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Bass Guitar and Small Hands: Don’t Let It Stop You From Playing Bass

You have small hands and you want to play bass guitar – what do you do?

As a person who doesn’t have particularly large hands, you reach for a bass guitar and start playing, that’s what.

For most of us – including myself– the issue of hand size and bass playing never came up. It was figured that if I can play the instrument, I can play the instrument and that’s the end of that.

To others, however, hand size is a big issue and often one that deters from picking up the bass guitar. Just Google it and see all the people on the Internet concerned that their hand size is a limit to their bass playing:

playing bass small hands, small hands bass guitar google search results

Over a million results!

And rightly so – the bass guitar is a big instrument and demands more from your hands than any other instrument.

Think about it:

  • The neck scale, the distance from the nut of a guitar or bass down to the base of the neck, on a bass STARTS at 34 inches.
  • The strings, compared to guitar strings, are substantially larger in diameter
  • The string spacing is wider
  • Considerable strength is required to press the string down and keep it down to get a sound to come out of the instrument
  • The learning curve is compounded with the physical strength curve making for an even more challenging learning experience especially early on for beginner bassists

Those are just some of the points that I could think of on the spot. Those are some major points that can impact whether or not someone can even play the instrument let alone play it to proficiency and beyond.

Now I don’t have the largest hands in the world but I’ve always considered my hands relatively small. I’m far from able to grasp the whole neck and play hyper-melodic-harmonic lines a la Stanley Clarke and Les Claypool, but I’ve managed to craft a playing style that suits me, satisfies me creatively and pleases bandmates and crowds alike.

What I’ve found is that the best thing to do is play and craft a style of playing that works for you (more on that below).

Well, this week’s post is meant to get you past those frustrations of having small hands and feeling limited by them. In this post we’re going to cover:

  1. Examining limitations and working past the issue of small hands and bass playing
  2. Check out some stretches and warm up exercises to consider and their value to you as a bass player who feels limited
  3. A short overview of bass guitar size scales and short scale bass guitars and why short scale basses might be something worth purchasing

Working Past Limitations: You Can Play Bass, Too and Here’s Why

It’s remarkable how often people quit after just such a short time with a new skill for different reasons.

Some feel like they can’t grasp the concept of beat and rhythm and quit music.

Some feel like they can’t play – and will never play like – Jaco Pastorius and quit.

The list of reasons goes on and on and is virtually limitless. Why we choose to limit ourselves because we’re scared of bruising our egos. We’re scared of learning new things and embarking on new things because we’re scared we’ll fail. As a result, we tell ourselves no right off the bat and convince ourselves that we can’t do certain things.

Along the way, we manufacture different reasons. In this case, having small hands might be your reason.

Now, allow me to clarify my last point.

I am not accusing you the reader for making excuses. I am however suggesting that small hands is only a perceived limitation.

Let me put it this way.

Few enjoy the luxury of being like Stanley Clarke: 6’4” and massive hands that can play across multiple frets at the same time (myself included). Most of us have an average reachable range across the bass fretboard and work to improve our dexterity, reach and speed across the fretboard.

If you’re someone with small hands with a drive to play bass- you’re no different than the rest of us.

The learning process is still the same.

The successes, failures and struggles are the same.

So what’s the fear?

Women tend to face the challenge of small hands more than men do, but last I checked, there are bass players out there who are women. Here’s a (pretty) comprehensive list of bass players who are women. Do you think they let limitations like size hold them back from playing and building lucrative and fulfilling musical careers for themselves and, of course, rock the hell out? Probably not.

That in mind, why should you – male or female?

Mindset is a large portion of the battle, but here are some things to consider on the physical end:

Stretching Your Hands Before Playing

Stretching, especially for older players/players getting older and generally feeling more stiff, is a smart habit to work into preparing for an extensive practice, show or jam. Stretching keeps your joints and hands loose and nimble and helps to prevent stitches and cramping during playing.

For players with smaller hands, this is just as important with players with larger hands if not more so.

Here’s just one of many videos that helps break down how to get your hands ready for playing.

Personally speaking, for many of the gigs that I’ve had to do lately I’ve found stretching very useful.

 Warm Up Exercises

Warm up exercises are the BEST way to get your hands ready to play – small hands or not.

Why?

  • Warm ups help put your mind in the mindset of bass playing
  • Help loosen your fingers up to play more challenging runs – both for the left and right hand

Speaking personally again, for some songs I could not imagine NOT stretching and playing some warmups for. The lines are so challenging and physically demanding that taking the extra time to get your fingers used to playing is an absolute must.

Warm up exercises are everywhere. Many people have made up their own exercises, others prefer to check out a book or an online resource for their exercises. Here are some resources to consider for some quick, low bandwidth exercises to break your hands in before playing:

Short Scale Basses and Bass Guitar Size Scale Explained

Now throughout this post you’ve probably noticed I threw around the words 34” or 34 scale and 30” scale basses, a lot.

Well, there’s a reason for that.

Bass guitars come in 3 major scales – or sizes: 34”, 32” and 30” scale. Anything smaller or larger than that is usually a custom job, so for all intents and purposes, these are the 3 major sizes of bass guitar we’re going to examine.

Bass Guitar Scale Length Explained

Scale, when in the context of talking about the size of guitars and basses, is referring, “…to the relationship between the length and diameter (“gauge”) of the strings and the pitches they produce.” (via Sweetwater’s section on guitar scale length)

bass scale length illustrated

When talking about scale, the real conversation is about the length of the strings and how it’s related to the quality of tone you get from the strings. The lower the pitch you need, the longer a string you want. That’s why guitars, which play higher pitches, are shorter than basses.

34-inch Scale

If you walk into a Guitar Center or any local music store in the world, close your eyes and touch a bass, odds are you’re going to touch a 34-inch scale bass guitar.

34-inch scale is an industry standard of sorts. It’s the size that basses are typically built to and the size that most strings out there accommodate.

32-inch and 30-inch Scale – or Medium and Short Scale Basses

The second most popular scales of basses are the medium scale, 33” to 30” and short scale 30” or less. As the name suggests, these basses have a shorter distance from the nut to the bridge of a bass by anywhere from 1 to 4 inches or less. The result is a bass guitar that is scaled down and typically more friendly to players with smaller hands.

While less ‘commercially common’ than 34-scale basses, there are models of 30 and 32 scale basses that are available at your local music store (keep reading for some!)

Short Scale Basses: A Short Buyer’s Guide and the Best Bass Guitars For People With Small Hands

Short scale bass guitars are fantastic for people with small hands because, well, they’re shorter.

Short scale basses provide bass players who are feeling overwhelmed or truly challenged by the full 34” scale bass guitar with all the benefits of a bass guitar just at a 30” scale and a greater ease to stretch across multiple frets and perform difficult runs.

Unfortunately, the world of short scale basses is not extensively populated with basses like how the world of 34” scale bass guitars is.

However, if you’re someone who is looking for a short scale bass guitar, consider some of these models:

And if you have some additional money to devote towards a short scale bass purchase, consider some of these custom instrument and high-end luthiers:

Wrap Up

Playing bass with small hands isn’t anything to be discouraged about or any reason not to play bass. Sure, naturally there will be challenges, but at the end of the practice sessions, it’s how you handle those challenges and how you choose to work through them.

If you’re truly passionate about bass playing, then you’ll find that obstructions like small hands or a busy schedule or your day job aren’t as big of hurdles to overcome as you might have thought.