6 tips for bass players who deal with pain

Sometimes a few simple things can make a huge difference

By Jon Liebman
June 24, 2022

No one’s body was designed to play the bass. Over the past 70 years or so, bass players have finding ways to adapt.

As we get older, certain maladies creep in, not the least of which are pains in the hands, fingers, shoulders, neck, back, etc. Sometimes these potential hindrances are compounded by arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other nuisances.

I was having a conversation recently with Santana bassist and musical director Benny Rietveld for this week’s FBPO interview. Naturally, we talked about what Benny’s up to, what’s happening with Santana, etc.

When I asked him what advice he had for bass players who are dealing with physical challenges. He offered up some good tips:

Play a light bass, if possible
“If your bass is too heavy, get another one,” Benny says. “There are a lot of nice basses that aren’t that heavy.” It’s amazing how much difference even a pound or two can make when it comes to that constant weight pressing down on your shoulder. Try exploring basses made from different types of wood. Maybe a short-scale bass will do the trick. Find a lighter bass. Your shoulder will thank you for it!

Use the right strap
The width of your strap can make a big difference in what you feel on your shoulder. “Don’t get a narrow one,” says Benny. “Get a wide one, as wide as possible. It distributes the weight so it’s not cutting into” your shoulder. Sometimes experimenting with straps made from different material can make a difference, like leather vs cloth, for example. You can also find straps with a fair bit of padding that are actually quite comfortable.

Get a massage
A massage can do wonders for your muscles, especially if you’re experiencing tension and tightness. “If the muscles are bunched up,” Benny says, “then you’re working against them and you’ll do more damage.” Though a massage can sometimes be a little hard on the budget, see if you can work one in occasionally. It really helps.

Counteract the movements you make with your hands and wrists
“Always do counter movements,” Benny says. “Stretch.” In other words, if playing bass requires you to bend your hand in a certain way, make a conscious effort to stretch those muscles in the opposite direction, gently of course. “Always do the opposite thing to counteract the thing we’re always doing.” Totally logical.

Do warm-ups, even if they’re simple
You don’t want to start cold, especially with anything strenuous. It’s better to ease into playing bass. “Especially at an older age, it’s good to warm up,” says Benny. Otherwise, “it’s like taking a nap and then sprinting. You’re going to screw something up. You gotta warm up, stretch your hands, stretch your arm muscles a little bit. You don’t have to go crazy, but that really helps.”

Stay hydrated
Drinking a lot of water can do good things for your body. “Don’t forget to hydrate,” Benny says. “A lot. More than you think. That helps.” Some people have a strict regimen, drinking so many ounces of water in a day. You don’t have to go crazy. Just do whatever makes sense for you.

Playing bass can put a lot of stress on your body, so be sure to proceed accordingly. Think of yourself as an athlete (for me, that’s a stretch, but…). To Benny’s point, you wouldn’t jump out of bed and then immediately go run a marathon, would you?

A lot of us are facing physical challenges, especially as we get older. You’re asking a lot from your body, so treat it kindly. Show it that you care. Playing bass is supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to hurt!

You don’t have to go overboard. “Just keep the body going,” Benny says. “It’s really important, so just basic things.”

What kind of physical challenges are you dealing with that are affecting your bass playing? List them below and tell me what you’re doing to cope with them. In the meantime, watch my interview with Benny here.

NOTE: None of this information is intended to serve as medical advice. Just passing along some things others have found helpful. It’s always advisable to keep your doctor in the loop when you do any of this kind of stuff!

Comments on 6 tips for bass players who deal with pain

  1. Charlie Irwin says:

    At 75 yrs, I’ve got a lot of the old-age aches and pains. I go to the gym regularly and do a 2 mile walk most nights. Had carpal tunnel & various repetitive motion issues some years ago, went to a wonderful doctor who gave me exercises and good advice. I follow the advice and do the exercises, I’m good. I stop, I hurt. My 1962 P-bass (11 lbs) stays home and I play out on my Elrick (8 lbs.) I also play standing up – when I play sitting, I get all scrunched up and start to get muscle cramps. I also tend to practice in multiple short bursts rather than long sessions. I’d rather do three 20 minute sessions than one 1 hour session.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great info, Charlie. It’s good that you’re able to keep up with your bass playing by doing smart things. Thanks for weighing in!

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