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Learning Proper Left Hand Position

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Postby Dave T » November 16th, 2011, 12:58 pm

So I've decided to follow the advice of just about everyone and relearn my left hand position from the “thumb over top neck in palm” deathgrip to the “ thumb in middle of neck” approach. I realize it will be a process of unlearning 4 years of bad habit. Basically I'm going back and working on simple chord changes while trying to maintain proper left hand position.

I've noticed it feels awkward as all heck, especially the fact that the wrist now has a bend in it. Also a lot of buzzing strings as finding it is not as easy to bring the finger tips straight down in this new position. I guess it is just a matter of time…. Anybody else gone through this switch and want to give advice/encouragement?

Thanks
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Postby NoteBoat » November 16th, 2011, 1:17 pm

If your wrist is bent you'll need to adjust the guitar's position. The most common errors in holding a guitar that result in a bent wrist are keeping the peghead too low, and/or tipping the guitar so you can see the fretboard.

It probably won't take much of an adjustment if the only change you've made is moving your thumb.
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Postby dogbite » November 19th, 2011, 7:37 am

I agree. as far as thumb over verses thumb behind...it is vital to learn thumb behind, but sometimes I find thumb over to be effective. adding to the arsenal of technique is a good thing.
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Postby Chris C » November 22nd, 2011, 4:12 pm

Dave T wrote: I realize it will be a process of unlearning 4 years of bad habit. Basically I'm going back and working on simple chord changes while trying to maintain proper left hand position.

I've noticed it feels awkward as all heck, especially the fact that the wrist now has a bend in it.


Hi,

Others may disagree, but I feel strongly that the idea that you "must" play with the thumb in the middle is just nonsense. It's a hangover from the classical tradition, where (as NoteBoat says) it's matched with a much more upright guitar position than many of us use today. Playing with the thumb alongside is not automatically a "bad habit", it can be a perfectly valid alternative. The majority of today's players will use both, as and when the situation calls for it.

If you try and force your thumb behind the neck when it's not comfortable or appropriate to do so then you'll end up finding it difficult to play and most likely in some pain as well. That's how it went for me anyway, and I'll bet it's the same for most of us.

Just take some time to look around Youtube and watch today's respected guitarists at work. Almost without exception you'll see a fair bit of the thumb alongside style, unless they're playing classical. As the hand moves up and down the neck, or as barres come into play, you'll see the thumb slide naturally behind the neck, and then reappear alongside when it's comfortable or appropriate.

Here's an example. It's Chet Atkins and Marl Knopfler together. Only a fool would say that those two didn't know how to play guitar. They are both using their thumbs all over the neck, alongside, behind, and even to fret the bass string. The idea that they are somehow restricted or choked by the way they play is clearly wrong. Could anything look more relaxed and accomplished than those two at work?

Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins

When I went through the same exercise - wondering if what felt comfortable and natural to me was somehow "wrong" - I found videos of every single player I admired using their thumb alongside. I even found one of John Williams thumb (an outstandingly correct and accomplished classical player) occasionally popping up alongside. :)

Relaxed and comfortable is my goal and I can't imagine wanting to keep my thumb always in the middle of the neck.

Cheers,

Chris

Pat Metheny and Jim Hall

John Mayer and Eric Clapton

None of these people seem to be having any trouble playing the guitar. :wink:
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Postby NoteBoat » November 22nd, 2011, 7:21 pm

I can't disagree with Chris. But I can say there's a reason behind "best practices".

Guitars come in a few sizes, and people come in a lot more. The reasons for "correct" position are to maximize the instrument for the average person.

Holding the peghead high places your fingers parallel to the frets. This will give you the maximum possible reach with your fretting hand (experiment with different angles and you'll find this is true). Do you need maximum reach? Maybe not. In any given playing position, you'll want to reach notes on a maximum of six frets - any more reach than that duplicates notes that are already under your fingers - and if your fingers are long enough to do that in some other position, you don't "need" a high peghead.

Thumb behind helps direct tyour fingers straight down - it's the most efficient way to fret, in terms of the energy your muscles use. That's why piano teachers always insist students curl their fingers - it prevents fatigue (compared to fingers flat). If you're coming straight down, you actually need to move a little less overall. And coming straight down minimizes the chance that you'll dampen an adjacent string.

