By far the most common mistake I see with new students, be they novices or people who already play, is not about how they place their hand on the guitar neck. In fact it’s about about how they place their thumb. Getting their thumb in the right place is often the single biggest thing they can do to make playing and learning the guitar easier. Let me explain…
If our hand and fingers to are move freely and easily over the guitar neck our fretting hand must be placed in such a way that our fingers have freedom of motion. The first, and most important thing is what I like to call “the rule of thumb”, because it really is all about the position of the thumb of the fretting hand (i.e. the left hand for right-handed players)…
The thumb of the fretting hand should NEVER lie horizontal, i.e. should never be parallel to the guitar neck. (See photo below)
When the thumb is parallel to the neck, pointing toward the headstock, two bad things happen. First, the palm of the hand pulls closer to the lower side of the neck and faces upward. This severely cramps the fretting fingers, reducing their range of motion and speed. Second, the thumb has moved away from our fingers, robbing them of strength. This is easy to understand if you pinch the skin on your arm – see how your thumb and index finger act together to apply pressure? This action gives us finger strength on the guitar neck. When the thumb is lined up with our index or middle finger we have a strong and stable platform from which to work the guitar neck.
OK, so now we know what’s bad, what is a good thumb position? There are two thumb positions that we commonly see.
The first is associated with classical and flamenco guitarists, who adhere to a strict rule that the thumb must always be on the centre line of the back of the neck (see photo below). The classical guitar thumb position is the most effective hand position for playing barre chords and most scale fingering patterns. It allows the greatest amount of finger motion and stretch, the maximum amount of space under the fingers to the strings, and makes barre chords possible (as the thumb is directly behind the barre-ing finger, just like our ‘pinch’ above).
However, classical guitarists also use a very specific posture while playing – usually seated, left foot raised using a foot stool, and guitar between the thighs resting on the left thigh (for right-handed players). This a playing posture that folk, rock, blues, or jazz guitarists rarely adopt. This is primarily because modern steel-string acoustic guitars have such a large body that placing the guitar between the thighs hinders playability. Instead, the guitar is placed resting on the right thigh, close to the body. The guitar neck sits much lower for these players compared to classical posture. Playing standing up with the guitar on a strap results in a similar position of the guitar neck relative to the players body. In these playing postures a classical thumb position results in a sharply bent wrist (see centre photo above), which can cause wrist strain and/or pain while playing for long periods. The solution is to allow the thumb position higher up, close to the top the edge of the neck, which rotates the hand and straightens the wrist, thus avoiding wrist strain (see images below).
While this hand position is not ideal and does limit the range motion of our fingers (barre chords and scale runs are very difficult for example) there are some distinct advantages. Most of the open chords and other moveable non-barre chord forms can be played very comfortably with this hand position. The thumb can even used to fret notes on the low E-string. String bending and the wide vibrato common to rock and blues are now much easier to perform, and in fact are almost impossible without the leverage provided by the thumb on top of the neck.
But even for folk/rock/jazz players the classical position will still come into play and they will move fluidly between either thumb position as required. When playing barre chords or scales, the fretting hand will naturally shift to a classical position, restoring the full range of motion of the fingers and giving the strength necessary to for the barreing finger. When vibrato or open chords are played, the thumb will come back over the top of the neck.
So, what ever you do is fine by me. Just as any one chord may have several possible fingerings, there are potentially two possible thumb positions. Just remember whatever you do must not hinder your playing and don’t ever let your thumb fall sideways!
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