


    Sep 2, 2008
    Just like Tom Morello:D:
  6. Get your bass set up and action adjusted so that you aren't fighting the instrument.

    Make sure it's strapped on in such a way that doesn't require your left hand/arm to do anything more that deal with fretting notes. For me, keeping the bass strapped sort of high - not chest high - but not at the waist either - and at a nice, 30 deg. angle or so, really helps the wrist position.

    Sometimes I practice playing scales with my left thumb completely off of the neck. In other words, the fingers and arm are doing the work. But I also make sure I am only applying just enough pressure to make the note come out cleanly.

    I'll also practice scales and purposefully play too lightly - make every single not buzz slightly. Then I just add a tiny bit more pressure and viola'! It's like calibrating your fingers... Apply just enough pressure to make the note sound with a little buzz - then add a tiny bit more.
  7. Bocete

    Bocete My E string is 36 1/4" long

    Sep 30, 2006
    Thanks, I'll work on that. Just one thing: my right hand thumb slides across the strings so I'd be basically pushing the body with right forearm veins. It's not that much pressure, but wouldn't it be bad after long sessions?

    Btw, playing left hand thumbless is not that hard after a few minutes. My left arm muscles are already getting tired, though.


    I put my bass dork-high, I don't care about that :D Also, I've repositioned the strap pins on my basses so that they stay at about 30-45 degrees by themselves, so no fighting the neck dive. They are properly set-up, with low action.

    Thanks for the replies, guys. I'll work on this: in the meantime, what should I do keep the fretting hand applying minimal not-buzzing pressure while really digging in with the plucking hand?
  8. Lunchbox4u_6


    Dec 1, 2008
    Dallas, TX
    I agree with the posters that say get the bass up a little higher on your body. I play with mine fairly high, not Morello high though, and i've never had any wrist/forarm pain because it's very comfortabe. My wrist doesn't need to bend as much.
  9. What does your teacher say?
  10. Hmm.. Maybe I am just fat, but I don't notice any stress to my veins. You don't want to death grip the right side of the bass either. You just use it to keep the instrument still. "As little as necessary to get the job done" is pretty much the answer to everything :)

    Your muscles getting tired is fine.. you will get used to it.. Muscles hurt and then they recover.. Tendons and ligaments go the opposite way.. feel fine at first, and then they go downhill. That's why you want to stick to using muscles to apply pressure.

    I haven't had an issue of applying equal amount of pressure to both sides of the instrument. If it was me I would probably try doing each independently for a few minutes each day to try and get used to it. Maybe you should also consider why you are using so much pressure on the right hand. A more agressive sound can be achieved with technique and/or EQ. Playing bass shouldn't be an overly physical activity like drumming or anything.
  11. Bocete

    Bocete My E string is 36 1/4" long

    Sep 30, 2006
    No teacher here currently, but you might have guessed it.

    It's not like I'm trying to break the strings or something; it's just that, when I practice dynamics (scale quiet, scale loud, scale going quiet to loud etc) I apply a lot more pressure with my left hand in the loud parts. But I might be making too big a deal out of it - it's a nasty habit that I need to practice out of, simply by trying and not doing it.
  12. I'd have to say the best thing is to get yourself to a teacher. We cannot see you and how you're playing, it's all just guess work. Even if someone nails the problem, who's to say they are qualified to help you. A face to face lesson with a living breathing qualified teacher is the best way to go.
  13. Bocete

    Bocete My E string is 36 1/4" long

    Sep 30, 2006
    Just a quick update.

    I've been practicing "thumbless" playing and it gets quite easy after a while. However, when playing songs instead of scales I tend to put a lot more pressure; and if I get carried away, I'm applying pressure like there's no tomorrow. I'll need more time and much more focus to break this nasty habit.

    And, I was really hyped about finding a good teacher to help me with my posture but there hasn't been much luck. Will keep searching, I need a teacher.
  14. unclejane

    unclejane Guest

    Jul 23, 2008
    Sounds like the problem is the bass. You shouldn't have to hold the instrument in any fashion - i.e. supporting the neck with your fretting hand, pushing or holding on the body with the plucking hand etc.

    The only holding you should have to do is with the fretting hand to push the strings down on the board.

    Without knowing better, I'd say there's an at least 90% chance the bass you're playing has poor balance, i.e. neck dive, that's forcing you to hold or push, etc., to keep it positioned properly.

    So I'd verify that first. The instrument should stay in the position that's comfortable for you. If it doesn't, you'll need to make changes until it does (i.e. different strap or even a different bass that _does_ fit you right)...

  15. unclejane

    unclejane Guest

    Jul 23, 2008
    No - you should NEVER have to push or pull or grab with the arms to stabilize anything. The arms should ALWAYS be RELAXED, never pushing or pulling on the body, neck or anything else.

