How you hold and support your bass guitar is very important and should not be over-looked. Poorly holding your bass will negatively influence all other bass technique, slow your learning, and you may even injure yourself.
You should use a guitar strap 100% of the time when you play your bass. The strap is an essential part of your bass technique. The strap holds and balances the bass for you. Your hands shouldn’t be doing much, if any, of the bass holding or balancing. Your hands need to be free to play. I can't emphasize enough that you should always be using a strap!
Another reason for using a strap is that it keeps your bass in a consistent position. Consistency and accuracy make learning go much faster, and the strap makes that happen.
Purchase a very comfortable strap. You, your back, and your shoulders will be glad you did. A wider strap distributes weight better across your shoulder. Check my current recommendations in the StudyBass shop pages on what to get.
Let's talk about adjusting your strap...
Bass Angle & Height
The angle and height at which you hold your bass makes a world of difference in your playing. It decides the positioning of your hands, the access to notes on the fretboard, stamina and fatigue, and can cause or prevent common musician injuries.
Horizontal Bass Syndrome (HBS)
Many bass students make the mistake of positioning their bass too horizontally. When you do that, it puts the notes we most often play—the low ones—farther out of reach. That means your fretting hand arm has to stretch out most of the time you play. That's needlessly tiring on long gigs and practice sessions.
It also makes the lower strings harder to reach. Your finger access to notes becomes even more limited.
You will see in an upcoming lesson that it will be hard to position your thumb properly.
When your bass is horizontal, it also forces your wrists to bend more sharply. This is one of many contributing factors to hand injuries like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Be careful learning your positioning habits from guitar players. They play shorter instruments, and—depending on the style—they spend more time in different parts of the fretboard than we bass players do.
Slant Your Bass
The solution for HBS is to angle or slant your bass. Angling your bass solves all of the above problems.
Both of your wrists will straighten.
It brings both of your arms in closer to your body where they can relax more.
Your fingers have better access to the strings and to the entire range of the fretboard.
Your thumb will be positioned better on the back of the neck.
Adjust the Angle, Adjust the Height
Experiment with the angle at which you hold your bass. Then, adjust the height of your bass with your strap so that both of your arms hang in a relaxed position.
For most people, the body of the bass will land between their chest and hips. And, the headstock of the bass will be between shoulder and eye level.
Everyone is a bit different. Experiment. There is some leeway. I suggest NOT having it too low. I know it looks cooler, but your legs will knock it around and your posture will suffer. Eventually people will think it’s cool how well you play bass.
Also, try to adjust your bass so that it sits in nearly the same position whether you are sitting or standing. If you sit while practicing and stand while playing, this will help you play just like you practice. Being consistent is a big part of learning to play bass well.
Sitting with Your Bass
Students sit much of the time when they practice. I really encourage you to practice while standing as well as while sitting. You're most likely to perform standing up. I've had several students in the past really thrown off by needing to stand at their first gig. Playing felt completely different and it didn't go well.
Make it a goal to spend half of your practice sessions playing while standing. You've been warned!
Choose a Good Chair
You'll need a chair without arms which get in the way of your bass.
The Problem of Playing Sitting Down
While sitting feels comfortable, it causes a few problems. Sitting forces your bass into a different position compared to when you're standing. Remember, consistency makes learning go faster.
Since your leg is higher when sitting, it pushes your bass higher or to the side. And, you'll probably hold your bass more horizontally introducing all of the HBS problems above.
Honestly, I suggest you get a stool or taller chair where you can perch on its edge.
There are some other more ergonomic chairs out there. I really like the kneeling Balans chair. It keeps your back straight and your leg out of the way. There are some really nice "dynamic sitting" chairs out there, but they can get expensive. You might be better off sitting on a stack of 1000 one-dollar bills!
Your mother was right — sit and stand tall. You shouldn't be leaning back in a chair or hunching over as you play.
Posture is something with which most of us have issues. It's easy to get into bad postural habits.
There's no consensus on what perfect posture is, but there are a lot of common suggestions. I suggest you explore posture a lot. It really makes a difference, not on just how you look, but on how you feel and perform in everyday life.
A good example is breathing. If you slump over, you compress your lungs and limit your oxygen intake. Your brain and muscles—which you use for playing and learning—need oxygen!
Posture also affects your mood (there are even links to depression), joint health, circulation, and all sorts of other internal affairs of the body. Posture is mostly a matter of awareness. Don't ignore it. Work on it.
Here are a few links to explore:
Alexander Technique® - A system of how to use the body correctly. It is used by many actors, dancers and musicians.
Feldenkrais - Similar to Alexander technique, but more abstract. It has more to do with body awareness than instruction on what to fix.
There are many new bio-mechanic systems and philosophies being devised. Keep exploring!
You Are the Instrument
Just as your bass needs to be setup properly, so do you. Don't underestimate the importance of how you hold the bass guitar and your posture. It's all connected. Ultimately, you are the instrument we're trying to develop.
Let's look at what some of the masters do.
Great Bass Players Holding the Bass
Here are some photos of how some of the many great bass players hold their basses. [Note: Only links to photos used to avoid any personality rights issues.]
Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report)
One of the greatest players of all-time, Jaco angles his bass well with the bass body about waist-level.
Jack Bruce (Cream)
One of the founders of rock bass, Jack Bruce keeps his bass a bit lower, but maintains a good angle.
James Jamerson (Motown Studio Bassist)
One of the most influential bassists of all-time, James Jamerson can be seen here sitting on a stool with his leg out of the way.
Mike Porcaro (Toto)
An incredible player demonstrating great playing posture! Notice the angle and height of his bass. He's standing up straight with his shoulders level.
Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station)
Larry Graham, one of the funkiest players ever, is a tall man. Here his bass hangs near his waist and his headstock is below his shoulder.
Geddy Lee (Rush)
Rock players often have their basses lower and more horizontal. Well, no one can tell Geddy Lee—one of the best bass players ever—that he's doing anything wrong.
Chris Squire (Yes)
Another master of the bass, Chris Squire. Body just above the waist, headstock at shoulder height. Boots optional. (You'd wear them if that was the key to playing!)
John Entwistle (The Who)
John Entwistle, another founding father of rock bass, here has his bass about waist height with the headstock just above his shoulders.
The great Esperanza Spalding has her bass about waist height with the headstock above her shoulders.
Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck)
Victor Wooten shows a great example of sitting on a stool with his leg out of the way.
Check out how your favorite players hold their basses. Watch videos. See how they move with them, stand with them and their posture.