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classical guitar thumb technique

A Guide to Classical Guitar Thumb Technique

Classical guitar is sometime described as “strict,” or “nitpicky”.

And it’s true: we classical guitarists nitpick over small details.

But we do it to find ways to move with grace and power. And at the same time, it would be nice to avoid pain and injury.

So we pay attention to how we use our fingers, wrists, and arms. And while they don’t get as much attention as the other fingers, the thumbs.

The Right Thumb in Classical Guitar Technique

In classical guitar technique, the right thumb behaves like the other fingers:

  • Move from the big knuckle.
  • Don’t curl the tip joint.

The question is: Where is the “big knuckle” on the thumb? Doesn’t the thumb have two knuckles, instead of three?

The thumb’s big knuckle is all the way back at the wrist. It has all three joints, but laid out differently than the fingers.

So the thumb moves from the joint at the wrist.

Don’t Curl the Tip Joint

Like the fingers, avoid pulling in the tip joint. Bending the tip joint creates excess tension and usually creates a thin, tinny sound.

Instead of wiggling the tip, move the entire thumb from the wrist joint.

At What Angle Do I Play My Right Thumb?

When playing finger patterns (aka arpeggios), we organize the hand around the fingers. The thumb position is determined by the finger position.

We first focus on the fingers. We choose the form, position and movement of the fingers for the best tone and efficiency. From that position, we ask the thumb to get the job done the best it can.

However, sometimes the music calls for a prominent melody in the bass. For bass melodies we may choose to optimize our thumb position for the best tone, volume or speed, but this is not typically the case.  Asturias (Leyenda) is one example of a dominant bass melody.

Related: Classical Guitar Tone Production

How Much Should I Practice the Right Thumb

Most guitarists will benefit more from practicing the fingers than the thumb. Most music uses the fingers more than the thumb. And the fingers most often play the melody (which demands a good tone quality).

Flamenco players sometimes use the right thumb in different ways, and develop impressive speed with the thumb. Presumably this came from the desire for volume and punch.

But most guitarists will benefit most from spending their time on common picking patterns (aka arpeggios) and I&M alternation (for melodic playing and scale passages).

That said, if a piece of music demands quick thumb movements, we can give more time to the thumb.

The Left Thumb in Classical Guitar Technique

As a rule, the left thumb stays on the back of the guitar neck, positioned behind the fingers. The pad, not the tip, contacts the guitar.

Like the right thumb, the tip joint stays straight (or rather, we don’t bend it).

Depending on what the fingers and the music are doing, the thumb may be nearer the top or the bottom of the guitar neck. It can go wherever gives the best efficiency, support and comfort, given the task at hand.

Note: When we play the lower-sounding strings, the tip joint may wrap over the curve of the neck a bit. This is a passive movement, and does not count as “bending the tip joint,”  so long as we don’t actively pull in the tip.

Related: Tips on the Art of Shifting on Guitar

Left Thumb Position and the Angle of the Guitar Neck

The position of the left thumb depends on the angle of the guitar neck. When we elevate the guitar neck, using a guitar support or footstool, we can keep the thumb behind the fingers. This gives the left-hand fingers the largest range of movement.

When we keep the guitar neck parallel to the floor (guitar on right knee, folk-style), we limit the left-hand movements. The thumb tends to point out, instead of staying behind the fingers. This limits the fingers’ range of movement.

So the point of raising the guitar neck is to increase stretch and agility in the left hand. (Though as a bonus, a raised neck helps the right hand as well!)

Try This Experiment Now:

–With your palm facing up and fingers curved, point your thumb out to the side.

–Next, keeping your fingers curved, move the tips of your index and little finger away from each other. Notice your range of movement and how much tension you feel.

Now try this:

–Hold your hand palm up, fingers curved. Touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your middle finger. (Remember, don’t curl the tip of the thumb – keep it straight.)

–Next move the tips of your index and little finger away from each other. Note the range of movement and relative tension levels.

Should I Play or Mute the 6th String (low E) with My Thumb?

While there are exceptions to every rule, generally no. If you elevate your guitar neck, your other fingers will be more able to do the job.

Most players who use the thumb to play or mute the 6th string have the guitar neck low (parallel to the floor). Due to the position, their finger-movements are limited. So they compensate by using the thumb. While not ideal, this is preferable to torqueing the wrist to extreme angles to play a bar chord.

