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Arm cramps while performing


omegamike

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Hi everyone. I did a few searches but didn't see anything that discussed having arm cramps while performing. The problem that I'm having is that when I play live my right arm tends to cramp up within the first few minutes. This usually ends up traveling down to my hand which ends up becoming a 'mitt' and I lose 90% of my dexterity and have lost picks on occasion because of this.

 

I've been playing bass for 15 years and this has plagued me almost since day one. I always thought it had something to do with playing fast rock/metal tunes with a pick but that all went out the window at my last gig when I decided to go fingerstyle for the first time at a gig. I had a similar problem that way too.

 

So what is happening? I don't believe I get stage fright anymore. Maybe its some kind of stress combined with bad technique or form? Has this happened to anyone else?

 

I tend to find that after about 30 minutes on stage or so this problem goes away. I also started wearing wristbands years ago (I figured there must be a good reason why a lot of the metal guys were wearing them?)which seems to help a little bit. I just end up playing through it and it usually goes away, but I'm just wondering if there's a better way.

 

I've had problems in the past with my left hand where I was virtually strangling the neck of my bass - so I think it's related to that. I think because I started out on crappy gear that I adopted an excessively aggressive attack style that is causing my arm to fatigue. The strange thing is most of the time it doesn't happen during rehearsal. My band has been known to speed up live though once the adrenaline hits - so that's probably a factor as well.

 

Anyway, I'd appreciate any help anyone on this forum can give me. I'd like to be as expressive on the bass live as I am in the basement but once your arms and hand cramp it's just hold on for dear life and shake your hand/arm out inbetween songs. In most of the places that we play there is no back stage and so warming up with my bass before going on stage is next to impossible. I'm often booking and running some of the shows that we do so I can't just hole myself up and warm up either - I have to be visible and meet with people etc...

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Okay - maybe I'm in denial here but I don't think it's quite that serious?

 

I'm going to try a few things...turn up my amp and lessen my attack force with the right hand...I'm also going to try playing in front of a mirror and see if I can spot anything glaring with my right arm positioning...of course I don't have a mirror in front of me while I'm performing on stage though.

 

Can I get a second opinion on the doctor suggestion? :D

http://www.myspace.com/omegamyk

http://www.bassguitarrocks.com

Ibanez BTB 505 equiped w/F-Bass preamp(<-for sale)

Trace Elliot AH400SMX & 4x10

Sans Amp Bass Driver DI

Digitech BP8

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I am NOT trying to be a wise ass (imagine that). You really need to go see a doc, preferably an osteopath. We have good bassists here, great bassists, Jeremy and really bad ones :-S

 

We are, however, not doctors and I would really hate to see you have some kind of condition that ends up exacerbated (or worse) because of quack, holistic or diagnosis based on what my cousin Mike had after that unfortunate ukelele incident.

 

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

 

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Dude it is really simple what your doing, you are not breathing when you hit the stage. It is like the effort that goes into lifting a heavy weight you kind of stop breathing for the few seconds of the lift. Your hand and arm is doing more work than the rest of your body so its the bit that feels the fatigue first and then cramps.

 

You need to be aware of your breathing and do it purposefully when practicing and the next time you hit the stage. Also drink lots of water before the gig it keeps your system flowing better.

 

Also practice a light touch with both hands, do whole body stretchs before you start and let the amp do the work for you.

 

Good luck.

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I think properly warming up would solve most of your problems.

About 30 minutes before show time, I excuse myself and tell people that I need to warm up. Everyone understands.

Tenstrum

 

"Paranoid? Probably. But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there isn't an invisible demon about to eat your face."

Harry Dresden, Storm Front

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Change the angle of attack.

 

Use a less ferocious attack.

 

Vary the attack. 2 finger, one finger, 2 plus thumb, pick.

 

Worst cramping I ever got was playing Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" Mvt. I. The basses play an F on the e string for the whole movement. I was trying all kinds of stuff there.

