Is Your Thumb Position Killing Your Progress?
We all experience that wall - no matter how many times you practice that song section, lick or riff, things reach a point of frustrating stagnation; leading us to conclude and make peace with certain ‘truths’ - ‘My fingers just don’t move that fast’ and the classic - ‘Curse my tiny hands!’. Don’t despair, the chances are that a tweak to your thumb/hand placement could serve to super charge your playing; seeing you bust through that rut!
1. Thumb Placement Is King
Let’s start with the most common block on both development of speed and accuracy - where you place your thumb; the prime cause of what we call ‘flappy finger syndrome’ (Editor - not a real musical term). Take a look at example 1 - here we see a simple A minor scale being played in the 5th position, first with the thumb positioned firmly, not only on the back of the neck, but central to the hand span and in the mid part of the neck itself. On the repeat, the thumb is off centre and protruding over the top of the neck.
Comparing the two - same player, same scale - it is clear that the difference is economy of movement, ergo the ‘flappy fingers’. When approaching any area of playing which requires the use of all four fingers and positional playing, each finger needs the same amount of support to perform accurately. When your thumb is angled or protrudes above the neck in a close grip, your 3rd and 4th fingers are left unsupported, The result is less control, accuracy and those larger movements. Here is a view of both thumb positions from a rear perspective.
Why are big finger movements a problem? As mentioned in previous blogs - syncing your picking and fretting hands is a case of constantly trying to hit a moving target (your picking hand being the hitter and your fretting fingers being the targets). Hitting a wide moving target is always going to be harder, therefore, the less we move our fingers the easier it is to play in sync.
Not to mention the obvious implications for developing speed - try running with your legs flailing in exaggerated movements - you’ll soon get tired and be left with the feeling that you simply can’t run fast at all! Monty Python style funny walks aside - the same applies to playing guitar fast; the less you move, the faster you can move.
Now, a disclaimer - the opposite is true when gripping the neck for some good honest string bending and vibrato. If you are in the throws of blues rock soloing then your thumb plays a valuable role in supporting and anchoring to deliver controlled and emotive nuances such as string bending and vibrato. This requires a full grip with your thumb wrapped around the neck, acting as a kind of counter balance to push against.
In the example below, the first play through uses the correct, supportive grip and in the second, the thumb is placed on the back of the neck, leaving the bends and vibrato unsupported. The effect should be quite stark.
2. Finger Discipline
Following on from point 1, when employing all four fingers to play something positional, such as a scale run or constant use of your pinky (including simple barre and power chords), the placement of your thumb is paramount for ensuring that each of your fingers are positioned in the correct frets ready to play; removing the old ‘hit and hope’ approach, whereby you throw your fingers at the correct frets.
In this example we are simply running up and down our old friend the A minor pentatonic scale. In the first play through we have our prescribed thumb on the back of the neck position. Take note how each finger naturally rests in the correct frets, allowing us to simply fret the note where our finger falls. In the second play through (flappy fingers aside), you will notice that we have to ‘take aim’ at the correct notes due to the placement of the thumb over the top of the neck.
This leads to a debilitating lack of finger discipline, translating to an inconsistency of which fingers are being used. Playing scale shapes, licks, patterns and even chords without the use of the same fingers every time is the chief reason why many players struggle to memorise parts and scales.
3. Set Your Hand In Stone
This applies to any situation in which you are moving position. When traversing up or down the neck, many guitarists start with a solid thumb position but fall foul of the habit of ‘leaving the thumb behind’. In this example we are playing a simple run, moving up the neck. In the first play through, the whole hand stays in position and moves in a kind of freeze frame shape. The example shows the run from both the front and back of the neck perspective. In the second run, the thumb is correctly on the back of the neck, but drags behind as the fretting hand moves position, creating all manner of fingering problems.
So there we have it, who would have thought that your humble thumb could be responsible for so much! When practicing rear thumb placement, take a moment to play in front of a mirror; if your thumb pops up to say hello, then you know that it isn’t correctly positioned. Take stock of how much you move and the consistency of your fingering and this will result in, not only some helpful levelling up of your technique, but an overall increased feeling of ease when playing.