Learning to play bass guitar can be painful on your fingertips. Pressing down the strings is a new strain your fingers aren’t used to. Usually, the bass isn’t played with a pick, so both hands go through a certain amount of adjusting to the new stress you’re introducing your fingers to.
The best finger protection for bass players is to build callouses on the fingertips by continuing to practice with bare hands. However, you can minimize pain by choosing different string types or using gadgets such as finger protectors or liquid callouses.
There are no shortcuts to learning an instrument. This is a slightly painful process, but as the saying goes – no pain, no gain!
If you need something to reduce the pain or are simply curious about the different methods and gadgets out there, keep reading on.
In this article, you’ll learn how you can prepare your hands for playing bass and some store-bought items and at-home tricks that will relieve some of the pain caused by learning to play. Or, say you are a bit out of practice but have a gig coming up and you need a quick way to restore your fingers to their former ability – read on.
How to Prepare Your Fingers
Before you purchase any products to protect your fingers, make sure you’re doing all you can to avoid needing protection in the first place!
1) Trim/File Your Fingernails
If you enjoy having long nails, unfortunately, playing bass guitar will be very difficult for you. Long nails are just not suited for the lifestyle of playing bass.
On some guitar types like acoustic guitar, long fingernails are used on the playing hand, but this is not the case for bass.
Keep your fingernails below the tips of your fingers, so you have the whole pad of your finger available to fret and pluck strings.
If you keep them long, you run the risk of breaking a nail, which is incredibly painful and will require you to stop playing until it heals. Playing bass with long nails will also result in improper technique since you’ll need to compensate for having the nails as obstacles to playing the correct way.
2) Practice Muscle Stretching
Just like runners stretch before a race, bass players should stretch their wrists and fingers to avoid strain in the long run.
If you think of the muscles in your fingers like a stick of gum – if you were to stretch the stick of gum right out of the wrapper, it would break in two instantly. But if you were to warm it up in your hands first, it would become more malleable. The muscles in your hands are the same way.
Roll your wrists in circles and bend your fingers toward the back of your hands to warm up before playing bass.
Taking Care of Your Hands
There is nothing worse for a bass player than breaking a callous. It’s painful, prevents you from practicing, and should be avoided at all costs. With that said, routinely practice the following to make a good habit of preventing callouses from breaking.
1) Never Play with Wet Fingers
Don’t pick up your bass fresh out of the shower, after washing dishes, or any other activity that wets your hands. Wet callouses are much more susceptible to breaking if there is water absorbed in them.
It is also not good for the strings and can lead them to rust.
2) Protect Your Hands from Injury
I remember burning my thumb once, which meant I couldn’t practice for two weeks because the pain was too great.
If you’re doing yard work, be sure to wear gloves. Avoid any activity that can injure your fingers or hands.
If you want to be serious about bass you need to treat your hands with care at all times.
How to Set Up Your Bass
1) Get the Right Strings
The strings on a bass come in different gauges or thicknesses. Lighter gauge/thinner bass strings might provide some relief and better ease of playing as opposed to heavy gauge strings.
If you’re just starting out on bass, consider getting some extra-light or light gauge strings.
Here are 3 of the best lighter gauge 4-string bass strings on the market now:
- Elixir Nanoweb Super Light – $34.99
- D’Addario Super Light Bass Strings – $39.99
Natural Finger Protection for Bassists
As I mentioned earlier, the best bass player finger protection is developing callouses on your fingertips.
Even if your fingers are killing you, the best thing to do is to keep playing, at least once a day. Each time you go back to the bass and put your fingers through the pain, your fingertips will develop callouses due to the friction of your skin against the string.
With repeated friction, the callouses you develop will allow you to play longer and more effortlessly. Before you go for any of the products listed below, consider toughing it out and playing bare-handed to really expose your skin to the pressure of the strings.
Products for Protecting Your Fingertips
Here are some affordable and easy-to-use products to protect your fingers while playing bass.
Keep in mind that if you use these, you are creating a barrier between the string and your fingertip, which will make it more difficult to develop the callouses you need to play without them.
Like playing with long nails, these products are also going to be a roadblock in playing with the right technique and getting the right sound.
Rock Tips Liquid Callous Formula – $12.99
Rock Tips was made specifically for string players needing an extra layer of protection on their hands. It’s a liquid that you brush onto your fingertips to create a protective barrier between your fingertips and your instrument.
Unlike household superglue, it is a medical-grade adhesive. It also encourages natural callous growth, which is something you’ll want to work towards if you want to be playing bass regularly.
Gorilla Tips Fingertip Protectors – $10.99
Gorilla Tips are silicone covers for your fingers that reduce the pain of fretting a bass or plucking with the right hand. Slip them on if you break a callous but still want to practice.
Yibuy Finger Tape – $12.33
Finger tape can be wrapped around your fingertips to protect them while playing.
Bass/Guitar Gloves – $8.97
A pair of gloves can also help protect your fingers while playing. Not only are these affordable, but they are reusable, unlike finger tape. They also come in multiple colors and sizes.
At-Home Solutions for Finger Protection
There are some products you might already having lying around that can be used to protect your fingertips for playing bass, whether you’re learning or trying to rebuild callouses.
1) Let Some Glue Dry On Your Fingertips
It may sound strange, but coating your fingertips in superglue and letting it dry creates a hard pad on your fingers that makes it easier to fret and pluck strings. Just don’t glue your fingers together.
Just make sure to check the type of glue won’t harm your skin, but most should not. To remove it, use soap and water or acetone.
Loctite Super Glue – $2.86
2) Wrap Fingers in Electrical Tape
Electrical tape is a great at-home replacement for finger tape. Take two long, narrow strips of tape and place one from the front of your finger to the back, to cover your fingertip. Wrap the other strip and wrap it around the width of your finger to keep the first strip in place.
Scotch Electrical Tape – $6.34
You can try to use different gadgets to avoid pain and blisters on your fingertips, but frankly, the bass (or guitar or violin or mandolin or banjo, etc) is an instrument that requires you to go through some amount of stress to play effectively.
Just like a bodybuilder goes through pain to bulk up their muscles, a string player must endure the stress and pain of fretting and plucking strings to play.
In the unfortunate situation where you break a callous or haven’t played bass in a while, but agreed to play a gig, I recommend using either Rock Tips or superglue to fake those leather pads on your fingertips that you’ll need. This solution is the most unobtrusive, and it’s the closest you’ll get to recreating the natural callouses that form after extended periods of playing bass.
The main takeaway here is no pain, no gain. Even if your fingertips are killng you, take a short break. Take a day off if you need to. But keep picking up your bass! Grin and bare it. The pain will pay off greatly when you can play for hours without a second thought.