Nothing can stop a show in it’s tracks quite like forearm pain while playing bass. It’s certainly stopped me from playing my best on multiple occasions.
When there is pain, it’s exclusively to my right hand, my plucking hand. Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of different stretches, positions and gimmicks to relieve this pain when it happens. I’ve learned a lot and what does and doesn’t seem to remedy the pain. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned.
1. How You Angle Your Plucking Hand Matters Immensely
Many of us play bass like this:
While this might be fine sitting down, standing up, I can say confidently this has been the biggest source of my agony over the years. The reason why? Look at the angle. Everything is tense. There’s pressure on the wrist that shouldn’t be there and the muscles in the forearm are engaged in a wonky way that is just asking for pain. Moreover, if you play with your fingers like I do, that crooked angle is not helping your fingers perform.
Your finger tendons run all the way up into your elbow, traversing over your forearm in the process. When your arm naturally, the tendons are not tensed. When you angle your wrist like in at the picture above when playing bass, those tendons are stretched in an unusual angle. Couple that with the fact that your finger tendons are moving and flexing as you pluck your bass and that’s the reason for your discomfort.
The immediate solution: change the angle your plucking arm is situated in.
Positioning my arm like this when playing nearly dissipated any pain I was experiencing and got me through a show top to bottom:
The reason? Those once tense muscles are no longer tense.
Take a moment and hold your arm in the air like in the first picture. Now hold it like in the picture above. You should notice a difference immediately. Those areas in your forearm are now loose and relieved. If you start moving your fingers like you were playing bass, you’ll probably also notice they move freely. They don’t feel like they’re being weighed down or like you’re fighting to move them.
That’s because you’re not imparting unnatural stress on your hand and forearm like you were before. The muscles are relaxed.
For all the talk of pre-show stretches and remedies for healing after a show, the single biggest changer for me was a change in form.
Which brings me to…
2. Stretches Really Only Worked If They Were Done For a Long Time, Evenly and Consistently
I’ll bet that if you’re reading this, you’ve likely played a show in recent memory. Before the show kicked off you probably did some wrist stretches that looked like these.
I’ll also bet that you did them for a combined about a minute and then immediately went to go play.
Lastly, I’ll bet that you still were in pain after that show.
It’s not so much that stretching is ineffective (because it’s not), it’s more that we (including myself) have been and continue to do it wrong.
Different sources will dispute how long, how often and when you should stretch. Some will say 30 seconds is all you need. Others will say one stretch should be held for 1 minutes and you should do multiple stretches, extending the full period of stretch from anywhere to 5-10 minutes before you’re really warmed up. Many of these studies and insights are in the context of fitness, but the point remains valid. A few seconds spent splaying your fingers or arching your wrists back does not constitute a lengthy, thorough even stretch and arguably doesn’t constitute a warmup by any standard.
Stretching should be even and consistent. When I was actively training in martial arts, stretches took up the first 10 minutes of training. We ran through a handful of stretches, but each one was held for 30 seconds, rest for 5 and then stretch deeper for another 30 seconds. When we weren’t in class, it was advised to complete these rotations daily for increased flexibility. And the results spoke for themselves. My kicks were higher, awkward falls that would have normally pulled something didn’t and it took more effort to pin me down because my body was so much more flexible and accommodating to stresses. Heck – I’ve seen people who could barely split their legs and reach their feet go to doing full splits like it was nothing in a few months of consistent, dedicated stretching. It’s no joke.
As it pertains to bass guitar, the spirit is still there. Consistency, evenness and routine are the keys to building up additional resistant to stressors when playing. Easier said than done, without a doubt, but a few wrist flexes that one time before a show after having not even thought about let alone exercise a stretch for weeks is not the key to alleviating wrist, forearm and finger tension after a show.
My experiences with forearm pain during and after a show is extensive. I like to play hard and give a good show when I’m up there so my body needs to be able to perform with me. I’ve looked up and down for remedies to these sorts of pain and the same advice columns will just flatly say do some stretches before a show and you’re golden. The reality is far less simple.
For me, fundamentally changing how my plucking hand rests on the bass was the first big step. Changing from an arched crane position to one where my elbow is point outwards at around a 30-degree angle and nothing is resting on the bass was the first step and, for me, the only step I needed.
Stretching, however, was more nuanced as most people stretch incorrectly. A few wrist bends before going on is not preventing anything debilitating from happening. Proper stretching requires routine, consistent, even stretches in very targeted areas. Over time, those stretched areas will become more tolerant of stress and give you the results you’re after. But the catch is time and consistency.