Lost that Creative Spark?

8 04 2010

How long has it been since you last played bass? A day? A week? A month, even?

It’s easy to get into a creative funk, especially if you’re pressuring yourself to create new material all the time. Here are some reasons why this might be happening and tips to help you get back to practicing regularly.

  1. Make sure your bass is set up correctly: If the action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) is too high, your fingers are probably getting tired quickly. Take it to a trustworthy music store to lower the action if need be, because if you’re at all uncomfortable while playing bass, you’re not going to want to play it regularly.
  2. Don’t pressure yourself! Pick up your bass with a positive outlook: Your only goal is to have fun, no strings attached (no pun intended…). Sure, you need to practice to get better, but practicing should be fun!
  3. Get inspired.  When in doubt, listen to music  that inspires you to create your own. My own personal motivators are Les Claypool (seen here with Buckethead), Larry Graham, and Victor Wooten.

The Nitty Gritty: Calluses

1 04 2010

Learning how to play bass can teach you a lot about your pain thresholds.

It takes definite desire and motivation to learn any instrument, but bass is especially difficult for those of you out there with un-callused fingers: Bass strings are notoriously fat and rough, and the action of a bass (the space between the strings and the fretboard) is a lot higher than most regular guitars (requiring you to build up finger strength to be able to create a clean-sounding note).

Also, (if you’re a purist like me) your right hand is doing a lot of finger work as well because you’re not using a pick like a guitarist would: Therefore, the pads of the fingers on both of your hands are going to be screaming for mercy.

Until you build calluses, that is.

Building calluses isn’t that hard (it just requires repetition, basically), but here are some tips and tricks that might help you along in the process:

  • You don’t want to blister. Trust me: Blisters only set you back, and sometimes they’re so painful that they will prevent you from being able to play at all. If you do get a blister, pop it with a sterilized needle, flatten it out, wash it with antibiotic soap, and super-glue it. It stings, but if the show must go on, it works. (Warning: I am not a doctor! Watch out for infection, and when you’re done playing, wash the area again and apply antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid!)
  • Practice ever day. Make yourself sit down and play bass for 15-30 minutes every day. That’s not so long, you can do it! Practicing every day is the only way that your fingers will naturally start to build up skin layers that will eventually form good calluses.
  • Don’t give up. The first few months of learning how to play bass can be frustrating. You’re teaching your brain to tell your hands to do things they’ve never done before; you’re trying to play consistently and establish rhythm, which is tough; your fingers hurt, and the ladies aren’t buying tickets to see you play yet. But keep on truckin’, because I promise: It will get better, and once you have nice thick calluses, you won’t feel a thing, groove-machine!
  • Remember: with calluses comes finger strength. As you begin to fall into the habit of practicing every day you’ll start to develop both calluses and finger strength that will noticeably make playing much easier. Your fingers (unless you started out playing guitar or another instrument structured the same way) are most likely much weaker than you think: Practicing scales and focusing on creating clean-sounding notes (the closer your finger is to the fret bar, the cleaner the note will be) will slowly strengthen your fingers. You can also use one of these gizmos to help you strengthen your digits when you’re away from your bass.

Have fun creating calluses, young grasshoppers! You’re well on your way to bassic bliss!

Dealing with Stage Fright

25 03 2010

Stage fright can be brutal. You have your routine down perfectly, you’re pumped and ready to go, and then two minutes before you go on you feel like your heart is going to explode out of your chest, your palms get sweaty, and you suddenly have the terrifying thought that you might very well forget everything you’ve practiced. You start over-thinking, over-analyzing, worrying, believing you’re going to make a huge mistake, and focusing on worst case scenarios.

The important thing to remember is that stage fright is all in your head.

Everyone gets a bit jittery before a show, even famous performers. Musicians will tell you that pre-show nerves are actually important: they give you energy and get you motivated to give an awesome performance. But not if you let them get the best of you, like this poor little guy!

Some things that may help with stage fright:

  • Be prepared. Going onstage knowing you’ve got your act together is the biggest confidence-booster you can give yourself.
  • Think positive. Since stage fright is all in your head, it makes sense to start there in order to fix the problem. Visualize yourself playing a successful show: The audience is dancing, smiling, having a great time. Repeat positive affirmations like “This is going to be a lot of fun,” or “This show is going to be great.” (You probably want to do this silently…people seem to associate repeating yourself with a bit of mental unbalance)
  • Remember: No one really cares. Think about why you’re so nervous. Is this performance going to change anyone’s life? Probably not; in fact, if you pay attention to the audience while you’re playing, you’ll often notice that they’re not really paying that much attention to you.
  • Have a drink. Having a leisurely beer before going onstage can relax you, but don’t push it. If you get wasted and fall off the stage or decide to confess your undying love for Dungeons and Dragons to 200 people, don’t blame it on me. (And of course, drink responsibly.)
  • If you’re having a panic attack, unfocus your eyes. It really works! This video shows you how to do it.
  • Laugh. Seriously! One of the best ways to calm down is to laugh. Whether you’re with your friends/bandmates backstage telling dirty jokes or sitting by yourself in the green room, make yourself laugh, and laugh as hard as you can for a few minutes. You might feel stupid doing it, but it relaxes you instantly.

It also helps some people to say a prayer/mantra before they go onstage, to have a lucky charm (Use the Schwartz!), to breathe deeply, or even to imagine the audience naked (this can backfire if you have a vivid imagination and get distracted easily).

Above all, remember: Music is about having fun. No one really cares if you mess up, and all you’re doing is providing (usually heavily intoxicated) people with somethin’ to groove to. Enjoy it!

