Making Good Use of Your Picking-Hand Thumb

Posted on Posted in Tips from Mark

I had a recent query from my old friend Flip Breskin of the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop about a student she has with thumbs that bend backward severely. She wondered what I might suggest to help him use his thumbs more successfully when fingerpicking and fretting.

I realized that some of my thoughts would be applicable to many guitarists whose thumbs don’t bend backward quite so much. So here is my first installment on this subject of thumbs, specifically the picking-hand thumb. Perhaps it will be thought provoking for you.

When it comes to playing guitar, I preach relaxation, using only the amount of effort required. In my opinion, this is the most important realization for a student to make about playing guitar. Playing with a minimum of effort is the key to a smooth, clean, fast, accurate, and dynamic way of playing that is sustainable over a lifetime of playing guitar.

As far as thumb shape goes, Leo Kottke has a thumb knuckle that bends backward almost 90 degrees, and he does pretty well! My first thumb knuckle is totally straight, with no backward bend at all. So I think different hand designs can be accommodated.

Here’s an exercise I have long recommended to get a feel for total relaxation in your picking hand: First, shake all the tension out of your hand, and aim your forearm straight up at the ceiling. Let your hand and fingers flop forward at the wrist, TOTALLY relaxed. A lot of people can’t get rid of the tension initially while attempting this because they are so accustomed to constant tension that they don’t feel the tension.

Flop the hand up and down several times at the wrist to get the feel of relaxed, flopping fingers. When the hand and fingers are totally relaxed, straighten the wrist so that the hand is again aiming at the ceiling, in line with the forearm. If the fingers and thumb are still relaxed, they will fall into a totally natural hand position that, in my opinion, is the proper one, more or less, for fingerpicking and flatpicking.

Addressing the thumb specifically, the result of this exercise is that the thumb will be relaxed, and in the ‘correct’ position for picking without excess tension. It may be bent slightly or it may be straight (most of my students’ thumbs are straight when relaxed, as is mine), but what you are looking for is the position your thumb assumes naturally when it is totally relaxed.

Think of your picking thumb as a baseball bat: no hinges along the length of the bat. Imagine baseball star Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants using a bat with a hinge six inches from the end. He would have no control over the end of the bat, and no power to hit the ball. Think of your thumb knuckles as the hinges — don’t bend them to pick; maintain the relaxed position of the thumb that you produced in the exercise explained above.

The power, accuracy and consistency of picking with your thumb comes from moving at the joint in the wrist, and from no other joint. As with most guitar techniques, there are some glaring exceptions to this ‘rule’ — Pierre Bensusan’s use of his right thumb, for one — but for most people, this approach provides consistency, power, and accuracy. Players who don’t bend the thumb joints, except at the wrist, will always know where the end of their thumb is!

If you have trouble with the thumb knuckles bending when you play, try this: With your thumb in its relaxed position, wrap adhesive tape around the offending knuckle. Don’t wrap it tightly (no tourniquets, please!), just enough so that the tape pulls your skin slightly when you bend the knuckle.

I guarantee that you will forget about keeping your thumb straight and revert to your old habits when your mind starts concentrating on the music you are playing. The pull of the skin by the tape will draw your attention back to your thumb and the ‘bending’ habit you are trying to overcome. My experience is that two or three weeks of this cures a student of the habit.

The angle of the thumb that you use to pick the strings depends on whether or not you wear a thumbpick, or want to get a skin-only, or skin-and-nail attack on the string. Experiment with the height of your wrist for these different angles of attack. But whatever angle you use, keep the thumb relaxed and try not to bend those knuckles.

In the next installment I will discuss the fretting-hand thumb.

–Mark Hanson

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