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.