How important is traditional technique when it comes to learning bass?

Sometimes you have to ignore old school thinking

By Jon Liebman
Date August 26, 2022

Lately, I’ve encountered a growing number of people who’ve turned away from learning bass because they’ve been told they need to place their hands and their fingers in very specific positions in order to get it “right.” Otherwise, don’t even bother trying to play the instrument.

This scenario is especially daunting for people with conditions like arthritis, tendonitis, back pain, neck pain, etc., who still want to learn bass.

Only one way? No way!

First, let me state that anyone who’s preaching this bad advice about there being “one way, and one way only” to learn bass is just plain wrong.

Granted, there’s something to be said for honoring conventional technique, including traditional positioning of the hands. But respect should also be given to the people who need to modify their hand position, either because they’re physically incapable of playing the “right” way, or because they’ve found a better way that just comes naturally to them.

Not surprisingly, this is a concern of a lot my students who deal with physical challenges. It’s also on the radar of students older than 50 or 60, who are excited about learning bass but are confused about how to proceed.

“I think it’s important to just play”

I got to talking about the subject during a recent conversation with Andy West, founding bass player of a band I’ve always loved, The Dixie Dregs, published as this week’s FBPO interview.

When the subject learning bass came up, specifically when it involves overcoming obstacles like these, Andy talked about how he’s always encouraged people to do whatever they can so they don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn bass.

“I think it’s important to just play,” says Andy. To me it’s never been that hard to figure out how to do things. Some people go really extreme with, ‘Oh, you know your hands need to be in this position, exactly.’ You know when I look at any of dozens and dozens of incredible players, I will see a wide variation of approaches to the bass, and so, it’s kind of like whatever works for you. But the main thing is just doing it.”

Keep the end goal in mind

We need to focus on the right things, most notably, making music. I’m not saying bass technique isn’t important. It’s just that sometimes, well, you gotta do what you gotta do, even if that means bucking tradition.

Just the other day, I was talking to one of my students, Verlon Dowell, who underwent shoulder surgery. Ever determined to continue pursuing his passion for learning bass, Verlon modified his hand position and the way he holds the bass, along with making a few other tweaks. Now he’s back in business, playing the music of his favorite bass players, like John Paul Jones, Geezer Butler, and Geddy Lee.

Another one of my students, Thomas Shell, was born with his left pinky curved inward toward his other fingers, making it awkward for him to play the bass. After analyzing the situation, Thomas figured out a way to alter the way he approaches the bass fingerboard, adjusting his hand position till he found what works. Now he’s got his own way of playing his favorite ‘70s-style funk grooves and he’s having a blast.

Maybe you can find a workaround

Sadly, not everyone can overcome whatever physical challenges they may be facing. At the same time, there are countless examples of people who found workarounds that enabled them to get the job done, laying down really good bass lines and making great-sounding music.

“Even now,” Andy says, “my hands do hurt if I play too long. I can’t tell if it’s incoming arthritis or I just haven’t built up my strength for these super-fast things, but I kinda don’t worry about it because it’s like, if something hurts, stop doing it. There are any number of directions you can go, but again, I will maintain that just putting in the time is the most important thing.”

Your turn. How about you? Do you have experience confronting a physical challenge that’s made it difficult to learn to play bass? Leave a comment below and share you story. And be sure to check out my interview with Andy here.

Comments on How important is traditional technique when it comes to learning bass?

  1. Charlie Irwin says:

    Django Reinhardt had his left hand severely injured in a fire. He basically had only 2 working fingers on his left hand. And he became one of the major jazz guitarists in the world.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Yes, Django defied all the odds for sure. Thanks, Charlie.

  2. Shane Schroeder says:

    Yes! I’m 49 and started playing bass almost two years ago. I have neck and back problems along with arthritis in my hands, so I truly struggle with my fret hand at times. I utilize microshifts and thumb pivots to reach a lot of the notes. This is an encouraging explanation of technique use, thank you.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Shane. I know how frustrating those things can be! I’m glad you found a system that’s working, even if only a little. Keep me posted on your progress and let me know if you ever have any questions or need any help with your bass playing.

