Can you help me reduce pick-hand pain when I play bass guitar?
October 21, 2011 2:09 PM   Subscribe

I've been playing electric bass guitar in bands continuously for about 25 years or so. The last 20 years I've been using a pick exclusively, and for most of that time, while playing, I've suffered bad pain in my picking hand - specifically around the base of my thumb and in between the thumb and index finger. It's kind of like a cramp that comes on about 5 minutes after I start playing, and can in extreme isntances result in me not being able to hold onto the pick. The pain subsides after I stop playing, but it's a serious hinderance to playing well! I'm in a punk band, so lots of speed picking. I've tried hand and arm exercises, stretching, upping my potassium intake (bananas and coconut water), repositioning the bass, and taking Ibuprofin before playing and none of it seems to work reliably. Is this something I am just have to live with?
posted by slackdog to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried taping up your hand or some sort of compression-wrap put on before you start to play?

Your counter-measures so far sound like you're pretty sure it's a muscular/tendon thing, but you might want to check with your doctor about joint issues or arthritis. Hands are so bony it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly where the problem's based.
posted by aimedwander at 2:26 PM on October 21, 2011

What you're describing sounds an awful lot like Musician's Focal Dystonia - link is to wiki which has a number of possibly useful links in it. I'm not a musician so I can't say about their effectiveness, but there do seem to be listed things that you haven't tried yet.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:27 PM on October 21, 2011

It sounds like the sort of thing that can be exacerbated by tensing your hand or arm too much and holding the pick more tightly than you need to. You could play while watching yourself in the mirror and see if you're unnecessarily tense in some parts of your body, then focus on playing while being more relaxed.
posted by asphericalcow at 2:30 PM on October 21, 2011

Perhaps you would be helped by reading this?
posted by Lynsey at 2:47 PM on October 21, 2011

Get Carol Kaye's DVD and read her Tip #103 here. She plays hard and fast with a pick but does it in a smart way that's really relaxed.
posted by quarterframer at 3:00 PM on October 21, 2011

Jesus are supposed to stop when there is pain like that. Hopefully you can reverse this.

I'm seconding the Carol Kaye pick method. It's detailed here very well:

The pain killers can help you hurt yourself seriously too. It let's you ignore something serious. Don't get me wrong though, I'm all about bleeding.
posted by zephyr_words at 3:20 PM on October 21, 2011

Have you ever tried playing with a thumb pick? Perhaps letting you relax your grip on the pick would solve the problem.
posted by Mars Saxman at 4:07 PM on October 21, 2011

Perhaps you could try playing with plastic or metal finger picks (metal ones are typically used for bluegrass banjo) to get the sharp attack without clenching your hand and wrist. Also, check your Memail.
posted by K.P. at 4:33 PM on October 21, 2011

I've got one of the old Carol Kaye bass method books, and it has a section with photographs illustrating her hand positioning. The right forearm is almost parallel to the bass neck. The wrist is flat - this is the key thing. Hold your arm like that, and make a loose fist, by joining your thumb and index fingers, and tucking the other 3 fingers away to the heel of your palm. Now just bounce it up and down. See how fast and steady your arm and hand can do that?

From the kind of pain you are describing, I'd guess that your right forearm is almost perpendicular to the neck, that your wrist is curved, not straight, and that you are picking hard as hell from that position. Punk is a hard style, and you are going to hit hard, but, in general, it's better, in electric bass, to have a louder amp, and play softer, to get adequate loudness and power. The straight wrist is the main thing, though, to avoid injury from fatigue and over-use. You actually play bass with the muscles in your arm. The energy from these muscles is transmitted to your hand via tendons that go through a little window of bone - the famous carpal tunnel. That whole system works a LOT better if it is, as much as possible, aligned straight.
posted by thelonius at 5:01 PM on October 21, 2011

There is nothing you can do with a pick you can't do faster and cleaner with fingers. Have you tried switching off?
posted by spitbull at 6:34 PM on October 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd really really rather use a pick for punk or metal bass, myself
posted by thelonius at 6:38 PM on October 21, 2011

Yeah, punk bass is played on a Precision with a pick. You can't get that sound with fingers.

I've been playing the bass professionally on and off for 35 years. A few months ago, I noticed after learning some demanding-ish material that my 3rd and 4th left hand fingers were waking me in the night with their numbness and throbbing. I determined the cause was my overly tense forearm compressing my ulnar nerve near the elbow. I was thinking of either chiropracty or physiotherapy for a fix, but while teeing up some appointments I remembered that a couple of years ago I'd had a very slight amount of instruction in the Alexander technique, which basically involves spinal extension and muscular control through balance. "I walk my kid to school and back every day," I thought in a sudden fit of rationality. "Why don't I try this as specifically an Alexander walk?"

I can't claim to have completely released a sort of grabbing motion when I play, (after all, you need to!), but I recover rapidly and can now tone the susceptible fingers down just by proper exercise of walking. (The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder down, so proper arm positioning and movement while walking also acts on the fingers.) As I integrate Alexander technique into every aspect of my life — and I am, because it makes easeful motion and effortless effort ever more a distinct possibility — this only becomes easier. Oh, yeah, it will also completely kill your back pain, which as a bass player you will certainly be familiar with.

What I'm saying is this long-winded fashion is that learning to properly relax your muscles will allow you more time before you tense up, and you'll do yourself less damage when you do. I also assume you do a certain amount of practice? Hitting it hard when you're cold is a pretty bad idea too.
posted by Wolof at 6:39 AM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Glen Matlock, Paul Simonon, Chuck Dukowski...

Many great punk bassists (and many more metal bassists) have used their fingers. There is a sound you can only get with a pick, but you can get darn close to it with fingerstyle playing on roundwound strings. (Especially if you have some funk/r&b thumb-slapping chops.)

My suggestion would be to experiment with fingerstyle playing where it might work musically; the mere act of alternating will keep you from playing through pain, which is almost always a bad idea.

/1963 P-Bass owner since 1979.
posted by spitbull at 5:51 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't play bass and this is along the lines of what's been suggested above, but, fwiw: my brother teaches guitar and he likes Feldenkrais, which is a bit like Alexander Technique. He just read the book, didn't go to any classes. Along with some guitar-specific stuff, he says it helped reduce unnecessary tension and thereby avoid pain.
posted by 8k at 2:43 AM on October 23, 2011

I just want to thank everyone here for passing on such an amazing wealth of information and ideas - quareterframer I'm currently checking out the Carol Kaye stuff - what an interesting person (despite her snarky comments about punk bassists in the extended interviews!) and I like her technique a lot. I've been reading through the links on tendinitis and the Alexander technique. spitbull, I originally learned to play bass finger picking only, and I do go back to it occasionally, but I have to say the sound I am capable of getting from my P-bass with a pick is just way cleaner. In addition to that, finger picking also causes me hand pain - albeit in different parts the hand. There is definitely a talent gap as well - I'm better at speed-picking with a pick. Of course, that's what practice is for. Anyway, thanks again everyone. Once I try these out I may post on here to let you know what happens.
posted by slackdog at 12:10 AM on October 24, 2011

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