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.
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.