    The only tension there should be in the fretting hand is between the thumb (which should be on the back of the neck) and the fingers pressing the strings to the fingerboard. Arm RELAXED. No tension on the plucking hand - the wrist should be as straight as possible but arm RELAXED. Only supporting muscles in the shoulder should be in tension on the plucking arm. Same with the fretting arm - enough tension in the biceps to hold the forearm up and that's IT.

    If you have to push or pull on something, the bass doesn't fit or the positioning you're using is incorrect. Like I said before, in probably 90% of cases where this is a problem, poor balance in the bass is the culprit.

    Don't try to fret without using the thumb - thats what the thumb is for. But that's the only place you should have tension in the arms...

  16. Bocete

    Bocete My E string is 36 1/4" long

    Sep 30, 2006
    I don't think so. My strap is 3" wide, and my basses have standard shape. The neck-side strap pin is somewhat above the 13th fret which is standard. Plus, I have played for more than 2 hours a few times without using the left thumb at all.

    I just need to focus more. If I really put my mind into relaxing the hand, "calibrating" the touch needed, I can play like that. But when I start thinking about anything else it comes back. A classic case of a nasty habit.

    The good news (that I forgot to post :smug:) is that my wrist doesn't hurt anymore, but I have a long way to go to keep it that way. Thanks to everyone who posted!

  17. unclejane

    unclejane Guest

    Jul 23, 2008
    What kind of bass is it speaking of that? You're describing the dimensions of a Fender-style bass, the most notoriously poorly balanced design there is.

    My G&L's have the same position of the strap lock on the upper horn and their balance is also marginal (my L2500 is hardly playable on the strap for my anatomy as a matter of fact, so it's my main "seated" bass ;)).

    You did say your wrist is bent nearly 90 degs when playing the E string, which is almost a dead giveaway of poor balance and incorrect position (i.e. neck too "horizontal"). That's the reason I suspect that as a contributing factor.

    Try this: put your bass into the position where it's comfortable for you. Then lift your hands off the instrument, but keep them in that position i.e. just hovering over it. Watch what the bass does. Does it move out of that position? Walk around your room a little. Does it move?

    If it does move, you've got a balance/fit problem. The bass should _stay_ in the position that's comfortable for you _without_ you having to hold it. If your fretting wrist is bent 90 degs when playing on the E I can guarantee you it's in an incorrect position....

  18. Bocete

    Bocete My E string is 36 1/4" long

    Sep 30, 2006
    I've got a jazz style bass and a Stagg fretless. The jazz has hipshot lights, and the other balances even better. I know that Fender shape basses are notorious for their neck dive, but these basses with a wide strap are no trouble.

    Ive been playing for a while, without using the left hand thumb (the neck floating by itself) while walking and making sudden turns :)smug:) for 20 minutes or so. I started with the bass at about 45 degs but it fell and stayed firm at about 30 degs, which is still comfortable. I don't know man, I don't think it's neck dive.

    But, I have noticed something that I haven't noticed before. My wrist is not that bent when playing with lighter touch, even on the E string. My fingers have straightened a bit, it seems. Before, I have "attacked" the strings with my fingertips perpendicular to the fretboard, so I had my wrist bending around the neck for better approach. I don't do that now. A good thing, I guess?

    Btw, I've contacted a renowed teacher, we might be starting in September :hyper:
  19. unclejane

    unclejane Guest

    Jul 23, 2008
    That's _definitely_ neck dive ;). And typical of probably 90% of basses on the market (my L2500 will dive just like this).

    Unless you're built like a gargantua like Billy Sheehan for example, you're definitely going to have to crane your wrist around with the neck at 30 degrees.
    If the 45deg angle is more comfortable and allows your fretting wrist to stay straight, then that's probably where the neck should be.
    Anything that allows the wrists to be straighter is better. Gary Willis does an demonstration in one of his videos where he shows how vastly weaker our hands are when the wrist is bent vs. when it's straight. Basically you hook your middle fingers and pull with both straight and bent wrists.

    I tried this myself when I was watching the video; it was pretty shocking.... I think it's an older video that's on Youtube.....

    PS: another great video that talks about neck dive is Bunny Brunel's interview talking about the carvin BB bass. I cite this all the time in the neck dive threads ;) -

  20. Bocete

    Bocete My E string is 36 1/4" long

    Sep 30, 2006
    Nice vid. I've seen that Gary Willis video, and it has made me work on my right hand.

    The good news is I've got a Dingwall arriving in two weeks and they are nicely balanced. What you say here sounds right. I'm yet to play a perfectly balanced bass so I wouldn't know how it feels, I'm thrilled to find out :smug:
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