"Let's raise the level of this conversation" -- Jeremy Cohen, in the Picasso Thread.

 

Still spendin' that political capital far faster than I can earn it...stretched way out on a limb here and looking for a better interest rate.

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Social Critc and Getz - I appreciate the concern. I've been playing for 15 years (I'm thirty now so do the math) and this has been with me since the start. I don't think I'm hurting myself because I never experience any linger problems either immediately after performing or the next day. Believe me that if I had any lingering stiffness or tingling in my fingers, wrists or forearms I'd definitely be consulting a doctor about this. It seems to be an issue I have playing live.

 

SeamyD - I think you may be onto something. When I was a kid taking Tae Kwon Do I was sparing and almost fainted during the match because I forgot to breath. I didn't even notice - I was so intent and focused on what was going on, my sensai (sp?) had to point this out to me after the fact. There is a good chance that I'm doing the same thing on stage. I've heard that singing and playing is a great way to encourage proper breathing, and I do sing some backing vocals on certain tunes we do - maybe that's what helps get rid of the cramping over the course of the set?

 

The second problem is once you notice you're starting to cramp up you think about it too much...and then it gets worse. I usually try to relax my grip a bit and focus on the music to avoid this.

 

davebrownbass - I did switch up my technique which is what helped me get through the set. I started with my fingers for the first song and switched back to the pick and then back to my fingers for the middle section of another tune. It got me through in the short term but I'm hoping I can address the issue and not have to do this in the future.

 

I'm still going to evaluate my form, lessen my attack (turn up the amp!) and breathe deeply and see if that nips this on the bud. Unfortunately I don't have any live shows in the near future to try this out, but hopefully when I do I'll be well prepared.

http://www.myspace.com/omegamyk

http://www.bassguitarrocks.com

Ibanez BTB 505 equiped w/F-Bass preamp(<-for sale)

Trace Elliot AH400SMX & 4x10

Sans Amp Bass Driver DI

Digitech BP8

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Something I learned (by accident) only a few months ago was about using the right amount of volume and the intensity of the attack. I had similar cramping when using a pick and have found that turning up the volume on the amp and using less force when playing avoids the cramping for the most part. Many others have said great points have been mentioned, hopefully you'll find some relief of the cramping as it makes it really hard to play when a knot is forming between the thumb and first finger. I also try to relax my hand more as well.

In this case, less really is more.

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Well, I'll thank social critic for the compliment, but I'm not really ready for the gallery of the greats.

 

I have been teaching bass for over 30 years, though.

 

omegamike, my suggestion is you have to figure out a way to repeat your practice conditions when you are on stage. The cramps don't happen when you are practicing, right?

 

So obviously you are doing something different when you play live. The first thing to check out (which I think you've noticed already) is whether you are playing a lot harder live.

 

Most people do...when you are practicing you can hear yourself very easily...live you are competing with everyone else.

 

Turn your amp up to an ungodly level which will force you to play lighter (or get you fired from your band).

 

The other thing to check out is your arm position. Many people practice sitting down and then play standing up. The bass can end up being in a completely different position, which changes your arm and hand angles.

 

I recommend that you shorten the strap so that the bass is in the exact same position whether you are sitting or standing. It might not look as rock and roll as you want, but it will help your hands and arms.

 

If you play every day of your life, warmup becomes less of an issue. You could buy one of these and practice your right hand techniques anywhere.

 

Good luck!

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Only two things come to mind that nobody's really mentioned.

 

First, examine you pick hand. Do you straighten the knuckle in your thumb and lock it that way? I had problems doing this a while back as it gave me lingering soreness in my thumb. If this is the case, work on keeping all of your knuckles bent at least slightly whenever you play. It can be quite awkward at first but it really does help.

 

I've had the problem of arms and hands cramping up on stage in the past. I don't know if it was brought on by the same things as with you but SeamyD has provided golden info here. Breathing properly as well as warming up is critical! Playing an instrument is like any other physical activity. You wouldn't run a marathon without stretching and warming up just as I hope you never practiced Tae Kwon Do without stretching and warming up...that's just not smart! Tenstrum is right, talk to people earlier and after the show. Take time before going on to warm up and get the blood flowing through your hands. Learn some breathing exercises and practice them while you stretch.

