Discouraged by persistent DB discomfort.

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by BanquosGhost, Jun 14, 2019.

  1. BanquosGhost


    Jun 14, 2019
    Hi all,

    I started playing (jazz) upright bass over 5 years ago now (after starting BG much earlier), and was, until rather recently, serious enough about it to study in a university jazz program for a few semesters. While I love jazz, playing music with others, etc., I chose to discontinue my jazz studies for the time being, about 8 months ago.

    The reasons for my decision were various, but the one that bothers me most is my apparent inability to ever get totally comfortable on my chosen instrument. The predominant problem is soreness and exhaustion in the left arm/shoulder/back area. Note that this is not pain I am describing: I dealt with actual pains in my left hand early on in my DB studies but eventually resolved them with the help of teachers. Instead, it is more of a soreness akin to lifting a weight, and usually begins about 15 minutes after starting to play; in cases of playing many hours a time it often becomes a distraction from focusing on the music (and this has been so even in periods of regular practice).

    I have raised this issue with every teacher I have had, and many other bassists I know/have known. It seems that, when I have gotten a straight answer, the implication is that this discomfort really cannot be resolved through improvements in technique but only through building strength/stamina in the left arm/shoulder/back area. I do have a small, scrawny build and I wonder if this contributes to the problem (although I have met plenty of seemingly unfazed bassists smaller than myself). Perhaps sitting down or a bent endpin would help with this issue? I have experimented with sitting positions but ultimately have found the limited freedom of movement to be a drawback in itself (plus the minor hassle of bringing stools to gigs).

    My big question is: Will there always be some exertion required from the left arm/shoulder/back area? It seems that simply holding your elbow up to shoulder height would make this so. Again, I have applied all the usual methods for good standing posture and have worked on these with teachers: what remains is this nagging discomfort which I suppose can only be eased through building necessary muscle? I guess I don't want the musical instrument I spend so much time with to feel like lifting work.

    Any input is greatly appreciated.
  2. Every instrument causes repeated strain and discomfort. Work out which instrument suits your body best.

    I’m playing less DB and more Fretless EB these days and learning to make the most of it.
    BanquosGhost likes this.
  3. dhergert

    dhergert Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2018
    Blue Zone, California
    There are changes you can make to your bass. If you aren't already doing so, the easiest change might be to use lower tension strings, perhaps guts or synthetics. There also may be sound post or other setup changes that would reduce the effort required from either hand in order to sound good and loud. Your fingerboard might need a relief plan
    Some target exercise might also be helpful!
    Peck_Time and BanquosGhost like this.
  4. BanquosGhost


    Jun 14, 2019
    Thanks for the advice. I should mention that I have found some improvements when playing top-heavy basses as opposed to bottom(body)-heavy basses such as my own, although my experience with side-by-side comparisons may be too limited to define a consistent trend.
  5. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny Inactive

    Nov 20, 2000
    Harrison Mills

    You sound like an ace candidate for the Alexander Technique.

    If a stool helps then use one. This stool is a good compromise between comfort and portability. I've had one for almost ten years and it's still working great.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2019
    Kickdrum, jheise, Ed Fuqua and 2 others like this.
  6. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    How is the setup of your bass? Does it have low or high action? In your case I would suggest low action. Also check the string height at the nut. Should be low as well.
    Peck_Time likes this.
  7. ctrlzjones


    Jul 11, 2013
    It may be intersting for you to take 15 minutes for checking the powers involed in sound production. The aim is to find a way to use the least amount of force to get a singing and stable sound while bein most relaxed in every part of your body (yes, the feet too).

    Alexander et al are a great way to do that.

    It also can be helpful to observe other players (on youtube if you must) & beaming into their bodies to find out how it may feel doing what you're seeing & hearing.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2019
    pdh likes this.
  8. I guess you know all the technical stuff around the 'everybody is different'. Chris Fitzgerald's posture variations helped me quite a lot in realizing what are the things that nobody can tell you and you must find for yourself.

    As for general stamina: I never cared for sports, but playing upright forced me to do something. I go on bike for an hour and do a 10 min excersise (almost) every day. This proved very helpful not just for the bass, but also to survive in general (those of you with small kids know).

    Nowadays, the upright doesn't hurt me at all, it's more like a relax. Except special occasions like hard sight reading, which usually ends in neck pain as I didn't move my head for an hour or so.
  9. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME

    Take heart. The guy on the right figured it out -- Gary Karr, a giant in the field of bass-playing but a regular smaller-sized person:

    J_Bass, jheise and Chris Fitzgerald like this.
  10. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I play seated because it's the only way I've found to remain comfortable when playing. Others play standing for the same reason. Everyone has to find their own way. I was just up at ISB and saw a lot of diminutive bassists who were playing the snot out of the bass without pain. Unless there is some existing injury to your shoulder, the answer probably lies in some combination of posture and technique. Keep exploring!

    With my method of playing and rather stiff setup, the left shoulder/back does feel like it's had a bit of a workout after I play for a long period, but it's not painful and I take the fact that I feel the result there rather than further down the arm to be a good thing rather than a bad one.
  11. fu22ba55

    fu22ba55 Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 16, 2009
    As mentioned above, switch to some brand of weichs if you haven't already. I played mittels for my first 4 years until a new teacher played my bass and said "these strings will put you in the hospital." Switched to weichs and now I can focus on making music rather than icing my wrist after every practice session.
  12. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    I can't give any specific prescriptions but I do have two thoughts:

    1) Double bass is a physically intensive instrument. I am not a big bruiser but I'm more or less medium size and my left side gets doggone tired after a couple hours playing.

