A Guide to Classical Guitar Thumb Technique

People sometimes describe the art of classical guitar as “strict” or “nitpicky.”  And it’s true; we classical guitarists like to nitpick over small details, which can make it difficult for newcomers.

However, there is a motivation behind it. We want to find ways to move with grace and power, even when it comes to classical guitar thumb techniques. At the same time, it would be nice to avoid pain or injury!

As a result, we pay attention to how we use our fingers, wrists, and arms. While they don’t get as much attention as the other fingers, we also focus on the thumbs. As your repertoire improves, you’ll need to dedicate more and more time to your thumbs and how they function when you play. 

In this guide, we will look at some of the most important classical guitar thumb techniques and how to implement them.

Lesson 1: Classical Guitar Right Hand Thumb Position

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 they are laid out differently than the fingers.

Thus, the thumb moves from the joint at the wrist.

Don’t Curl the Tip Joint

Just as you would with the fingers, avoid pulling in the tip joint of the thumb. Bending the tip joint creates too much tension. This usually creates a thin, tinny sound.

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

It might feel difficult at first.  But the more you practice and gain experience, the more accustomed you will become to this position.

At What Angle Do I Play My Right Thumb?

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

First, we focus on the fingers. We choose the body posture, 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 as best as it can.

However, sometimes the music calls for a prominent melody in the bass. For bass melodies, we may choose to optimize our classical guitar thumb position for the best tone, volume, or speed. It’s important to note that these instances are the minority (Asturias-Leyenda is one example of a bass melody).

Related: Classical Guitar Tone Production

How Much Should I Practice the Right Thumb

Most guitar players will benefit more from practicing the fingers than the thumb. A lot of music uses the fingers more than the thumb anyway. Additionally, 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.

However, the majority of guitar players will benefit the most from spending their time on common picking patterns (AKA arpeggios) and I&M alternation (for melodic guitar playing and scale passages).

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

Lesson 2: Classical Guitar Left Hand Thumb Position

As a rule, the left thumb stays on the back of the guitar neck, positioned behind the fingers. The pad — not the tip — touches 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 fretting hand thumb placement may be nearer the top or the bottom of the guitar neck. It can go wherever it will give 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,” as long as you 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

Correct left thumb placement 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 across the guitar neck.

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 finger strength, stretch and agility in the left hand. It’s an overall better position, and gives our left hand fingers the best leverage for guitar playing. As an added 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 during this exercise.

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 with this exercise- keep it straight.)

–Now 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 guitar players who use the thumb to play or mute the 6th string (low E 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 torquing the wrist to extreme angles to play a bar chord.

Musicians sometimes use the “wrap-over” thumb method in classical guitar music to move across the neck. However, it’s rare and only required in special circumstances. Most people find that it feels comfortable and more efficient to bar with the index finger (aka barring finger).

While there are exceptions to every rule, generally, you should not play or mute the 6th string with your thumb. If you elevate your guitar neck, your other fingers will be more able to do the job. As long as your guitar neck is in a higher position, you should have no problem managing the 6th string with your fingers.

Related: Free the Left Hand Wrist for Comfort and Mobility

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

Not to 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. Classical guitar lessons require a great deal of patience and determination.

Spend a few minutes now to notice and understand the basics of classical guitar thumb movements. Apply the lessons here.  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 positions, move along. Focus your energy on the basics of right hand techniques and efficient left hand techniques to improve your repertoire. 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 to classical guitar thumb techniques. Until then, focus on the basics!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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