Fretting with the Thumb - how to get started?

Hey all,

I wouldn’t mind getting rid of barre chords once and for all :smiley:

Or less ambitiously, I’d like to start incorporating the fretting hand thumb in my playing.

I noticed that people with smaller hands than mine (I think my hands are spot-on average) can do this comfortably on full scale guitars. Yet I haven’t found a posture that allows me to do this comfortably.

Anyone aware of good 101 tutorials on thumb usage? Specifically it would be great to have a lesson that goes over advantages/shortcomings of different postures. Maybe our excellent @Tom_Gilroy has experience on this front? :slight_smile:

Somwhere in the world a lonely barre chord is crying.

As a proud owner of short fingers I may say that I use thumb only for some specific chords, like min11, 7b5 (2nd inv.) etc. Otherwise I prefer barre, or even diagonal barre (for maj7, maj7#11)

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I don’t like full barre chords much either. I prefer more space and I don’t like doubled notes in every situation. Most of the voicings I use are three or four notes at most, and some dyads.

You should definitely do that. Everybody should. It enables some really nice chord voicings and voice leading ideas.

It’s primarily a matter of posture and grip orientation for most adults.

You’re too kind.

I’m not aware of a 101 video on the topic, but I’ll make a quick video on it later (maybe tomorrow). I started incorporating thumb-over voicings into my playing after I first saw Eric Johnson’s Total Electric Guitar when I was about 18, I struggled mightily at first.

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Unfortunately not aware of any tutorials. I learned it on my own just by trying to play Chet Atkins and some jazz chord melody in my early teens. I’m average in height but have disproportionately long fingers for my build, so I may be getting away with not very good technique when I do it.

One great tip I have for thumb placement in general is something I learned in a master class with a flamenco/classical guitarist. She told that when playing a challenging chord, to slightly remove the thumb from the back of the neck, relax the hand and just let the thumb ‘fall’ back onto the neck where it naturally lands. That’s where your hand feels comfortable. It’s not necessarily the same for any 2 individuals. That dogma of ‘keep thy thumb opposite thy middle finger on the back of the neck the whole time’ that everyone thinks is the ‘classical’ hand position isn’t always strictly followed. And she was conservatory trained by one of the best classical technicians alive (Manuel Barrueco). I think that same process would work when wrapping your thumb over the neck to grab bass notes with your thumb.

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Honestly, I would start with drop 3 chords, and make some simple progression that requires you to use your thumb. Some typical II-I-V, like min11,#11,maj7 (6)


Actually. thumb and barre are not mutually exclusive. Say, min9


requires both thumb and barre.`

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This is one of those daft things but my very first guitar teacher said not to do it and thus I never did and still won’t to this day.

Actually that isn’t quite right, he didn’t say not to do it, he said it was wrong to do it.

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Haha sorry to hear that. I will say this, if you only ever keep your thumb on the back of the neck there are certain things you won’t be able to play. An equal truth - if you only ever wrap your thumb over the neck there are certain things you won’t be able to play :slight_smile: I like options so I do it both ways when the situation calls for it.


Indeed. Since I like to play melody over chords and I don’t have any band I must play this stuff all alone )) Which leads to some fancy fingers positions. In those cases you don’t think about what is right or wrong, you just think ‘how the hell am I going to paly it?!’

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This one by Justin seems promising!

I hadn’t seen that video, but the grip placement Justin demonstarates is exactly what I was going to make a video to demonstrate. The middle of the neck curve sitting in the palm, diagonally with the opponens muscle showing over top.

I can make a video to show some different angles if you’d like or to add a few minor points, but just that posture should be enough to get you started.


If I remember it was SRV’s pride and joy that made it easy, though that riff can take a while to get it sounding right. A huge rake with sncopation and muting.

The basic hand position is pretty much a standard “blues” thumb over the neck position, so if you’re used to more of a “classical” frettinghand position I could see it being a bit of an adjustment.

After that, I guess it’s not entirely fair to call this going “straight to the source” since Jimi himself was borrowing heavily from R&B players (Curtis Mayfield notably), but a lot of his clean toned rhyhm playing (and some of his not so clean toned rhythm playing, like Purple Haze) relies heavily on this. Sit down with some good transcriptions or video lessons of Little Wing, The Wind Cries Mary, Castles Made of Sand, that sort of thing, and probably SRV’s Little Wing while you’re at it (which is an absolute tour de force) and just sort of look at how chords are fitting together.

EDIT - I do a ton of this sort of stuff, by the way, less the thumb over the neck than the sort of double/triple stop hit-on accented rhythm playing that often includes fretting with your thumb - happy to help any way I can if you’re looking to get more into it. I’ve been meaning to do a video on this stuff for probbly the better part of a decade, but I just haven’t had the time…

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I haven’t seen it mentioned yet, maybe because it’s too obvious to state explicitly, but just in case: neck angle is an important factor for fretting hand posture.

For me, at least, classical-ish hand position (thumb behind neck) is more comfortable when the guitar neck is angled upward, for example when you’re sitting down and the guitar is resting on your left leg (assuming right-handed playing), or you’re standing and tilting the headstock toward the ceiling.

Like this:

Contrariwise, the fretting hand posture required for fretting with the thumb (thumb peeking out or fully wrapped around the neck) is easier for me when the guitar is more horizontal, correlating to the more rocknrollish setups with the guitar resting on the right leg when sitting, or lower-slung and horizontal.

Like this:

or this


Here’s one in dropped D. I have fleshy palms. I struggle. Though I think for most it is limited and tight. Theres really not much room there. If you have normal hands you’ll be able to easily manage it, but just dont expect it to feel very comfortable unless your hands are massive.

Neck thickness and width could be a factor too, as wider and thicker necks can make it a little more challanging. Also, what kind of guitar is that, a jaguar or jazzmaster of sorts…?

I have very little range in my thumb by nature, so in my personal experience it’s just not viable or even possible with some hand types. Something to keep in mind.

Drew thats a Grosh Electrajet VT. Now long sold to a good buddy. Think I might see her this weekend.

Your right about the neck obviously, but this thumb over for me is strictly low E string only, once you learn it, I can manage it on most 6 stringers.

Also it’s a very transient deployment, so I do think your hand will fletch on demand, just about manage it, as that is all that’s required, no vibrato etc. A note here and there.

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I don’t have big hands at all so I do struggle. Even if I physically get my thumb where itbis supposed to be, I find that the top of the neck can rub against the nerves on my thumb and cause a pins and needles feeling - quite a shocker when that happens. Most I have managed to play is a D major chord with an F# in the bass!

Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ever tried to vibrato - it’s more a way to hold the note down while you’re doing other stuff in the higher register, and I’m just happy when my intonation is good and I’m not accidently pulling it sharp or anything! :slight_smile:

Cool guitar!

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I do understand your pain! )
Though what helped me is to use thumb just like in Justin’s video above: I don’t place it in a ‘perfect’ position. So my thumb is not flat against the fretboard. Sometimes it looks like I don’t even fret anything. It’s just that trick of using flash of thumb to press a string to a fret. And since I don’t use thumb for anything except lowest E string, it works. More or less…

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