The “wrap over” thumb method is sometimes used in classical guitar music, but it’s rare and only in special circumstances. It’s usually more efficient and comfortable to bar with the index finger.

Related: Free the Left Hand Wrist for Comfort and Mobility

A Man Hunting Elephants Does Not Stop to Throw Stones at Birds.

Not that I condone hunting elephants (or limit elephant-hunting to men only), but this old African proverb gets it right: focus on the big picture, and keep your eye on the prize.

Spend a few minutes now to notice and understand the basics of classical guitar thumb movements. Note how the thumbs stay straight and move from the big knuckles by the wrist. “Red flag” any active bending at the tip joint. Keep the left thumb behind the fingers.

Focus on the big picture, and keep your eye on the prize.

Once you’re comfortable with these, move along. Focus your energy on the basics of right-hand technique, and efficient left-hand technique. Spend your time ingraining the fundamental movements that make up 95% of what we do on guitar.

When you take on a piece of music that demands more of your thumbs, you can dedicate more time and attention then. Until then, focus on the basics.

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7 Responses to A Guide to Classical Guitar Thumb Technique

  1. Joe Marlow January 22, 2018 at 4:18 am #

    Allen,

    I cannot seem to settle on a technique using the right thumb to strum an individual chord within a piece. My habit is to use the nail side of the index finger which is quite harsh of course. If I use the thumb, especially when the high E string is called for, the thumb falls onto the guitar top or in an effort to avoid this, the strum is too short. Returning my R hand to the playing position feels awkward as well. I’m confident I can practice a technique but don’t know where to start. Don’t want to teach myself bad habits (like using I nail side)!

    • Allen January 22, 2018 at 12:00 pm #

      Hi Joe,
      Thanks for the question. When you have an isolated strum in a piece of music, you can do it a number of ways. A downstroke with the index fingernail is one option, and it’s valid. It’s a particular sound, which may or may not be appropriate for that spot in the music.

      For the thumb downstroke: if you use your wrist to twist at the end of your stroke, you’ll “hook” the high E string, and avoid the top of the guitar. Think of the movement we use to turn a doorknob counterclockwise.

      You can also play the bass strings with the thumb (P) and the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings with I, M, A, respectively. So PPPIMA. This is a rolled chord, not a strum. But it gets the job done. It does, however, take some practice to get smooth.

      I would try working more with the wrist and less with the elbow (moving your arm down in space).

      Good luck!
      Cheers,
      Allen

      • Joe Marlow January 23, 2018 at 4:57 am #

        Allen,

        Many thanks for your attentiveness & Reply. You DID answer my question. The ‘hook’ method is something I’ve been doing however, I thought something must be wrong and got frustrated because of the hooking (file that edge some more!). Never thought to view it as a method. Never could get the nail ‘just right’. No wonder! I see now this can be useful if intended and practiced…think out of the box. I can also use it to purposely stop a strum hooking the B or G (sometimes I over or undershoot with a rest strum). Great!

        The nail side of I comes EZ when appropriate. The inappropriate makes me tense due to no method and hoping for the best which of course never happens.

        I never considered a rolled chord…especially including the high E. That is something I can use and will spend some time with. I have tried different edges of different fingers etc to include the high E. Ugh! Your probably smiling. I really appreciate your Reply!

      • Joe Marlow January 24, 2018 at 4:34 am #

        Allen,

        Re-reading your Reply you state (and I missed): “I would try working more with the wrist and less with the elbow (moving your arm down in space).”

        Guilty! I was not aware of what I was doing. I suspect most of my ‘problem’ will be addressed by this one piece of advise. Your other suggestions have their place of course. Breaking the elbow habit will likely take time. Before classical, I was a 4×4 cowboy chord strummer. That has it’s place too! 🙂

        • Allen January 24, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

          Hi Joe,
          I’m glad you caught that and it made sense.
          Full strumming is certainly valid! Any technique is, but not for every situation.

          Thanks for the note!
          All the best,
          Allen

  2. Johnny Howell September 17, 2017 at 11:11 am #

    I am learning a lot each week from your lectures on classical guitar. They are educational no doubt esp if you have basic understanding & concepts of classical guitar but they also pertain to some extend to any guitar playing Good Job Thanks

    • Allen September 17, 2017 at 1:18 pm #

      Thanks, Johnny!
      Cheers,
      Allen

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