Wanna solve a host of guitar playing issues in one shot?
Learn to place your thumb properly.
It’s really that easy. And yet I see so many guitarists place their thumbs in positions that actually hurt their technique more than help it.
I’ve learned a few things in my 30+ years of playing this fine instrument, but few concepts have become more profound to me than this: If you place your thumb properly OFF the fingerboard, your technique ON the fingerboard will instantly improve.
For better or for worse, few things have as much direct impact on your playing as thumb placement!
First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: The thumb cannot and should not sit in one spot while you play.
Since you are trying to accomplish a bunch of things on the fingerboard – various open and barre chords, single-note lines on low, middle and high strings, bending like a maniac, muting notes, etc. – you have to be willing to move your thumb to wherever it needs to be at any given time.
A flexible approach to thumb placement will enhance the techniques you’re using on top of the fretboard. Those same techniques will suffer greatly if your thumb is not supporting it properly.
There are three places where your thumb should be at any given time:
1 – At the “default” position
2 – Wedged behind the neck
3 – Wrapped over the fretboard
These are rough estimates, but in my experience, the “default” position is where you should be about 50% of the time. The spots behind the neck and over the edge of the fretboard can each receive about 25% of your attention. Let’s explore each one.
The “Default” Position
I teach my students that they can locate the “default” thumb position – where they should spend the majority of their time – at the spot on the neck where the colors change.
By this I mean where the fretboard color (usually darker) meets the neck color (usually lighter) on the side of the neck, just below the edge of the fretboard. If you anchor the pad of your thumb at that spot, you should be in generally good position to accomplish a lot of guitar playing!
Most open chords can be played effectively with this thumb placement, as can single notes, riffs and chord shapes that occupy strings 4, 3, 2 and 1. In default position, you are supporting your fingers when they are, for the most part, up on the fingertips.
[Tweet “In pop music styles, the default thumb position should be on the side of the neck.”]
One general note about thumb placement: Your knuckle should be relatively straight. If you actively bend your thumb at the first knuckle, you diminish its ability to support and provide leverage. Don’t do that.
Since the default position is for general use, a solid 50% or more of your time should be spent here. If you are not at the default position, you should have a very good reason. Some of those reasons will be explained in 3…2…1…
The Behind-the-Neck Position
This seems to be the fave spot for anyone taught by an instructor whose forte is classical. Unfortunately, those students are being ill-advised (again, IMHO), since this thumb placement should fall only in about the 25% range for anyone playing pop guitar styles. Let’s first explore when this position is best.
The behind-the-neck thumb position is best for when you are reaching across the neck to the lower strings and need to lay your fingers down on the strings. The thumb wedged behind the neck with a “locked” knuckle gives you the best support and allows your fingers to approach the low strings properly.
As you would expect, then, this thumb placement is also superior for playing barre chords of any type.
In barre shapes, you not only need to lay down on the low strings, but you usually need to spread your fingers as well. Behind-the-neck is the only way to go here, since it helps you to work with your anatomy and not against it. Try playing a barre chord with your thumb at default position and you’ll see what I mean!
[Tweet “Proper thumb placement on guitar should work with your anatomy, not against it”]
The problems come into play for students who try to accomplish everything with the thumb behind the neck. Contrary to what the classical teachers tell you, this is not the best thumb position for all techniques. It will even hinder your progress in certain areas.
For instance, the student who wants to bend strings is going to get zero leverage from a behind-the-neck position. String bending requires aggression and, at the same time, fine motor control. If your thumb is too far back, you can get neither very effectively.
And for the average Sammy Songwriter just strumming open chords, this thumb position is problematic as well, since he has no ability to mute the 6th string (a requirement for clean chording).
This brings us to…
The “Wrapped Thumb” Position
Wrapping the thumb over the edge of the neck is another one of those 25% deals, but when it’s necessary, it’s necessary!
Just bend the first knuckle and place the crease of the thumb at the edge of the fretboard. This way you’re only getting the top portion of the thumb over the fingerboard, which is all you need.
Good string bending technique requires a thumb wrap; I actually refer to it as the first of The Golden Rules of Bending (check out The Definitive Lesson: Bending Strings and The Golden Rules of Bending Strings for more info).
The wrapped thumb gives you leverage and stability. This is paramount for the fine motor control required to bend in tune and with some style. When students are learning to bend, I remind them to wrap their thumbs more than anything else.
You also need to wrap the thumb in order to mute low strings. This is a critical element of clean bending, where the thumb actually does double duty – leverage and muting.
But it’s an absolute essential for clean chording in the open position. Most new students have plenty to learn just making the chords sound good; muting is an afterthought. But after you’ve got the chord shapes down, you need to get rid of those low string noises. The wrapped thumb becomes your best friend in this case!
Another practical application of the wrapped thumb is to actually fret notes. An example of this is a D/F# chord, where your thumb plays the F# on fret 2 while the fingers tackle the D.
Jimi Hendrix used to wrap his thumb all the time instead of playing barres; he’d play the upper partial chords and wrap his thumb for the bass (as in “Purple Haze”). Some jazz guitarists like to do this as well, and so does John Mayer, in about 99% of his songs.
The “Classical” Technique Controversy
So why do so many method books advocate keeping the thumb behind the neck in “classical” position and treat wrapping the thumb as if it’s evil? Good question, ’cause it’s an absolutely bogus argument. Here’s why you should NOT listen to that noise:
Classical players can afford to keep their thumbs back and not wrapped over the edge of the fretboard for one simple reason: they don’t play with a pick!
When you strum with a pick, you can’t just magically miss the 6th string while playing a C chord, for example, especially if you’re rockin’ out. This is where the thumb comes in handy for muting. Classical players also don’t bend strings, so no need for wrapping the thumb there either.
Takeaway Points for Thumb Placement
The “default” position is for general playing and should be used about 50% of the time. Most open chords and single notes will benefit from this position. Play with a relatively straight knuckle.
The behind-the-neck position is good for any situation where you are reaching across the neck to the low strings and/or spreading your fingers laterally. Think barre chords and single notes on strings 6 and 5. This placement is used 25% of the time. Play with a wedged, “locked” knuckle.
The “wrapped thumb” position is required for bending strings and muting or fretting low strings. Use this placement about 25% of the time also. Play with a bent knuckle.
QUESTION: Before reading this lesson, had you considered the impact thumb placement can have on technique? Have you ever felt that your hand positioning was somehow holding you back? Leave me a comment below!