Here’s a lesson for you: Don’t under estimate your bass’ ability to blister the ever-loving crap out of your seasoned, doghouse fingers.
It has been twice in recent months that the Bottom Dwellers have played marathon sets that were particularly hard on my fingers. Long sets don’t always have a negative effect on our performance, but failing to have regular rehearsals certainly does cruel things to your fingers if you’re a double bass player.
A three hour set at Morrison’s in Woodland, and a four-plus hour set at Smiley’s in Bolinas have introduced painful reminders that even with an all gut setup on your bass, you are not immune to the dreaded blister. The pain and residual discomfort I have endured over the past few weeks has inspired me to share what I know about blister prevention and care.
Searching the Internet for practical tips to avoid blisters will pretty much tell you everything you never really cared to know about what kinds of shoes and socks to wear while hiking. Lots of people suggest “Keeping the area cool and dry.” Other hand related options usually involve gloves or tape.
Obviously, putting things between your fingers and your instrument is about as realistic as keeping them “Cool and dry” while yanking out drag triplets in an extra fast rendition of Old Man From The Mountain. Rockabillybass.com has a section in their message board entitled, “Blisters, Tape and Pain.” You can find a lot of good ideas in there, but for the most part, it comes down to two things: Practice and really expensive strings.
The plane and simple fact is that natural gut strings are very pleasant to your hands. These latest incidents are the first I’ve had since going all gut. In contrast, no matter how many shows or rehearsals I endured with my nickel strings, blisters were business as usual. By the way, if you haven’t already heard, gut strings also produce a true, classic clickety-clack that nickel strings just can’t touch.
You may notice that lots of the big boys go nickel (or some kind of synthetic hybrid) on their E and sometimes A strings, with guts for the D and G. If you’re anything like me, though, nickel strings will wreck both of your hands—not just the one that does all the yanking.
There are a few problems with putting all gut strings on your bass, though. First of all, the E strings can be pretty hefty, and may require some permanent modifications to your nut, bridge, and tailpiece.
Secondly, gut strings have a lot less tension, especially the E and A. This means they also have a lot less volume when un-amplified. If you need to play pizzicato without an amp, a gut E string isn’t going to work for you.
Lastly, unless you want to spend $350 to $600 on a set, you only have one choice. Clef has a full set that sells for $160 at Upton. I have a set of these myself, and can vouch that they play much better than any nickel set I’ve ever had.
Another thing you should note is that gut strings need to be oiled so they don’t dry out. I use olive oil, myself. It’s usually available at any gig where food is served and has the side benefit of being very good for your skin.
The other key to avoiding blisters is practice. It goes without saying that frequent and regular practice is a very good thing. As far as building your blister resistance goes, the trick is to play just up until it starts hurting and then stop. It’s good to take a day off after this, but then jump right back in the following day.
This isn’t always an option when you are gigging regularly, but it is a good thing to keep in mind for blister prevention. If you can get away with playing slab once you start to feel the tingle, go for it. Once you build up your finger endurance, you’ll be able to go for hours and hours without an issue.
Just remember, though, it only takes a few weeks of not practicing for your fingers to crap out on you. Then you have to start the process all over again.
Caring For Blisters (and still making it through the gig)
So then, what if you do get blisters? What is the best way to care for them? Can you still play when you have them?
Don’t be macho. Your health comes first. Take proper care of your blisters. While super glue is fast way to seal exposed nerve endings and deaden the pain, the last thing you want grinding around between your bass and a blister is hardened glue. You also don’t want super glue in your blood stream. Never use it on open wounds. If your blister fills up with blood, see a doctor.
Your best bet for usable, blistered fingers is slicing or poking a hole in the top skin, draining it, and bandaging it up with a standard issue Band-Aid ®. If you can work a little Neosporin ® + pain relief in there, all the better. Leaving the skin on helps protect your fingers. For normal blisters, it isn’t necessary to drain them, but if you need to continue playing, it’s important to drain them so the continued movement of the yucky bubble doesn’t separate more skin from your finger.
Playing sucks with Band-Aids on your fingers, but it is a necessary evil if you want them to heal faster. I’ve found that the best Band-Aids are the regular, old fashioned kind—the one—s they print in all the Scooby-Doo and superhero patterns. The elastic cloth kinds tend to be too slick and snag the little hairs on your gut strings, and the latex foam kinds stick to the string too much, causing them to come off you fingers.
After a while the dead skin on your fingers is going to start getting crusty. This is when you should cut it off. I use fingernail clippers to do this, as they are safer than scissors or a razor blade. Blisters are painful enough. There is no need to risk cutting the sensitive skin. Once all the excess skin is removed, reapply Neosporin and a new Band-Aid.
Clean and re-dress your wounds at least twice a day—more if your hands get dirty.
Following these steps will put you on the fast track to healing the right way. Soon your skin will toughen and you can begin playing without the bandages. At this point, you may find it helpful to soak your fingers in Epsom salt. This will cause them to toughen faster as well as sooth them after playing. Remember to stop playing as soon as your fingers get the tingle and take a break for at least a day if possible.
The author is not a medical doctor. While his recommendations have been compiled from various licensed medial resources, he makes no grantees as to the success of the above recommendations. The author claims no responsibility for your results and forfeits any liability there of. If you follow the above recommendations, you do so at your own risk. M.e. encourages you to see your doctor if you have any reservations about following these recommendations.