What is the proper left-hand position on guitar? What’s the best thumb placement on guitar? These are both questions that I get asked all the time. The short answer is that it’s different for everyone. Since we’re all physically different there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
For most people, the best thumb position on guitar is somewhere between the middle and top of the neck. This thumb position gives you the best balance of comfort, leverage, and strength.
Before we dive deeper into the details I want to talk about something that’s completely overlooked most of the time. Basic body posture. Just like when you’re sitting at a computer, playing drums, or eating dinner; body posture matters.
The way you sit and where you place your arms are going to impact where your hand and thumb end up on your guitar. More than that, it’s going to impact how long you can comfortably sit and play guitar. If your posture isn’t right you’ll fatigue quicker.
Just like your parents told you when you were growing up, sit up straight! You want a straight (but natural) upright posture. An ergonomic chair is helpful to have here. You don't want to over work your upper body just to sit up straight, but you also don't want to slouch.
It’s natural to want to hunch over when playing guitar. And we’re all guilty of it. So just keep this in mind as you’re playing. Writing yourself a little note that you can see can be a great reminder.
Next, keep your left elbow kind of tucked in. If you flare it out away from your body it puts your wrist at an awkward angle. It also takes away some leverage which you’ll need in changing chords.
Lastly, relax! As best as you can, don’t tense anywhere. Your arms and hands will be obvious, but your neck and shoulder (traps area) is somewhere you commonly carry tension without noticing.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to find the perfect position for your body. So use these tips as guidelines and adjust to what feels best for you.
For me personally, with my hands and my guitars, my thumb tends to be on the higher side. But your thumb may be lower.
Does Thumb Placement Matter On Guitar?
Yes! You can think of your thumb as an anchor and pivot point. Where you put your thumb on your guitar will dictate how quickly you can change chords. And how long you can play guitar for.
When I’m just strumming through chords the pad of my thumb is placed near the center of the neck. More like somewhere in between the center and the top of the neck.
This is a good place to start. It gives you very good leverage to change chords. And it also gives your left hand stability. The size of your hand and the size of your guitar neck will impact this. So start here and adjust.
Grab a G chord and see where your thumb naturally goes. How does this feel? Try repositioning your thumb by moving it up and down. Try and find that sweet spot.
Barre Chord Thumb Position
Barre chords demand more hand and finger strength. Because of this you have to change your thumb position to give you the most leverage and strength. When playing non-barre chords your thumb should be slightly higher than dead center of the guitar neck.
When playing barre chords your thumb will need to be lower. Start at dead center and adjust from there. This position lets you “squeeze” the neck between your thumb and barring finger.
This position will probably be the most challenging. At least at the beginning. You’ll need to press down harder than what feels comfortable because your fingers won't be strong enough. You’ll build the muscles you need to over time and it becomes much more comfortable.
Guitar Wrist Position
Proper wrist position and thumb position go hand in hand, no pun intended. It’s worth pointing out that playing guitar isn’t exactly a natural position for your wrist. So before I even pick up my guitar I like to stretch my wrists out.
Once your wrists are limber go ahead and form a chord. Your thumb should be in a position as described above. Make sure your palm isn’t trying to lay flat on the fretboard. This is where you’ll need to find the right position for your wrist.
In addition to bending at the wrist, you can push your elbow slightly forward to ease the angle. Form a G major chord and maneuver your thumb, wrist, and elbow and see what feels right. Let go, shake your hand out, and try again.
Just like any other part of your body, the strength and flexibility will come over time. If you’re experiencing any negative pain, stop and find a better position. Guitar players tend to be more susceptible to tendonitis and arthritis, so make sure you’re stretching and exercising your wrists daily.
Playing Guitar With Thumb Over The Fretboard
Most books on guitar, and even the first half of this article, talk about keeping your thumb on the back of the neck. But an entirely different technique is to bring your thumb over the fretboard. People with bigger hands who have developed their techniques can actually fret notes with their thumbs!
Players like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaugh, and John Mayer do this with great success. It’s a little bit of an intermediate technique though. And it really deserves its own lesson.
But even if you’re not fretting notes with your thumb, you can still play with it hanging over the fretboard. In fact, a lot of guitar players end up doing this over time. For me, it’s a more comfortable position for my wrist. And I do end up using my thumb to fret notes on the low E string.
It doesn’t work for every chord. And the higher up on the fretboard I go the more I have to slide my thumb down to get the higher notes. But when I’m strumming through chords in their first positions my thumb naturally hangs over the fretboard much of the time.
And that’s a good point to note. Your thumb and wrist move as they need to. Your hand shouldn’t be static when you’re playing guitar. It should move as needed to let you play what you’re trying to play. Not huge movements or anything. But subtle, small movements to give you the best leverage.
So play around with this. See how your thumb (and wrist) naturally wants to move when you play an Em-C-G-D chord progression.
Guitar Thumb Pain
Most of the time when people experience pain or discomfort in their thumb, it has to do with too much tension. Tension should only be in your music, not in your body! This is one of the hardest things to do with guitar: being relaxed when you’re playing something difficult.
But that’s also one of the keys to overcoming those difficulties.
This will be harder at first. The small muscles in your hands will be used unlike they ever have been when you start to play guitar. Just like any other muscle in your body, they take time to develop. The more you use them, the quicker they develop.
So if your thumb is getting sore; is it muscle fatigue, or actual pain?
- Muscle fatigue is remedied by breaks and different exercises.
- Thumb pain in the joints means you need to change what you’re doing.
That might mean using a lighter gauge of strings, practicing for a shorter amount of time, and definitely relaxing your hand when you play guitar.
You’ll need to spend some time working on this. And that right amount of pressure when you’re fretting will take time to become natural. But if you use these tips I’ve outlined today you should start to feel way more comfortable holding your guitar and fretting notes in a short time.
I go into much more detail on dealing with pain at Wrist or Thumb Hurt from Playing Guitar? Do this…