How Bass Players Can Stay Healthy

25 02 2010

Bass player health is a topic that’s widely overlooked. How could you possibly hurt yourself playing an instrument? And is it really possible to injure yourself so badly that you can risk ruining your career as a musician?


Playing bass isn’t always riffs and giggles. Bass players can suffer from a range of health problems, including carpal tunnel, tendonitis, tennis elbow, neck, arm and back problems and even focal dystonia, a rare condition that causes the muscles (usually of the hand in bassists) to lock up, sometimes permanently.

Personally, I have definitely hurt myself playing my beloved instrument. I’ve split fingertips and torn fingernails using improper slapping techniques, and I have developed minor tennis elbow, carpal tunnel and other wrist problems due to playing with improper form for over a year.

Once I realized that the pain I was experiencing could get worse, and could possibly stop me from playing bass, I set out to research how to stay healthy while playing bass, and how to manage and—better yet—avoid these problems altogether.

So without further ado, here are some quick tips for staying healthy while slappin’ de bass:

  • Always warm up before you play. Start with your whole body (anything to get your blood pumping), and do some full-body stretches. Next, warm up your fingers by playing chromatic scales until your hands are relaxed and warm to the touch. Never, ever play with cold hands.
  • Take frequent breaks. Drink water, stretch, move around. Also, if you can, break your practice time into segments, with each segment focusing on a different technique. This way you’re less likely to overdo it, and more likely to take breathers and relax in between jam sessions.
  • Be conscious of what your body is telling you while you’re playing your instrument. Think about your posture and remember to breathe regularly (you’d be surprised how much you might tend to hold your breath while concentrating on a difficult solo). Pay attention to any excess tension you feel in your muscles, and work to correct it by changing your posture or technique.
  • Play songs appropriate to your skill level. While it’s important to lightly challenge yourself, don’t attempt the most difficult song you can find when you’re just learning how to play. Not only will you most likely become frustrated, you run the risk of pushing tendons and muscles too far and injuring yourself before you really even get started.
  • Choose an instrument that fits your body. Playing an instrument that is too large or too heavy for you can cause you to overcompensate, straining muscles and possibly leading to back, neck, and shoulder pain.
  • Finally, do not play through the pain. If you’re playing a song and your left arm is going numb or the tendons of your hands feel inflamed, take a break. If the pain continues to persist even though you’ve been following the above guidelines, seek out a physician knowledgeable about musicians’ injuries.

For more info on musician’s health, check out this website, which has a ton of links to other informative websites and lots of suggested warm-up routines.

Getting to Know Your Bass

18 02 2010

Okay. You’ve got a bass, an amp and a set of earplugs for your roommate: You’re ready to go. But before you can really begin interacting with your bass, you should take a moment to get to know it on the next level. Think about it like a third date: You already know the basics of your instrument, but it’s time to take things a step further.

That’s right. It’s time to get to second base with your bass.

The Anatomy of a Bass

The bass is a type of guitar, but rather than having six strings, a traditional bass has four (you will see a lot of basses with five or even six strings, but I still prefer the good old-fashioned four-stringers, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on). Bass is an octave lower than guitar, providing the ribcage-rattling sounds we know and love.


Strings and Tuning

Bass is typically tuned EADG, with the E string being the lowest and fattest string, and the G string being the highest and thinnest.

To put new strings on your bass, you will probably want a string winder, preferably equipped with a pair of string cutters (if not, just use cheap wire cutters). Also, don’t forget an electronic tuner to tune up your bass’s new strings. These usually run about $10-$20, but they come in handy.

Step One: Inspect your bass with a close, careful eye. Pay attention to how the strings are currently wound onto the tuning pegs. Look at how many times the strings are wrapped onto the post (the fatter the strings, the less they can wrap around—never overlap the string onto itself: it should only touch the tuning post). Find the ball end of the string (the end with the nut on it), and see how it fits inside the bridge.

Step Two: Take a string off (some people do all four at once; I prefer one at a time) by using your string winder and unwinding the string until it’s loose. Then, using your fingers, gently unwind it from the tuning post and slide it out through the bridge.

Step Three: Clean the fretboard with a dry cloth or one with a light application of fretboard cleaner on it.

Step Four: Everyone does this step differently, but I find that comparing the length of your old string to the new one (and subsequently cutting the new one to a similar length) is a helpful way to avoid problems down the road. Lay your new string next to the same one you’ve just taken off the bass. Then use the string/wire cutters to trim it to a slightly longer length than the old string (bass strings stretch over time). Keep in mind that it’s better to leave the string too long and have to repeat this step than to cut it too short and have to buy another set of strings.

Step Five: Place the nut of the new string through the bridge. Maintain tension on the string so it doesn’t slip out. Keeping it taut, place the other end of the string through the groove designed to hold it in the tuning key. Then, using your string winder, wind the string slowly and carefully around the tuning post, making sure that the string isn’t overlapping itself. Repeat until your bass is sporting all-new strings!

Step Six: Tune your bass with the electronic tuner. You don’t always have to rely on this handy-dandy piece of equipment, however: If your E string is in tune (you can do this with a piano or keyboard, ask a guitar player to play an E, or use an electronic tuning website), you can use what’s called the “Fifth Fret Method.”

The Fifth Fret Method: Place your finger on the fifth fret of the (already in tune) E string. Hit that note. Then hit the open A string. If your bass is in tune, they should be the exact same note. And so on: the fifth fret of the A string is the same note as an open D; the fifth fret of the D string is an open G. This site provides more detailed instructions about how to use this method.

Et voilà! You’re ready to rock with some basic knowledge of bass anatomy, new strings and bass tuning skills that would make  Bill Wyman give you a hearty pat on the back.