But you may have hands of iron with fleet fingers attached. Or just above average stamina, and enough speed and precision for the music you want to play. The more your own attributes vary from the norm, the more you can get away with.

If you're attributes are WELL outside the norm, it'll work for you - and practically no one else. Two of the guitarists Chris posted are anomalies - Mayer has huge hands (as do a few other guitarists with 'bad' form, like Hendrix, jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, and others). Metheny has unnatural precision in his right hand, which lets him hold a pick like no other guitarist I've ever seen. If he held it like the rest of us do, he'd be a tad faster. He doesn't need it for what he plays.

The more you're blessed with a perfect guitar physique, the less you'll need to worry about "correct" technique. The closer to average you are, the more important technique becomes.
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Postby Chris C » November 23rd, 2011, 5:20 pm

NoteBoat wrote: The reasons for "correct" position are to maximize the instrument for the average person.


But why are so many famous guitarists not using it? Surely they can't all be anomalies? Is there some correlation between success and big hands? My hands are probably average (or maybe just a little larger) - certainly they're bigger than the hands of most of the kids who start young. Maybe people with small hands do need to hold their hands differently to get the reach? But I don't, and I find it actually uncomfortable to try and keep the thumb behind the neck unless it needs to be there.

I'm not a punk teen rebel - I'm 65 - and I like to at least understand any 'rules' before I decide to whether to break them or not. But I simply cannot find any good reason why playing with your thumb alongside the neck is "incorrect" or a "bad habit". For most of the music I play it feels absolutely 'right' and comfortable. Surely it's time that teachers accepted that times have moved on since Segovia and that there is more than one valid way to play - not just one "correct" and then a host of "bad habits" and inferior styles. For my money there's a good way to play Bach or Albeniz and a good way to play rock, blues or jazz and there's no compelling reason why they should all be technically the same.


When I looked round Youtube to see how it was done I expected to see a fair split of styles. Based on the 'Correct Form' ideas of classically trained teachers that I know, I assumed that there would be a group of more 'rough and ready' rockers who would grip the guitar like baseball bats and play reasonably basic stuff, and that there would probably be a more 'refined' group who would play more demanding music with more traditionally recommended techniques.


What I DID see though was something of a surprise. All the ones I googled played with roughly similar grips to me. That's to say that the thumb was often alongside or even over the neck, the neck often sat flat in the palm. When necessary the thumb simply slid back around the neck to the centre, or thereabouts, and then slid back again. When I say all of them, I do mean all. Here's some I've checked so far. I have not had to avoid a single video because somebody was playing thumb behind all the way through. I was actually quite surprised to see that the thumb alongside style is not just reasonably popular, it's pretty much universal among successful modern guitarists. These guys are not just casual three chord strummers, they're seriously good.


Tommy Emmanuel

BB King and Gary Moore

Joe Bonamassa

Robben Ford

Steve Vai

Ry Cooder

Carlos Santana

David Gilmore

John Lee Hooker and Carlos Santana


I also checked out Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, and a host of others, and it was the same every single time.

The idea that all the legends of popular guitar can't play properly or are “incorrect” seems absurd. Who's going to tell them? Who thinks that they need to be better than Jeff Beck, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, Eric Clapton, etc, etc?

It's not as if 10% or even 50% don't stick to the traditionally taught style - as far as I can see it's pretty much 100%. There has to be a reason for that, and the most obvious one is that it must convey some advantages. If there was no advantage, only restrictions, then it wouldn't be so popular among people of that level of musical ability. For my money their techniques seem perfectly valid. Just different from the classical guys. And why not?

Cheers,

Chris
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Postby s1120 » November 23rd, 2011, 6:46 pm

Ok so I am far from a experienced player, but do tend to keep the thumb on the back of the neck.It's always felt natural to me. Now as for some of the best of the best that you posted Chris, it looks like that all do a LOT of fretting the top strings with there thumbs, and the tommy E showed a defently change from thumb fretting, to the thumb sliding to the back of the neck when he wasn't. May be the best of best fret with the thumb more??? Agean... Just a thought being I am nowhere near a pro.
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Postby Chris C » November 23rd, 2011, 7:38 pm

s1120 wrote: May be the best of best fret with the thumb more???