 

Secondly, one of the problems that I used to have is that when my hands cramped up I'd concentrate on loostening up the muscles in my hands but ignored the rest of my body. If you can make a conceous effort to relax your entire body (mainly your back, shoulders and upper and forearms) your hands will follow suit.

 

...and turn up your amp! :thu:

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Potassium and lots of water.

 

Breathing and rest.

 

Alter your attack and bass/strap position.

 

Or, Play polkas. :)

 

Good luck.

 

 

Peace,

 

wraub

 

I'm a lot more like I am now than I was when I got here.

 

 

 

 

 

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Very good point, Jeremy! I keep forgetting that most rockers play their bass around their knees. I used to do that but life got so much easier when I shortened my strap. I'm a rocker at heart but I've never pretended to look the part.
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i've been having similar problems the last few years. we're remarkably similar in that we play loud music and we're both thirty with similar years of experience.

 

my advice is a pastiche of my own and everyone elses (because most of it's been said already).

 

go to the doctor. turns out i had bursitis. he may tell you to take an over the counter anti-inflamitary. and it couldn't hurt.

 

stretch. not just your arm. your whole body. your muscles are all tuned into eachother through your brain and he likes to keep everything on an even keel. if you have tension in one spot it will float to the others, so stretching one part f your body is useless.

 

work on your breathing. regular relaxed breathing will help keep yo loose.

 

hydrate.

Eeeeeehhhhhhhhh.
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First, I know I can't play under stress, so relaxation is critical. If that doesn't work I try to channel my stress to my gut so it feeds into my desire to play.

 

Second, I'm inclined to think this results from a back or postiure problem. Your spine is a complicated instrument which has quite a balancing act, considering it wasn't optimally designed for long-term upright movement. Like what so many others here mentioned, it would be best to have someone observe the way you stand, wear your instrument and move around to determine if you're putting undue stress there.

 

Sleep posture is also a factor. I sleep with a pillow between my legs because a doctor showed me how your spine is better aligned that way. Some sleep postures are not good for you and can worsen the problem. I sleep on my right arm most nights and have to move it around in the morning to get it loosened up, but at least I know I'm the cause of that.

 

Orthopedic specialists are trained to observe body movements and are worth consulting if you plan to put a lifetime into wearing a piece of wood around your neck that is bound to affect your spinal column in time. Find one that's willing to let you bring your bass into his office and observe the way you play. Also, there are good music teachers that are trained to do the same thing, if you'd rather postpone the doctor's visit awhile.

 

Speaking of time, things like bone density and flexibility of the cartilage in your disks change as you age, and aging affects different people in different ways.

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Fred, this is helpful stuff, for me at least. I have been reading the advice with interest as much of it applied to my experience. Mike, sorry if I have nothing much to add - maybe my experiences can be relevant.

I rarely get cramps when I play, but it's happening much more than in the past. Mostly left hand stuff when I'm playing something in F minor that goes on forever. Some of the above posts have reminded me of what I used to do. Since returning to gigging in the last year or so, I've been doing much less in term of warmups and often playing through inadequate amps with loud guitarists, so the above makes sense.

Thanks for reminding me, I used to do whole body, sports style warm ups, take a sponge ball to stretch my fingers and even do breathing exercises - I don't know how I forgot all this!

Interestingly, I also get leg cramps at night and even involuntary leg jerks while sleeping.

Potassium and water have made a difference - I should maybe stretch more as I walk hours every day. Fred's stuff gives me more angles to work.

Well tomorrow I've a gig with my new rig so I guess I'll try out some of the advice.

Sorry to make this all about me, hope some of this is relevant Mike and your problem is solved.

