Bass guru Ed Friedland wrote a great article on tendinitis in the January 2003 issue of Bass Player magazine. I started to write a letter to the editor with some more info on the subject, but the letter got out of hand and turned into this article. There is some info here for anyone suffering from tendinitis of the fretting hand, and for those who would build instruments for those with short arms, small hands, and thin wrists.
Last updated: September 11, 2018
The January 2003 issue of Bass Player magazine featured a great article by Ed Friedland on the subject of tendinitis. It was good to see the subject treated in such a comprehensive manner, particularly in a non-technical publication. The following paper was inspired by that article. It contains a few observations on the subject by a custom instrument builder specializing in ergonomically fitted instruments. Most folks don't have a problem with tendinitis (fortunately!) but for those that do, some modifications in the way the instrument is supported and played may be useful. And if those modifications don't do the trick, then finding a bass that is more ergonomically matched to the player may help.
When looking to optimize ergonomics probably the best place to start is with a simple evaluation of hand position throughout the range of motion experienced during playing. The basic idea is to check for a nice smooth curve formed by the back of the forearm, hand, and fingers of the fretting hand. You know, the hand position your bass teachers were so picky about? As you play, keep an eye on the places on the neck where you lose that nice hand position. It is often useful to check this at the four "corners" - fretting with all four fingers on the high string in first position, on the low string in first position, on the high string up the neck as far as you normally play, and on the low string up the neck as well. Be aware of the places where you are either hyper flexing or twisting the wrist to "reach" for notes. While you are doing this evaluation it may be a good idea to keep in mind just how often you actually play at these extremes of position. If you find that you tend to hyper flex the wrist when playing up the neck on the low string, but you never (or rarely) play there, then it may not be worth worrying too much about. On the other hand, if you find that you deviate from the ideal hand position when playing on the higher strings in first position, where everyone spends a lot of time, then chances are good that some changes that allow you to maintain a better hand position are in order.
Some modifications to how the instrument is supported may reduce the number of places on the neck where the fretting hand position is less than ideal. In the Bass Player article Ed Friedland pointed out the simplest and most effective one, and that is changing the effective length of the strap. It is an easy thing to go through the above-mentioned hand position evaluation at different strap lengths, to see if there is an optimum length where ideal hand position is maintained at most places on the fingerboard. As Ed also mentioned, you may find that holding the instrument so that the neck is closer to vertical will help maintain ideal hand position. In my observation a neck angle of about 45 degrees is optimum, but only if you can get the instrument so the neck will be at this angle just hanging off the strap - maintaining this angle by physically lifting the neck with your fretting hand results in other problems. Some instruments will sit this way naturally when hanging off the strap (keep an eye on the reviews in bass magazines and websites for reviewers' comments about "well balanced" instruments - this is what they are talking about). Instruments that balance less than perfectly may be improved by moving the bottom strap button up a couple of inches and/or replacing heavy tuning machines with lighter ones. Unfortunately there are a number of instruments which are fundamentally so neck heavy that there are no simple modifications that can be made to improve this balance.
Keep in mind that this optimum 45 degree neck angle applies when you play sitting down too. It is unfortunate that there appear to be few basses made that allow the instrument to rest with the neck at this angle when it is sitting on the leg. This is especially unfortunate if you consider just how much playing is done sitting down. In some cases this may be improved by wearing the strap even when you play in a sitting position. It may not be necessary to support all of the weight of the instrument on your shoulder. With some instruments, wearing the strap while sitting may simply keep the lower horn from slipping off your leg, even while most of the weight of the instrument is being supported by the leg.
An ergonomic advantage can often be had by simply not playing at the places on the fingerboard that cause your fretting hand to deviate from optimum position. If “reaching” to play on the low string makes you bend or twist your wrist, it may be possible to change your style to eliminate playing on that string except when in first position. People with short fingers often find that they tend to twist their wrist when reaching for a fret with their fourth finger. For such folks Simandl fingering (or some other three finger variation) may be of ergonomic use.
Ed Friedland’s Bass Player article mentioned the importance of exploring changes in the setup of the instrument for folks with tendinitis and it is worth repeating. Going to lighter gage strings and lowering the action will always result in an ergonomic win.
If you’ve tried all of the above and are still having problems, it may be time to start shopping for a new bass that better “fits” you ergonomically. The basic idea here is the same as described above. When you check out an instrument, check your hand position when playing at the four corners of the fingerboard. See how well the instrument balances, both on the strap and on your leg. If you have short arms, you may want to consider instruments that bring the nut a little closer to the vertical centerline of your body, to make it easier to maintain optimum hand position in first position. Basses with extended upper horns will do this, at least when played hanging from the strap. Shorter scale instruments also put the nut closer to you, whether you play standing or sitting. People with shorter fingers may want to consider instruments with narrower than “standard” (which is 3/4” for four string basses) string-to-string spacing too.
It would be great if there were some basic qualities that make an instrument more ergonomic for all players, but unfortunately it is probably not that simple. To confuse matters, a number of manufacturers make claims of ergonomic superiority for their instruments, none of which appear to be validated by genuine scientific research. Remember, there is a big difference between designing a bass with the intent of enhancing ergonomics and actually proving that the design provides ergonomic improvement. For the most part such claims should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, in my observation there are three qualities that do seem to affect ergonomics across the board. I’ve already mentioned the first, which is neck angle. If the instrument balances well with the neck at about a 45 degree angle from vertical, ergonomics seem to be enhanced for all players. The two other qualities are weight and number of strings. Lighter seems to be better ergonomically for all players, and helps with other things besides fretting hand tendinitis (time to check out that Parker Fly bass you’ve been drooling over?). Finally, five, and especially six string instruments seem to be a lot tougher on the wrists, probably having to do with hyper flexing while reaching to play on (or mute) the B string. And the fact that these instruments are generally heavier than their four string counterparts probably doesn’t help either.
How far you go in your quest for better ergonomics probably depends on how much of a problem you have with tendinitis. Playing a lightweight, short scale, 4 string, long horned, short strapped bass with extra light gauge strings and low action might not sound too appealing to some, but for those with severe tendinitis these compromises may very well mean the difference between being able to play or not. And less radical changes in the instrument and/or in the way it is supported may be invaluable to folks with lesser degree of affliction.