  3. I was diagnosed with MS over fifteen years ago, and the right side of my body is quite compromised (5% motion in the leg, about 40% in the arm and hand). I am stuck using a pick, trying not to drop it, trying to move it back into position when it spins or shifts, and using my elbow and shoulder to push/pull the pick through the strings. Nevertheless, I have maintained a professional career that is now 32 years strong. With every new problem that asserts itself comes an opportunity to find a new way to get the result I’m after as a bassist. I even found a way to get a finger tone with a pick: I simply use a Dava Control Pick, and rotate it so I use the rubberized shoulder. My fretless basses don’t complain at all!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      What an inspiring story, Michael! It’s incredible how you’ve managed to remain so forward-thinking, given all you’ve been through. Thanks so much for weighing in. Let me know if you have ever any bass-related questions or if you need anything. I’d really love to help in any way I can. Thanks again.

  4. Eli Bennett says:

    For otherwise healthy people, traditional technique (hand, finger, and instrument position) is generally aimed at avoiding repetitive stress injury (like carpal tunnel) and making harder stuff (like faster playing) easier later on. I’ve heard plenty of people say “I wish I’d had a teacher earlier on so I didn’t develop so many bad habits.” Traditional isn’t for everyone, true enough, but it’s a REALLY good place to start.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Good point, Eli. There’s a right balance for sure. Thanks!

  5. Ted White says:

    Now that I’m 85 and still playing I definitely have many thoughts on the matter. Fortunately, my teachers were on the same page. Briefly stated, I’ve been taught these ideas.
    1-play easy without tension
    2-I sit & stand to change position
    3-I use both French $ German bows
    equally well
    4-I practice short periods of time
    with rest in between
    5-I play for the entire length of time
    of all the pieces I’m performing
    several times a week in order to
    build my endurance.
    6-I practice all scales and arpeggios
    several ways.
    7-holding the bow lightly instead of
    gripping is very important

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      You were taught well, Ted! I’ve never been comfortable with a French bow, though. I hold it like a German bow! LOL Seriously, a great list to keep in mind. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Celia Bradley says:

    Wow, that’s amazing Michael and so inspiring because I’ve always had a niggling fear of “what if something goes wrong in my body and I can’t play bass anymore” – now I know I can find a way around it whatever happens – I think Jon should do an interview with you so that lots of other people can get inspired and encouraged.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Agreed. While we can’t live in fear all the time, there’s always that “what if…?” possibility. Good suggestion re the interview too. Thanks, Celia!

  7. Celia Bradley says:

    Whilst I haven’t had any disability or old-age problems to contend with (yet), I have had to make some compensations because I’ve got small hands. I’ve been taking technique lessons from various online sources to try and learn to play ‘correctly’ – and it’s important to me to take advice and lay a good foundation – but sometimes, when a tutor with nice long fingers demonstrates with a ‘just do it like this’ approach, I have to say ‘no way I’m doing it like this instead’ and I adjust it to suit myself because the tutor isn’t taking into consideration that some people just can’t physically do it. Other times it just takes more practice and perseverance and I’ve learnt to figure out what is realistically achievable for me and what isn’t.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Excellent point, Celia. Not everyone’s hands are the same size. I’m glad you were able to figure out the right adjustments to make playing bass work for you. I’ll definitely keep that point in mind going forward with my instructional bass resources. Thanks!

  8. Andrew says:

    I’ve broken my pinky finger on my fretting hand 3 times, so it’s permanently bent awkwardly and has very little strength. To get around that I play almost exclusively 5 strings between the 5th and 12th frets, to avoid the big stretches. My technique is nowhere near perfect, but I have fun.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Andrew. I’m glad you were able to find a workaround, even if it’s not optimum.

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