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I vote for a visit to the doctor. But, as has been mentioned on other threads here, I'd suggest a specialist in sports or performing arts medicine. Others have suggested that these people will take you more seriously.

 

You touch on stage fright and "strangling the neck of [your] bass" (in the past). Many have mentioned relaxing, posture, and breathing. Check. I get a mental picture of someone so tightly strung up and rigid that the only things moving are the things that absolutely have to: fingers, hands, arms. How about your legs? Are they glued to the floor?

 

In marching band you often have to stand still for long periods of time. One of the first things you're taught is to not lock your knees. If you do, you disrupt blood flow and before you know it you pass out. Now, you're not passing out, but maybe the cramping is still a sign of poor blood flow. It's hard to impossible on a small stage, but try to move your feet and legs.

 

I really like Jeremy's suggestion "to figure out a way to repeat your practice conditions when you are on stage". Other than stage fright and lack of warming up, we don't know what's effecting you because we can't directly observe you. You can try reversing the experiment, too: try to repeat your stage conditions when you are at practice.

 

Try sitting around for half an hour and then suddenly get up and play your set as if it were a performance; normal breaks between songs and sets, etc. If you're still cramping, it's probably not due to stage fright (unless you're still overly stressed not to make a mistake, but this is practice, it's ok to make mistakes). Look into the suggestions posted above. However, if there's absolutely no cramping in practice, well, you've got something else to work on.

 

I got over stage fright at a fairly young age (between 11 and 14) -- and I was an extremely shy kid -- so I don't know what to tell you. Sure, I still get aprehensive, and I recently let some butterflies affect a coffee house performance (but in fairness I wasn't playing bass and had not practiced enough and those were bigger factors). I want as perfect a performance as possible as the next guy, but it's not like figure skating where everytime you go for the triple jump and fall down the audience goes "awwww!". And even skaters get right back up and pick up where they left off, though they know by the third fall they're out of the competition.

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Wow...I didn't think I'd get such a response to my particular ailment. Everything from stretches, strap length, to the way I'm sleeping at night?

 

I guess I'm a bit of a freak of nature in that I rarely play sitting down, I always play standing up...even when I'm recording ( I like to go for that live feeling). I've also raised my strap a fair amount over the last few months. It used to keep my crotch covered and now it's slightly higher between belt and belly. So I can rule out the strap issue I think.

 

I do keep myself fairly well hydrated, but I'll make sure to stay vigilant with that. I do stretch a bit before going on stage, but I'm sure I could do an even better job of that.

 

Now that I have Jeremy's permission, I fully intend to turn my amp up to an 'ungodly level'. I know the last gig in particular the guitar was too loud...I had to really listen to the drums and they're between me and the guitar amp! I'm sure I was playing too hard trying to hear myself...

 

I play in a three piece band and I'm usually the most animated guy there since the drums aren't very mobile and the guitarist sings lead. I usually keep my knees bent (I'm 6'2" and it looks more "rock star" anyway).

 

If any of you live in Canada I gig usually within an hour of Toronto - come to a show and tell me what I'm doing wrong! :D Otherwise I appreciate all the answers and I'm sure if I use all these suggestions I can reduce this problem substantially if not eliminate it all together. As they say to alcholics the first step is in admiting you have a problem...and I finally have after 15 years. Hi everyone...my name's Mike and I get arm cramps when I play bass live!

 

Lastly, next trip to the doctor I will mention this just to be safe, but I don't think I'm going to look up a specialist just yet.

http://www.myspace.com/omegamyk

http://www.bassguitarrocks.com

Ibanez BTB 505 equiped w/F-Bass preamp(<-for sale)

Trace Elliot AH400SMX & 4x10

Sans Amp Bass Driver DI

Digitech BP8

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If you cramp up, it's almost always because you're playing with way too much tension.

 

Your right hand needs to relaxed to the point where your hand almost drops the pick. You don't need to squeeze it in a death grip. Spend some time in a mirror looking at the way you hold your bass and your pick. If it looks relaxed, it will be relaxed.

