Today I’m going to expose what I consider the most pervasive and insidious bit of misinformation plaguing modern society. No, it’s not that Columbus didn’t discover America. It doesn’t have anything to do with racism, the environment, or politics.
It’s about thumb placement. That’s right folks, Thumb, with a capitol T, that rhymes with C, that stands for CONSPIRACY!
Open Hal Leonard Guitar Method Book 1, a popular starter book for acoustic and electric guitar players, to page 4, and you’ll read:
Place the thumb in back of the neck roughly opposite the 2nd finger. Avoid gripping the neck like a baseball bat with the palm touching the back of the neck.Hal Leonard
Now consider these photos of Eric Clapton and BB King:
Eric and BB are two of my most promising students, but it can be SO frustrating sometimes. Look at those thumbs! I keep referring them back to Hal Leonard Guitar Method Book 1, but they never seem to learn.
Seriously, it’s not just Hal Leonard that teaches students to keep the thumb behind the neck–all classical guitar instruction books, and many folk/rock books teach this. With a few exceptions, classical guitar is best played with the thumb behind the neck, so I have no problem with Andres Segovia and Co. But in the world of acoustic and electric guitars, these books are out of touch with reality. Don’t their authors see live music? Maybe they’re too busy answering emails from confused and frustrated readers.
The truth is, sometimes you put your thumb behind the neck, and sometimes you use the “baseball bat” grip. Here are some guidelines for thumb placement:
Thumb Behind Neck
Put your thumb on the back of the neck at the fattest part, roughly behind the fret where the second finger is.
- Playing most classical music – Having the thumb behind the neck enables you to really arch your fingers, which is necessary when playing on classical guitars, which have higher action than acoustics and electrics. Also, usually you’re fingerpicking, so there’s no need to use the thumb for muting the 6th string (explained below).
- Playing barre chords – These require a lot of pressure, so you want the thumb and fingers to act like a clamp.
- Spreading your fingers – It’s impossible to spread them otherwise. Check out Eddie, his thumb squarely behind the neck, his fingers spanning five frets:
(Incidentally, Mr. Van Halen’s expression should not be confused with the “Blues Face” on Mr. King and Mr. Clapton above. Mr. Van Halen is exhibiting a similar expression known as the “I should never have switched hairdressers” face.)
Baseball Bat Grip
Cradle the neck in the skin between the thumb and forefinger or in the entire palm of your hand, depending on what you’re playing
- When you need to mute the 6th string with your thumb – Many open chords (most variations of A, C, and D’s, for example) sound best if you don’t play the 6th string. Often, guitar instruction books recommend that you avoid the 6th string when you strum these chords, which is almost impossible and usually ends up sounding wimpy anyway. How are you going to do a Pete Townsend windmill if you’re trying to miss one of the strings?
- When you’re bending strings – You get better leverage.
- When you don’t need your thumb somewhere else – The baseball grip is simply more comfortable because you don’t have to bend your wrist as much.
- When you’re using your guitar as a baseball bat—The baseball bat grip is firmer than the thumb-behind-neck grip, and as every guitar player knows, if you throw your guitar, intentionally or unintentionally, you’re “out.”
Department of Thumb Placement Correction