It looked that way to me too. There seemed to be a fair bit of fretting and also dampening going on. But it also looked like it was just comfortable some of the time to have the thumb alongside, and it didn't seem to be restricting things.


I'm not even close to being a reasonable player, but I'm certainly not lazy or unwilling to try different techniques. I started on a nylon strung classical guitar, using all the approved positions, and moved to other styles from there. I also think that I'm capable of judging when something feels comfortable and effective, or when it's either holding me back or alternatively offering some sort of advantage. And, despite what purists may insist, there do seem to be aspects of the thumb alongside style that suit some music better. Maybe you could say that rock is a more 'muscular' style of music and responds to the apparently 'cruder' way of gripping? Who knows? But I do feel that there is a sort of 'whole body' thing that goes on with playing music that can over-ride just about all other aspects.

I believe that it's just too prevalent, and too successful, to be dismissed as laziness or bad habits. In general, people don't do things unless they convey some sort of advantage. The real question here is surely "what is the advantage of playing with your thumb alongside the neck?"

Is it easier in some way? Is it more stable when you're playing in a more dynamic and mobile rock style, rather than the more static classical style? Does it just feel somehow more punchy and aggressive? I don't know the answers for all those who use it, but it clearly does convey some advantages or the better players wouldn't use it as much as they do.

It certainly feels comfortable for me. Having the neck close to my palm, and the thumb resting higher up the side rather than the middle gives me more finger length sticking up on the other side, and a more comfortable reach.

Cheers,

Chris
Last edited by Chris C on November 23rd, 2011, 7:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Chris C » November 23rd, 2011, 7:47 pm

Some pics.

My hand size

Image


OK I'm exaggerating, but that's how thumb in the middle often feels for me. Kind of cramped and uncomfortable.... :mrgreen:

Image


Thumb more or less alongside, and now ready to strike over a wide range... There's a lot of spare capacity there to slide the thumb up into its preferred spot alongside and still have a lot of finger freedom. :wink:

Image

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Postby Fretsource » November 23rd, 2011, 8:56 pm

A driving analogy...
I think it's similar to learning to drive. We're told to sit up straight, both hands on the wheel at the "ten to two" position, etc, because it's the most efficient and safest driving position. That's certainly true and essential advice for beginners. As experienced drivers, however, we gradually adjust the position to one which is more comfortable and suitable for us. I would hate to drive for hundreds of miles in that learner's position. I'd be exhausted by the end of it.

It could be argued that my (slightly) modified driving position isn't as safe as the beginners position, but as an experienced driver, I'm certainly a lot safer than any learner, however well he/she adopts that text book position. I'm not talking about any obviously dangerous driving position, just the modifications that we all make as drivers to make the driving more comfortable and pleasurable. When I approach any unfamiliar and tricky looking intersection or roadworks, then I automatically get back to the text book position until, it's safe to relax again.

Guitar is pretty much the same. If I'm in a situation playing something that's well within my ability, I can afford to ignore my thumb completely and adopt a position that feels good and won't impede my playing of that song. If something tricky is approaching then, I'll automatically assume the position that gives me the best chance of getting through it safely.

So when we see Dave Gilmour's thumb sticking proudly up from behind the neck, he's not doing anything wrong. He knows he can play what he's playing in that position. His thumb is where it is because that's where he needs or wants it to be at that moment in time. If his thumb position was going to compromise his ability to play one of his solos, he simply wouldn't use it. He could, of course, adopt the "thumb behind the neck" as a default position to be used all the time in the interests of efficiency, but why should he? All experienced guitarists will adopt the position that feels best to them and doesn't hinder "what they're playing" technically in any way. There are more important considerations than efficiency.

Classical guitar is an exception. The position (including thumb position) is an integral part of the style and the wider neck more or less demands that the thumb is behind the neck at all times. It's not hard to do anyway, sitting on a chair, and sitting up straight. Keeping the the thumb behind the neck is the least of your worries when playing classical. Strutting about a stage with a narrow necked electric is a very different experience and keeping the thumb behind the neck or letting it go where it likes when it's not going to make any difference to what's being played is purely a matter of choice.
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Postby NoteBoat » November 23rd, 2011, 9:21 pm

Chris, I looked at your videos. There are some techniques where having the thumb in "proper" position isn't the best practice.

