How to deal with the pain that comes from playing bass

Advice for learning bass despite what happens to our bodies when we get older

By Jon Liebman
June 2, 2023

With most of my students being over 50 or 60, they’re often dealing with annoyances like arthritis and tendonitis, as well as pain in the muscles and bones. Some have even had surgery on the shoulders and hips.

Many also feared they might be too old or it’s too late for them to learn to play bass.

Hang on; all hope is not lost…

The subject came up during a recent conversation I had with Brenda Sauter, longtime bassist with “jangle pop” band the Feelies, as well as Wild Carnation, the Willies, and the Trypes. 

During our talk, published as this week’s FBPO interview, I shared with Brenda some of the challenges facing aging rockers and she was happy to offer her own two cents.

“It’s not too late to take lessons,” she said, first off. She also advises getting a good method book to help you build good bass technique and learn the ins and outs of the instrument. [Author’s note: I happen to have written 10 very popular bass method books. You can get them here.]

You’re not the only one 

Then she opened up about some of the physical challenges that have affected her bass playing and how she’s managed to deal with them.

“I’ve gone through carpal tunnel syndrome,” she says. “I’ve gone through trigger finger. I injured myself and I had tenosynovitis, which is basically… a fancy word for tendonitis.”

Brenda’s advice includes everything from proper bass technique to physical therapy and learning all the different places to find the notes on the bass.


Brenda recalls how she found herself taking a step back and finding a new and better way to approach the bass.

“During the lockdown when the Feelies didn’t play,” she recalls, “that time was so dark and deep, I couldn’t even imagine playing again. I wondered, ‘Are we ever going to play again? Are live concerts ever going to come back?’”

She felt the need for a change, a diversion.

“I didn’t play Feelies music for a really long time,” she says, “and husband Rich and I would just play guitars and do acoustic music just for our own pleasure.”

That break from bass turned out to be a healthy experience for her, helping her recharge and find a totally new approach to the instrument. “When I went back to the bass,” she says, I totally restructured how I was playing.”

Moving out of the comfort zone

Thinking back to playing with a band, Brenda realized that much of the time she was on autopilot. “When I play with the Feelies, I’m not thinking about what note I’m playing; I just hear it, I go to it. I hear the melody and I play.”

Eventually, though, she realized that having a deeper understanding of the structure and layout of the bass would improve her ability to play. She also found that becoming familiar with where the notes are placed on the fingerboard can be helpful, particularly for older bass players.

“Certainly playing by ear is a wonderful thing to do,” she says, “but it’s really good to know the names of the notes and where they are. As you age, if you start to lose that muscle memory… you can latch on to the name of the note and where it is.”

Brenda’s new perspective on learning bass made her feel the need to get out of her comfort zone. She took action.

“I could get lost in the song because I didn’t actually know what note I was playing,” she remembers, “so I kind of laid my muscle memory aside, relearned the songs using all four strings, lower on the neck.”

She highly recommends this approach to anyone who wants to learn bass.

“My advice is know the notes,” she says, “know where you can find those different notes lower on the neck and also higher on the neck so you can play lower or higher, depending on what is more comfortable for you.”

Your body will thank you

When you learn the right way to play the bass, your body will appreciate it.

“Proper playing technique will help you to avoid injury or wearing out your fingers,” Brenda says.

Building technique, along with learning where the notes are, is doubly good. You become a better bass player and you’re not taxing your body as much.

“As far as wearing out your fingers, why are you wearing out your fingers playing up here when you can just be playing an open string? Give your finger a break for a second.”

Discovering new ways to play 

Having often played with a pick, Brenda’s injuries forced her to change the technique she had become used to using.

“I couldn’t hold a pick and I wore a brace for a while, a loose brace,” she says, “and I had to start using my fingers again.” 

But that change wasn’t so easy either. She had to find the right exercises to build strength in her fingers.

“I went for physical therapy for trigger finger and got some really good exercises that really helped a lot.”

The hard work pays off 

The good news is that all her hard work, along with her new discoveries, is paying off.

“I’m able to play with no pain, with no restrictions,” she says. 

But she’s also careful not to become complacent.

“I know it’s a fine line,” she says. “You can cross that line into injury and then you’re not sure if you’re going to make it back into good health and sometimes it’s just a physical therapy session away.”

How about you?

What physical issues have you had to deal with that have affected your ability to play bass? Leave a comment below and share your story.

My lessons and courses in the Bottom Line Club have helped thousands of people with all kinds of bodily woes, especially when they discover that playing bass is not nearly as physically demanding as they once thought. Ask anyone in the Bottom Line Club. Here’s where you can join.

Comments on How to deal with the pain that comes from playing bass

  1. Eli Bennett says:

    I developed carpal tunnel syndrome after a year of a weekly gig where I played seated. Went to an orthopedist, first thing he asked me was how long I’ve been feeling the symptoms (tingly ring and pinkie fingers on my plucking hand). I said a month or so, and he said, “You have no idea how many men come to me and say, oh, it’s been a couple years now. It’s MUCH harder to fix after a long time.” Anyway, he gave me the wrist brace that keeps the wrist straight, and I had to find a position I could play in with that thing on. Turned out I just had to stand up and lengthen the strap a little to lower the bass, and everything was fine, no recurrence.

    Main takeaway: get help right away!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great advice, Eli, thanks. I hope the rest of you are paying attention.

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