If you are new to playing guitar or bass guitar, you may have heard horror stories of the state that your fingers will end up in. Does playing the bass guitar hurt your fingers? Is the pain significant or just a little bit annoying?
It’s natural to feel a little bit of anxiety about whether or not the bass guitar can cause pain. This guide is designed to discuss why the pain exists, and what you might be able to do about it.
The short answer is that yes, playing the bass guitar can hurt your fingers. If you are totally new to playing, you will find it painful, especially to start with. However, the pain isn’t unbearable for most people, and with a few tips to manage it you can usually deal with it.
Eventually, as your hands get used to it, the pain will subside. Plus, there are a few things you can do to process the pain or make it less severe. The pain can be very insignificant for some people.
If you are looking to lower the pain, and shorten the period of time you will have to deal with that pain, then read on for some more advice. Though this is a necessary evil, you don’t just have to tough it out without giving yourself the best chance of sticking with playing the bass.
Those thicker strings
If you just look at a bass guitar compared to an acoustic guitar, you might assume the bass to be more painful. Big, thick strings look like they can be painful to press down and pluck repeatedly. They do hurt, but actually, because the tension is a bit lower in a bass guitar, it is more likely that you’d experience a lot more pain playing an acoustic guitar, for example.
The pain comes from the pressure you have to apply with your fingers, the strings vibrating and quickly moving back toward your fingers, and just using parts of your fingers and hands that aren’t used to a lot of action. Luckily, it’s more a case of having to adjust than it is a case of constantly having to put up with the pain.
The pain most people experience is simply soreness on the fingertips. Think of the pain you might get in certain parts of your feet if you wear new shoes that don’t quite fit. Over time, your feet might adapt, and the blisters go.
The sort of things you will see when you start to play the bass guitar might be little cracks at the end of your fingers, possibly some redness and small sores. These can occur on your fretting hand and your plucking hand, depending on the technique you use. If you pluck with your fingers, rather than using a pick, the sores can be affect both hands. So you may want to test out using a pick which I discussed in this recent article.
Get working on those calluses
So, where does the pain come from? Well, you’re effectively running your fingers up and down a steel wire. It’s normal that it causes some level of pain. The important thing to remember is that it is not permanent.
The body is extremely clever. Have you ever come across the term “working hands”? If someone has hard skin on their hands, it suggests they do a physical job. Constant rubbing, scratching or other impact upon the hands makes the skin “callus” and effectively cause a barrier. The same thing happens with bass guitars.
If you have a friend who plays acoustic guitar, they might be able to show you the hand they use to play the frets. You will see callused fingertips.
It seems counter-intuitive, but we actually want the calluses. There are even guides out there for how to get calluses on your fingers quicker.
Playing with a finger that already has calluses and has developed thicker, harder skin as a result can be a lot less painful. This is how our body adapts to deal with the pain, and prepare for the next round of playing.
So, while there is certainly some pain to start with, remember that it is only temporary.
If the pain is unbearable…
The pain shouldn’t be too bad. It should be manageable, and if you are experiencing a lot of pain then there are a few things that could be going wrong.
- You might just be plucking and playing too hard in an attempt to get a louder sound. If this is the case, try and make the amplifier do more of the work. Use a compressor, or just turn it up louder.
- You might be trying to “play through the pain” too much. Your fingers will need time to recover after practice sessions.
- You might be getting some of your technique slightly wrong. It’s hard to know without a tutor or someone watching what you are doing. However, this brilliant guide discusses some of the ways people get it wrong and cause themselves more pain.
Is there anything you can do for the pain?
When the skin starts to get hard, we don’t actually want it to “heal”, not in the sense of going back to the soft and pristine skin you had before. Sorry, if you want to play bass, those days are long gone.
You can give yourself regular breaks in order to try and combat the pain. Also, if you are practicing every single day, it might be worth a day or so off to give your skin the time it needs to heal. You might be reopening wounds and cracks in your skin every time you pick up your bass guitar.
There is a claim (though it is contentious) that Eric Clapton, one of the greatest guitarists ever, recommends using rubbing alcohol. This can be smeared on the ends of the fingers in pain. It serves to reduce the pain, but primarily it is used to dry out the fingers to allow them to toughen up.
Don’t try and just “tough it out”. If the pain gets too much, something needs to change. It is even recommended that washing the dishes more can toughen your fingers, but I’m not sure about this one!
Do some styles hurt more than others?
Simply put, yes. If you are looking to learn slap guitar, for example, you might have to deal with new blisters in new places where the fingers take the brunt of the strings. Alternatively, if you switch from playing with a pick to plucking with your fingers, there are new pressure points.
Generally, most bass guitarists start learning similar basics, so this won’t be an issue until you look to specialize.
If you change your style in the future then the way your hands need to adapt could be different, meaning the calluses need time to develop once again.
Yes, bass guitar can hurt your fingers. Everyone experiences the pain slightly differently, and if it becomes an issue, the tips in this guide can help you to deal with that pain.
For most people it is a simple case of a few weeks of playing until you start to notice it hurts a little less. Long breaks between practicing can also cause the pain to reappear. It might be a case of needing to address your technique, but for most people, you can simply let your body adjust.