Most of the videos you've posted feature large bends - and there, the proper technique is actually thumb over the neck (which gives more leverage, and that helps you control the pitch).

Another factor is gear. In the Bonamassa video, he's playing in high positions on a single cutaway - the heel of the neck gets in the way. Trying to play in "proper" position there is counterproductive; guitarists have to adapt as best they can. (Even in classical guitar, you'll see odd thumb positions for passages above about 10th position)

The only guitarist in your list who isn't doing much bending is Tommy Emmanuel. His thumb is all over the place because he's fretting with it, and you obviously can't do that with your thumb behind the neck! Pick a different video, like this one and you'll see he's spending almost all of his time in classical thumb position - again, except while he's fretting. Emmanuel actually has really good technique - which means he's making decisions about where his thumb should be, rather than putting it someplace because that's what he always does.

Unless you're talking about blues or blues-influenced rock, where thumb over is common because of the bends, it's nowhere near 100% who play with the thumb "out of position". Here's a few examples:

Al di Meola
John McLaughlin
Dickie Betts (only hooks his thumb on bends - everything else is "proper" position)
Brian Setzer
Eddie van Halen
Roy Clark
[url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzz6fAdFFis]Django Reinhardt[url]
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Postby Chris C » November 23rd, 2011, 9:53 pm

NoteBoat wrote:Chris, I looked at your videos. There are some techniques where having the thumb in "proper" position isn't the best practice.


Thanks for hanging in there with more explanations Tom. :)


I'll check out that one of Tommy Emmanuel. At first glance his thumb seems to be able to bend in ways that mine can't, but it's got some good viewpoints so I'll see how close I can get to his positions.

I haven't looked at them all yet but your McLaughlin one is a pretty good example of what I mean



I can clearly see his thumb above the neck for almost the whole performance, except when he does a barre. That's pretty much exactly what I do - with obvious allowances for a slight different in talent... :) (He'll catch up with me eventually I expect... :roll: )

How can you say that he plays with thumb mostly behind?

Cheers,

Chris
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Postby Chris C » November 23rd, 2011, 10:15 pm

Fretsource wrote:
Guitar is pretty much the same. If I'm in a situation playing something that's well within my ability, I can afford to ignore my thumb completely and adopt a position that feels good and won't impede my playing of that song. If something tricky is approaching then, I'll automatically assume the position that gives me the best chance of getting through it safely.


Thanks for that insight. :) Mostly I need to go for comfort (65 year old hands could be a factor there..). I also don't play especially technically demanding music. The thing that intrigues me though is that (unless I'm actually using a classical guitar with the full position thing, when it feels OK ) then it mostly feels "right" to have my thumb alongside and "wrong" or at least quite uncomfortable and counter-productive to try and keep it always behind.

I've never really known why. I do accept the arguments that classically trained people make for keeping their style no matter what the guitar or music is, but they just don't seem to work for me. I've spent enough time adjusting straps (which I've come to like) and experimenting with postures and hand positions to feel that I've given it a fair shot. It's especially true when I'm playing up near the nut. The closer to the body the more natural and comfortable it feels to slip the thumb around the back more often.

So when we see Dave Gilmour's thumb sticking proudly up from behind the neck, he's not doing anything wrong. He knows he can play what he's playing in that position. His thumb is where it is because that's where he needs or wants it to be at that moment in time. If his thumb position was going to compromise his ability to play one of his solos, he simply wouldn't use it. He could, of course, adopt the "thumb behind the neck" as a default position to be used all the time in the interests of efficiency, but why should he? All experienced guitarists will adopt the position that feels best to them and doesn't hinder "what they're playing" technically in any way. There are more important considerations than efficiency.


That seems to nail it for me. :D No doubt he knows how to do it differently (and so do I) but he has actually chosen that way because he prefers it for what he is doing there. For whatever reason it just feels better for that occasion (and many others too it seems), and he doesn't adopt the thumb behind as the 'default'. That's the kicker for me - that he doesn't adopt the thumb behind as the default. He just uses it when he needs to.


Classical guitar is an exception. The position (including thumb position) is an integral part of the style and the wider neck more or less demands that the thumb is behind the neck at all times. It's not hard to do anyway, sitting on a chair, and sitting up straight. Keeping the the thumb behind the neck is the least of your worries when playing classical. Strutting about a stage with a narrow necked electric is a very different experience and keeping the thumb behind the neck or letting it go where it likes when it's not going to make any difference to what's being played is purely a matter of choice.


