The only speed exercise you’ll ever need

Bass Guitar TipsAbout eight years ago I developed a bad case of tennis elbow thanks to my 9-5 office job. The doctor called it RSI; I affectionately dubbed it my bass playing days are over!

Tennis elbow affects the tissue joining a particular forearm muscle to the bone of the elbow. The particular forearm muscle just so happens to be the one your two bass playing fingers are connected to. The upshot was that I could not touch the bass unless I wanted to spend the better part of a week chewing on anti-inflammatories.

Time passed, and the injury healed. BUT – I had to completely redesign my fingering technique.

I used to play with a very tense right hand, and when the speed increased, so did the tension. I would crunch my muscles hoping to squeeze just that little bit of extra speed out of them. All this resulted in was a sore wrist, and safe to say after my elbow injury, playing this way would doom me to the forearm brace and physical therapy all over again. I always knew it was incorrect, that my hand should be relaxed, but until I couldn’t do it any more, I didn’t bother correcting it.

I persevered with the relaxed right hand until it became second nature, but I had lost my speed. I knew there had to be a better way – the correct way – to get the speed I used to be capable of.

As it happens, a good friend taught me an exercise that set me straight, and now I can play faster than I ever could before.

And so, dear reader, the time has come for me to share this with you!

The Ultimate Speed Exercise

How to improve bass playing skills

It’s a very simple exercise, but it works wonders, not only for speed, but for correct feathering technique (for those unfamiliar with feathering, it is the action of fingering the string with the very smallest portion of the very tip of your fingers).

  1. Finger eight notes on open E, followed by open A, D and G, focussing on using only the very tip of your fingers.
  2. As the index finger plucks, immediately dampen the string with the tip of the middle finger, and vice versa (so it sounds like bop-bop-bop-bop instead of bah-bah-bah-bah).
  3. Do this slowly. Yes, you heard correctly – this is a speed exercise you do slowly. The aim at this stage is to get the fingering technique and dampening done right. You should dampen the string just with the tip of your finger, so it’s in the correct position to feather the next note straight away.

(Metronome-haters, please ignore step 4).

  1. Once you’ve gotten used to playing like this, switch on your metronome to ensure you aren’t going too fast. Start über-slow, say 80bpm playing 8th-notes, just to ensure the muting is still happening.

(OK metronome-haters, you can come back in now).

  1. Gradually increase the speed, only going faster when you can consistently maintain the dampening and feathering technique in tempo.

And really, that’s all there is to it! If you repeat this every day, before long you’ll be swimming in 16th-note fills and your guitarist will start giving you dirty looks.

And of course, throughout all of this – keep your right hand relaxed! Tension is the enemy here. Keep it chilled, keep a light touch, and for really insane fast bits, move closer to the bridge.

Hopefully this will help you avoid an injury like mine and keep you happily noodling away for many years to come.


Sam Lloyd has been playing bass for over 20 years, and has been gigging since the late 90s. He is also a professional blogger, and runs a successful communications/PR business.

Check out more of his bass playing tips.


Digging in 1


You practice, you rehearse – you’ve got a nice little pair of callouses on your fingers. You rock up to your gig all smiles, and go home with two whopping blisters instead.

Um, what? How did that happen? Now I can’t use the touchscreen on my smartphone!

If this has ever happened to you, you’ve probably fallen into the trap of digging in for extra volume. Practicing by yourself at home is one thing, even rehearsing with your band you can get your tone and volume levels the way you want them, but in a live room full of hot sweaty bodies, the dynamics change considerably. A lot of the overtones will be absorbed or drowned out, and even though you may have cranked your rig to the point of thermal overload, you still just can’t hear yourself quite right.

Now before you switch off completely, this is not another “we hate the sound guy (or gal)” post, because in reality it doesn’t have a lot to do with them. Most of the gigs I play, my FOH sound is basically redundant compared to what’s blaring out of my cab and I can hear myself just fine, yet I have still suffered my fair share of post-gig bleeders.

Nowadays, however, I avoid them through a combination of technique and wisdom, and I’ve lived welt-free ever since.


Tim Commerford

Digging in can be a good technique to have under your belt, especially if you cheaped out on buying that overdrive pedal you really should have for that one section of that one song. When done right, it can be useful for all those punchy funk highlights, and you can crank it out all night if you want to. Here is how to dig in properly:

  • Instead of pushing down and sweeping your finger across the string, which is why you get blisters, use the same “feathering” motion as normal, but curl your fingers to adjust the angle of attack. Instead of tickling the very top of the string, tickle its belly instead. This is a more sustainable way to get the pump and growl without mutilating yourself. It’s hard to get used to at first, but think of it as the half-way point between popping and fingering.
  • Move away from the bridge. If you’re digging in for tone, you won’t play fast, so you don’t need the speed advantage. Move closer to the fretboard so the strings have the extra play, which will be easier on your fingers.

I use this technique whenever I play “Give It Away” (Chili Peppers) and it sounds amazeballs. Well…. I think it does.




If you find you can’t hear yourself very well, or perhaps are just super-excited because you’re finally playing a gig, you may be unconsciously digging in, and most likely doing it wrong. Keep paying a little bit of attention to your technique in amongst the groove and the vibe and the hot sweaty bodies:

  • If you catch yourself mashing the strings like they’re a game of whack-a-mole, you can either (a) stop doing it, (b) correct yourself so you’re digging in properly, or (c) unplug your bass, throw it at the drummer’s head and kick your rig over, screaming that you can’t work under these conditions as you storm off stage. I generally go with option (b).
  • If the problem is that you actually can’t hear yourself, try stepping back so your legs are physically touching your cab. I don’t know why, but this always works for me.
  • You can tar and feather me later, but if your problem is you just can’t hear the tone you spent a whole afternoon on your parametric EQ for, try having a little faith in the sound guy (or gal). If they have you through a DI, insist that they DI you out of your preamp and not straight from your bass. This way all your lovely nuanced overtones can be taken care of by the FOH, and you can pay attention to where you’re at in the song.

Hopefully armed with some of the above info, your fingers don’t need to be the latest casualty in the unending war for monitor bandwidth!

Sam Lloyd has been playing bass for over 20 years, and has been gigging since the late 90s. He is also a professional blogger, and runs a successful communications/PR business.

After learning several instruments and completing a music degree in jazz vocals in 2000, he finally accepted that he’s just a bass player, and now devotes his musical energies solely to all things bass.

He lives in Adelaide, Australia with his wife, two boys and a very mischievous puppy. He currently plays for Dom’s Garage, an originals and covers rock band playing various venues around Adelaide. His proudest musical achievement is finally convincing the drummer there are bars of five in Black Dog.

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