I got this question twice last week: Ari, what do you think of squeeze balls and grip devices and other gadgets to strengthen my fingers?
From my experience these items will not help you. I advise against them because to use them correctly, one needs to have a good plan, pay attention, be constantly aware to not overdo things and there is a danger of overstraining hands or fingers. With all these caveats, you might as well practice directly on your instrument.
If you are wrestling with the fretboard, if your fingers cannot be coerced into submission or you are trying so hard to stretch the distance between your fingers to reach that elusive low area of the bass, one-finger-per-fret fashion, they are definitely NOT your friend!
Almost always you need
- less force – not more!
- more coordination – not more crude strength based movements.
- less brute force but more feeling (into your hands)!
- less tension – not squeezing pushing or cajoling your fingers into submission!
- less pushing yourself – more gentleness and focused intent
I won’t say we need less strength because we do need strength but we need it in the right muscles. Those muscles we need to train are the small, fine muscles, not the ones these gadgets train!
What we are asking our hand to do…
the grip movement – we are made for this!
Notice how all fingers act in concert and the main purpose is – hold on. Carry stuff. Use tools.
What we are asking our fingers to do as instrumentalists is going very much against the nature of the build of our hands:
- We ask the fingers to move separately! (middle and ring finger even share a tendon, so if you ever wondered why those guys have a particularly hard time cooperating, that is why!)
- We ask for extremely precise movements – timing, phrasing, dynamics, etc all depend on micro-movements and a complex feedback loop between our fingers, ears, and minds.
- We ask them to do unusual repetitive movements that require complex coordination between hands.
- We may ask them to do the same movement for a very long time.
So the first instinct of the big muscles, then, is to help, to pick up the slack. But that is the worst you can do – you want more of the little guys and less of the big guys. I spend a lot of time with my students helping them find the points where they can let go.
Too much Force! Not enough Feel!
Usually, there is too much force and too much of a gripping motion going on and way too much of the idea that we need force anyways!
Now get me right, I love to dig in for a good groove with a drummer with deep pockets – yet while I do that I am super relaxed (at least that is the goal). Only then can the music flow!
I have developed a method to help with changing habits (the PORA method) and I am working on releasing a program that has helped my students immensely improve their technique. (Stay tuned for that).
These are devices that may be very effective for mountain climbers but for electric bassists, in my opinion, do more harm than good.
I don’t recommend
- Any kind of finger weights that are supposed to make your fingers stronger. I got invited a while back to sponsor a company that creates these. I tested them and then quietly declined. I am sure they are great for mountain climbers and other applications. I only endorse what I believe in and I could feel the tension build up in my hand as I was using them. Exactly what you do not want!
- These things: they may be great for mountain climbers and maybe during some stretches when playing upright, but use caution. I maintain you learn best what you need for the instrument on the instrument.
- Any kind of brute-force treatment of the hand – brutal stretches or violent trigger point massages (unless you are a trigger massage therapist).
I do recommend
- Finger exercises
- permutation exercises
- pedaling exercises
- excellent fingering
- awareness exercises
- tendon training
- speed training
- slow training
- precision training of distances
Particularly for finger strength (training those small muscles!)
Fun Fidget Gadgets
There are a few gadgets that I do like, but they are by no means mandatory or necessary! They are also not for everyone, so try one out if you are curious.
I like to fidget and tinker with things in my hand while I talk, especially things that will make me feel my hand more intently and that require nimbleness and balancing skill. I can do these movements completely relaxed and they are not about force but about coordination.
Here are three examples that I like (aside from doodling):
The above two gadgets are ancient and have long traditions of calming nerves and stimulating creativity.
There is also this guy that I like to fiddle with:
Go on Amazon and look for “fidget toys for adults” and the sky is the limit. If you like things that stimulate your creativity then I recommend items that consist of small magnetic parts, magnetic cube puzzles or spring toys.
The Take Away
A lack of strength is typically not the problem. Rather it often is too much brute force. You may feel like your hand gets tired, but that is because all the big muscles are working overtime. Focus more on the letting go, the economy of movement, the relaxing and the music flowing through you. If you tense up, drop your hand gently for a moment and sense into your muscles to feel them let go.
In our Course Music Theory for the Bass Player, we practice technique in every unit, from easy to more challenging, with constant reminders of what to look out for.