Beautifully put. It's a matter of choice. For me that's probably the difference between rock-n-roll and classical - the default position with rock is more likely to be thumb alongside, and vice versa for classical. I believe that both styles have their place and are good to have in the toolkit.

Cheers,

Chris
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Postby Chris C » November 23rd, 2011, 10:50 pm

STORY: :D

I do know that I'll never convince a die-hard Classical enthusiast though.

I have a friend who was classically trained at the local Conservatorium. Played Bach and so forth in a duo for a while. Now plays a bit of occasional classic electric rock with some of his mates.

We had this discussion before and I had shifted his view of the rockers not one milimetre! So when I lent him a video of Jeff Beck (who he admires - I had trouble getting the video back..) I couldn't resist pointing out how Beck frequently appears to be throttling his guitar, yet still gets some very nice noises out of it.

“Ah yes” he said “but he could do better still if he used my techniques”

“Cut him some slack” said I “He's got millions of devoted fans and is highly respected by other musicians. Surely his style is proven to work”. (I was tempted to add “ While you're driving an ambulance for a living” but I'm not quite that cruel...).

Nope. Wouldn't budge. :mrgreen:
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Postby imalone » November 24th, 2011, 1:28 am

So, I haven't really been playing that long and started off trying to keep my thumb in the 'behind and parallel to the neck position'. It's still the way I find myself playing most of the time, especially when playing melodic or lead parts. But then I hit two things:
1. The first lesson that asked for thumb fretting. I think this was probably David's version of Blackbird for the Gm chord, but there are plenty of things that require thumb fretting. I've got a Mel Bay book here, which focuses on traditional and classical repertoire and it has exactly the same fingering (thumbing) for the Gm. At this point I thought "Ah, that's the game then."
2. Barre chords, this is probably the point at which NoteBoat is staring in horror, but it's not as bad as it first sounds...

I've just tried out some stuff looking at what my thumb is doing. When playing single notes and open chords it's right at the back of the neck and upwards (not straight up), then it moves according to where my wrist needs to be. For partial barres which move quickly (e.g. Rock And Roll, Back in Black which I'm playing partially barred with one or two fingers doing fretting below) my thumb moves parallel to the frets, not for pressure, but to act as a pivot and stability point when moving those positions, maybe if I improve my fretting dexterity I wont need this so much. Then going to full barres I find that the first couple of frets do require a little pressure from behind to make them clean, so the thumb is still parallel to the frets for that. In all those cases it's behind the neck, actually for full barres it's further towards the 1st string than most of the time (past the halfway point).

Then there are two GN lessons that get very different treatment: Star of the County Down podcast and Man on the Moon. Man on the Moon is played with open chords and a change from C to Dadd2add4, the C chord needs the little finger all the way across the fret board and this gets me into exactly the classical position, which then sticks for the rest of the song since there's no real need to change it. Star of the County Down on the other hand has a thumb fretted 6th string at one point (D/F in the chorus) and is one of the few songs where I find a lot of the time my thumb is outside the back of the fretboard for much of the time to be ready for that.

As for bends, I seem to do this differently for different types of bends. Trying to learn Samba Pa Ti at the moment and the unison bends in that (e.g. 5th and 7th^2 frets) get done from a classical position, whereas there's a 15th fret bend in Rock and Roll that gets the thumb right round. The difference I think is that the unison bends its a higher fret on the lower string getting bent, this means the fingers form a row down the fretboard. On the other hand at the 15th fret, G is being played on the E string and D on the B string is being bent, to get access and to get the fingers side by side for the bend it's necessary to rotate the wrist.

This beginner's feeling so far is that thumb behind the neck is a good thing to teach because what you want to achieve is mobility. It seems like it's easy to start out with the baseball-bat type grip where the thumb goes round the fretboard which pulls your hand and your fingers behind it, leaving you attempting to fret sideways. With the thumb gripping like that you don't have reach and you get into the habit of gripping the neck which doesn't give you mobility, this is very different from changing your position according to where your fingers and wrist need to be. Starting off with the thumb behind the neck stops you doing that so you can learn to move around.

(Well, that was a longer post than I expected when starting.)
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