 

Look at these pictures of how Robert Fripp and Carol Kaye hold their picks:

 

http://www.nostalgiacentral.com/images_music/kingcrimson_01.jpg

 

http://bunnybass.com/e-zine/girls/04.girlpictures/carolekaye02.jpg

 

Notice how they both hold the pick between the thumb and forefinger only, keeping the hand in a relaxed position with the fingers naturally curled. Notice how relaxed they are. You should be able to play ripping 16th notes with minimal wrist movement using this techinque. Try it, it'll help.

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Originally posted by omegamike:

Now that I have Jeremy's permission, I fully intend to turn my amp up to an 'ungodly level'. I know the last gig in particular the guitar was too loud...I had to really listen to the drums and they're between me and the guitar amp! I'm sure I was playing too hard trying to hear myself...

that'll do it every time. guitar players don't really feel like the bass is terribly important so they ask oyu to turn down, or turn way the hell up. the result is that you can't hear yourself and you play much harder than you should. the result is cramping like this. turn up. that should help.
Eeeeeehhhhhhhhh.
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Hmm... interesting stuff..

 

I dunno what I am doing right--

I play hard as hell and wear my bass really low. I never stretch, either. My diet is shitty, but I DO drink a lot of water.

 

I'm 34, and I have been playing out since I was 15...

 

But I have never gotten cramps of any kind while playing onstage.

 

So, maybe it all DOES come down to breathing and relaxation... I don't feel any tension at all when I play--I just play.

\m/

Erik

"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

--Sun Tzu

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Benloy - thanks for the pics of the picking technique. Like I said before, my problem doesn't seem to be any ONE thing, but a series of little things. The littlest/biggest of these I believe is breathing of all things.

 

Ricbassguy - Sorry, I have nothing new to report. My band is on a short hiatus for a few weeks due to being swamped at our dayjobs and our singer/guitarist is expecting his first child in a few weeks.

 

I'm going to use this down time to critique my form, my amp settings, my breathing etc so that by the time I hit the stage again the cramping will be a thing of the past. I'm going to do my best to duplicate the live conditions in the meantime, but the final exam will be my next live show.

 

Again, I thank everyone here that's taken the time to read and respond to this thread. It's great to be part of an online community that is genuinely helpful and informative.

http://www.myspace.com/omegamyk

http://www.bassguitarrocks.com

Ibanez BTB 505 equiped w/F-Bass preamp(<-for sale)

Trace Elliot AH400SMX & 4x10

Sans Amp Bass Driver DI

Digitech BP8

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Make sure that you warm up before playing. Also are you comftorable with the height of your bass? I know I used to play with my bass extremely low like Robert T of Metallica. (I don't know how to spell his last name)That really hurt my wrist especially playing on the D and G. So I decided to rise the bass so it is near my mid section, and man it feels A Lot better. Check that out, if that isn't the problem, then check out a doctor. I hope all goes well.

"All things are possible through Christ." (Matt 19:26)

 

My band: http://www.purevolume.com/fadingsilence

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You've already received a ton of good advice on this thread. I hope you really pay attention to BenLoy's suggestions about holding your pick, everyone's suggestions about warming up beforehand, and all the bass height comments.

 

There are three different things that I absolutely know contribute to when I personally have cramping problems while playing.

 

1. Not warming up. It doesn't matter how frequently I am playing/practicing/gigging, if I won't warm up a bit before going onstage and start the night with ripping 16th notes - I'm most likely going to have a problem with my right forearm/hand cramping. Even if it's only playing scales for 5 minutes before going on, it helps and prevents the irritating cramping problem.

 

2. Dehydration. When I don't drink a lot of water (like I usually do) or if I've been out partying it up like an idiot the night before a gig, I'm much more likely to cramp up while playing. Again, properly warming up before hand usually prevents this problem - but not always. Being dehydrated is being dehydrated. Your body is not happy because you're not giving it enough water.

