Avoiding pain while playing bass

Try these tips; they just might help

By Jon Liebman
April 14, 2023

As a bass player, your role in a band is crucial, and it can be a lot of fun. But it can also take a toll on your body (especially if you’re, say, “north” of 50). 

That’s why it’s important to play in a way that’ll help you avoid undue stress and strain on the old muscles and bones.

In a recent conversation I had with Doobie Brothers bassist John Cowan, published as this week’s FBPO interview, John shared some helpful tips for keeping your body healthy while playing bass.

Lighten up

“If you’re doing something that’s physically harming to you, if your body is in a position that’s not good… You know, I have neck issues. I have since 1999, so I’m playing much lighter instruments. I think my ’62 Jazz might weigh about 7 or 8 pounds. I’m playing instruments now that weigh about 4 or 5 pounds.”

That statement is all too familiar. In fact, a lot of my students also find lighter instruments easier if they’re dealing with things like arthritis and tendonitis. Some find short-scale basses to be helpful too.

And John concurs. “I think that’s something to think about if you’re starting and you’re over the age of 30 or 40 or 50,” he says. He also suggests sitting upright in a chair instead of leaning over too much, in order to maintain a natural posture and avoid unnecessary strain.

Play like nobody’s watching

John then talked about the fact that not everyone looks graceful when they play bass. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re playing in an unhealthy way. 

“It’s funny to me,” he says. “Some of my favorite bass players are guys that look spastic when they play! Rick Danko just looked like, ‘What are you doing?’ But if you listen to what he’s playing, it’s so beautiful. And he was playing fretless and singing all the time in the band.”

The point is, sometimes you may have to modify the way you hold the bass, the way you approach the instrument when you play it. In some cases, it’s deliberate; other times it just happens naturally, even subconsciously.

“I see people a lot of times that that actually is their style,” says John. “They’ve just incorporated their being, their human being, as it were, into what they do when they play.”

Sometimes, it just takes a few tweaks

I shared with John some takeaways from my most recent interview with Dr. Randy Kertz, a chiropractor/acupuncturist/bassist who specializes in injury management and pain prevention for bass players. In that interview, Kertz cited players like Christian McBride and Victor Wooten, among others, as examples of bassists who’ve modified their technique, slightly, in order to play more efficiently.

If you’re feeling pain or discomfort while playing the bass, especially if it’s compounded with getting older, try some of these tips and see if they make a difference. 

Make note of the way you’re sitting, try a lighter bass, experiment with a short-scale instrument, modify your technique if necessary. You night even try playing like nobody’s watching! Whatever it takes to get the job done.

Did you know…

My lessons and courses in the Bottom Line Club are ideally suited to people over 50 who want to learn bass, many of whom are dealing with pain. Find out all about joining here.


Comments on Avoiding pain while playing bass

  1. Grayden Provis says:

    I was getting back pain too so I now use two straps – one over each shoulder (the one over the right shoulder fastens on the lower horn). The bass feels half the weight and no more pain. At first I was concerned about how it looked but that doesn’t occur to me now. Besides, if you’re really bothered just wear black shirts and nobody can see the straps.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great idea, Grayden. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Joyce Sheridan says:

    My neck problems went away. I stopped hanging the bass off my right leg and wrapping the strap around my neck in order to reach the notes at the end of the neck. My hand problems stopped bothering me thanks to your recommendations. I play a short scale bass mostly now which has helped to reach the notes. On the jazz bass I loosened the strap somewhat and that helped.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      So glad to hear that, Joyce! Still, take it easy going forward. Please continue to send updates. Thanks!

  3. Jonathan Cumblidge says:

    I get severe hand cramps in either my fretting or plucking hand and have to squeeze my fingers together, making a single claw to get through a few songs. I thought it was from a lack of a proper meal before the gig or insufficient hydration. I take a magnesium tablet every day. So how do I avoid cramping up?

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Jonathan, while I’m not qualified to dispense medical advice, I can tell you that listening to your body is advisable. If something hurts, that means your body is trying to send you a message. You might consider using a smaller instrument, say, a medium- or short-scale bass, and loosening up your grip to put less strain on your hands. Beyond that, I would consult a medical professional to see what plan of action is best for your particular situation. Please keep me posted and let me know how you progress.

      Anyone else care to weigh in???

  4. Oscar Harris says:

    Ive played american Fenders all my life.My Jap Fender MM is 10lbs. Ive moved to CV Squries,but is there any bass that’s lighter?

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks for the comment, Oscar. It’s pretty likely you’ll find something lighter. That’s a great question to post in the FBPO Facebook group to see what kind of recommendations people make. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/711060228948058

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