    2) Are you taking sufficient breaks? It's easy to get caught up in practicing and play an hour without a break, something you would never do on the bandstand.

    3) I have two bum shoulders (impingements) and have ended up setting my bass a bit lower than most people do. Thsi tremendously eases the strain on my left shoulder. When bowing my bow hits the strings a bit higher than optimal, but I am still able to pizz at the end of the board because I have long arms for my height. I notice a lot of people have the bass set high enough that in the lower positions like half and first they are actually reaching up and back to finger, a very high strain posture. In my case I am reaching more "out to the side" rather than "up and back" which greatly eases the strain. Maybe you should experiment with gradually bringing the bass down one notch at a time. (I only play standing, I have tried once or twice the stool thing but for various reasons have never pursued it long enough to get it figured out.)
  13. PauFerro


    Jun 8, 2008
    United States
    My success has come from playing an instrument that fits me personally. It fits me like a glove. It meant experimenting with different sized instruments and listening to my heart. At 5'3.5" this was really important to me, and has been important to me throughout my life -- when choosing a bicycle, a backpack, clothes, and more.

    But it's smaller than the standard 3/4 sized instrument most people play.

    I suggest you try all kinds of different instruments if you have a store near you that provides that. I was fortunate enough to have a violin shop with a whole row of upright basses from 1/4, 1/2, 5/8 and 3/4 to try out.

    Also, have you perhaps consulted a chiropractor? Could there be some musculo-skeletal issues at work?
    LM Bass and Sam Sherry like this.
  14. While reading your first paragraph, I found myself wondering "would an angled endpin help his problem?"

    I'm a pretty big guy, & haven't experienced the problems you discuss. I also have never played seated, so I can't speak to that.

    But a couple of years ago, I installed an angled endpin on my bass after briefly trying one out on a pro's bass. I find this much more ergonomically efficient, comfortable, and easier to play.

    It's a pretty big investment to try sight unseen, especially if you're thinking of giving up the instrument. But if you can locate a bass with an angled endpin that you can try out, you might find it more comfortable. (When I did so, it took me about 5 seconds to realize that I wanted one.) If you go this route, I'd recommend buying a fixed-length carbon fiber unit, and (slowly and carefully) cutting it off to the proper length for your build. A good luthier can drill a hole at the proper angle. DSC_0079.JPG at the proper angle to hold the endpin.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2019
    Chris Fitzgerald likes this.
  15. sean_on_bass


    Dec 29, 2005
    The setup of the bass can make a huge difference, as well as how responsive the bass is. Light strings and a top notch setup are a must for struggles like this. Then take a look at technique. I find that practicing with the bow improves my left hand efficiency, although i can't really explain why. It somehow forces me to make contact with the string at the right point of my finger tip and improves my accuracy and engagement. Do long slow scales with the bow and see if that helps at all.

    I don't think it's a matter of having weak muscles or anything, as i don't see why playing the bass itself would not build that stamina on it's own. Posture could have something to do with it too, so keep the torso upright and no slouching. These days the thing that gives out on me on long gigs is my finger tips. They just start to get sore after a couple sets. Or upper back pain from bad posture.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2019
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  16. HateyMcAmp

    HateyMcAmp Supporting Member

    Apr 13, 2006
    Queen City of the Plains
    Krivo Pickups
    I've never had a bass that I could handle with medium or heavy tension steel strings. Sprio mitts downright hurt and I’d wake up with numb fingers. Getting a set of reasonably low tension strings (Think spiro weichs) and a great fingerboard dressing allowed me to keep the action low but save my hands a lot of grief. I can play every day without killing myself, so I'm stoked.
    powerbass likes this.
  17. Are you squeezing your thumb to finger the notes. That is a recipe for hurting shoulders. Use arm weight instead to push your fingers to the FB.

    Do a scale and have someone pull your thumb away from the FB , it should give with firm but not drastic effort from their side.

    There is no shame in doing the oven mitt hold when you get tired. Specially if you are doing a pedal point or some slow legato lines. Use open strings as much as possible and open your hand to release tension during those micro breaks.
    Kickdrum likes this.
  18. jheise


    Aug 11, 2004
    Hamburg, Germany
    Do you take days off? When was your last holiday? Have you ever tried to take a long break from practice (not only double bass) and let your body relax/heal for a few days and then slowly picking up the pace again (don't start on the first day with the attitude: "Ok, I did not practice for a week. Let's try to make up for all those missing hours today.")
    Jeff Bonny likes this.
  19. bherman

    bherman Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 30, 2009
    Grand Junction, CO
    I honestly believe that strength, flexibility and resulting stamina are big factors in playing comfortably. I exercise regularly (3-4 times/wk) for about 1.5 hrs. General stuff (cycling, lots of stretching) but also exercises that focus on upper body strength (back and shoulders) and flexibility. It makes a big difference for me. I can play high-intensity 3+ hour gigs with little effort and no soreness/discomfort. I would suggest that you try this - its worthwhile to have someone with experience help set you up with a routine. If you hire a trainer for a session or 3 and tell them what you are looking to accomplish, they can help tailor a workout program for you.

    It doesn't need to be hard or super-intense; I do some weightlifting but its not heavy weights, its more focused on multiple, slow reps to build strength.
    powerbass likes this.
  20. I second the idea, that it is possible to play the bass at a lower height. I started doing this for sound reasons (more coupling with the floor), but have gotten used to it..