 

3. Instrument height. I have my bass in roughly the same position when I'm standing as when I'm sitting. When it's up there, I can play all over the neck with ease and I don't have to struggle for anything. Occasionally, I'll drop the bass way down low to be an idiot when my cover band is doing something like a Ramones tune... you know, look the part, so to speak. Horrible cramps can ensue. I know it's a stupid thing to do, but I do it anyway.

 

Originally posted by omegamike:

I also started wearing wristbands years ago (I figured there must be a good reason why a lot of the metal guys were wearing them?)which seems to help a little bit.

I'm curious about your thinking here. You're saying you wear wristbands because you've seen other metal bass players do it. What is it gaining you besides trying to look like Steve Harris circa 1982?

 

Originally posted by omegamike:

I guess I'm a bit of a freak of nature in that I rarely play sitting down, I always play standing up...even when I'm recording ( I like to go for that live feeling). I've also raised my strap a fair amount over the last few months. It used to keep my crotch covered and now it's slightly higher between belt and belly. So I can rule out the strap issue I think.

Well, if you have your bass up in that area, it is pretty safe to say it's probably not your strap length. I'm curious what "that live feeling" has to do with playing standing up vs. sitting down. I have done many gigs sitting down as well as many gigs standing up. Both feel the same to me... it's live music.
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  • 2 months later...

Originally posted by Bumpcity:

I'm curious about your thinking here. You're saying you wear wristbands because you've seen other metal bass players do it. What is it gaining you besides trying to look like Steve Harris circa 1982?

It increases the bloodflow to the wrist, warms them up. I find that putting them on about half an hour before I hit the stage helps quite a bit. It was sort of a way to cheat out of warming up with my bass since I haven't felt I had that option. I'm going to make warming up with my bass much more of a priority going forward. But yeah - wristbands do have a function other than fashion.

 

Originally posted by Bumpcity:

Well, if you have your bass up in that area, it is pretty safe to say it's probably not your strap length. I'm curious what "that live feeling" has to do with playing standing up vs. sitting down. I have done many gigs sitting down as well as many gigs standing up. Both feel the same to me... it's live music.
No disrespect, but playing sitting down isn't what hard rock is about. My band plays mainly hard rock original music and we do our utmost to put on an energetic show shy of performing Stone Henge with little munchins on stage :) We did attempt to do acoustic versions of hard rock songs in a pub with barstools on stage and I didn't enjoy it. I was almost nodding off, or I'd get distracted by the t.v. sets. Sitting down just doesn't work for me when performing live - that's all I'm trying to say.

 

It's been a few months since my last post and I've followed a lot of the great advice given here. As I stated in my previous post - the final exam will soon be upon me so I'll see if I ultimately pass or fail. The show is on January 27th.

 

What have I done differently? For starters my amp has gone from 'dull roar' to 'ungodly level'. I've been working at switching to 100% fingerstyle - playing with a pick wasn't the problem, but going fingerstyle was another experiment I was already working on anyway. I feel more in synch with my bass when I play fingerstyle, so I hope this helps break the bad habit of powering-thru with the pick and subsequently cramping up.

 

What may have also been a factor is the bass I was gigging with. I was wrestling a lot with the neck on my Ibanez BTB which I think was causing me to tense up a lot live, especially if our tempos started to escalate. I had a practice today playing fingerstyle on my Ibanez Soundgear 1205 and was able to play much more effortlessly due to the the thinner neck. It just feels like an extension of myself - the bass is so light I almost forget that I have it on!

 

Anyway, that's all I have to report so far. I have one more full-on band rehearsal before the show and then the final exam will be upon me. I'm pretty confident I'll ace it as long as I keep in mind all the wisdom bestowed upon me here.

 

Wish me luck.

http://www.myspace.com/omegamyk

http://www.bassguitarrocks.com

Ibanez BTB 505 equiped w/F-Bass preamp(<-for sale)

Trace Elliot AH400SMX & 4x10

Sans Amp Bass Driver DI

Digitech BP8

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