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Two Thumbs Up : Playing Guitar with all Ten Fingers

In the vast realm of guitar playing, every finger has its special role, but the thumb often flies under the radar. Yet, it's a powerhouse when it comes to shaping the sound and style of our music. That's why, in this blog post, we're shining a light on the versatile and indispensable role of the thumb in various guitar techniques, styles, and genres. From the subtle finesse of muting strings with your left-hand thumb to the intricate fingerwork of classical fingerstyle techniques with your right-hand thumb, we're here to explore how this often underestimated digit adds depth and dimension to our playing. So, grab your guitar and join us on a journey to uncover the many facets of thumb technique. 


The Left Hand Thumb


1.Muting

The left hand thumb is commonly used for muting the 6th string, and occasionally the 5th string. This technique is frequently demonstrated with an open D chord, where the thumb lightly touches the side of the low E string, preventing it from ringing. This muting technique allows for cleaner chord transitions and prevents unwanted noise from interfering with the music. However, caution must be exercised as improper positioning can lead to discomfort. When not in use for muting, the thumb should be moved back behind the neck. This position allows for optimal hand placement and ease of movement across the fretboard. Typically, chords or melodies on the top 3 strings may benefit from thumb muting on the 6th string. If the guitar part uses the lower 3 strings, it may be better to keep the thumb behind the neck. Typically, this is the ideal position most of the time.



2.Bending

Blues musicians have a unique approach to guitar playing, they make their instruments sing with large bends and heavy vibrato. While the bends and vibrato are typically handled by the ring finger, the thumb also assists in the bending technique. They use the thumb over the top of the neck to gain leverage when bending a note. Given the significant force required to bend the high strings of the guitar, the thumb provides the necessary support to achieve high bends or maintain a wide, sustained vibrato. This technique adds a distinctive vocal or bluesy feel to the music and can also affect the way chords are fingered.



3.Bass Notes

Furthermore, blues players often play bass notes on the 6th string using their thumb over the top of the neck. Many guitar teachers may say that it is an “incorrect” technique. However, it is fundamental to the blues/rock style. Guitarists play triads with the other fingers; the thumb covers the bass notes. This approach allows for changing quickly between lead fills and rhythmic chord playing. This technique is evident in the performances of renowned musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer. Fender Stratocaster players, in particular, are fond of this technique due to the instrument’s long and slender neck, which facilitates the thumb-over technique.


4.Chord Inversions

Chord inversions, a technique that involves rearranging the notes of a chord, can be played using the thumb on the bass notes. This technique allows the other fingers to find more comfortable fingerings and can smooth chord changes. By using the thumb to play the bass notes, the other fingers are free to explore different positions on the fretboard, leading to more complex and interesting chord voicings. Common open chord inversions such as D/F#, G/F, E/G# and F/G can be played by using the thumb on the bass notes. 


Acoustic fingerstyle players like James Taylor, Tommy Emmanuel, and Joe Robinson heavily employ this technique to create moving basslines and chord inversions in their open chord fingerstyle playing. The thumb, in this context, can free up other fingers to play various fills and transition into new positions. This technique adds depth to the music and allows for a more dynamic playing style.


The Right Hand Thumb


1.Classical Guitar : The Origins of Fingerstyle Technique

Classical guitarists employ a variety of techniques when playing, and the use of the thumb is fundamental to their style. One of the primary functions of the thumb in classical guitar playing is to pluck the lower strings. Classical guitarists often utilize their thumbs to play bass notes within chords. This involves precise control and coordination to execute both melody and bass lines simultaneously.


Moreover, the thumb plays a crucial role in executing various right-hand techniques such as arpeggios and tremolo. In arpeggio passages, the thumb may be assigned to play the bass notes while the other fingers handle the upper strings, creating a cascading effect of individual notes within a chord. Tremolo, a rapid repetition of a single note or chord, often involves the thumb alternating with other fingers to achieve a sustained, fluttering effect.


2.Jazz & Soul : Thumb Strumming and Picking

In jazz, soul, and R&B guitar playing, the use of the thumb for strumming and plucking is often a stylistic choice that contributes to the distinctive sound and feel of these genres. Unlike classical guitarists who predominantly use fingerpicking techniques, many jazz, soul, and R&B guitarists adopt a thumb-centric approach for several reasons. Using the thumb allows for a warmer and mellower tone compared to using a pick or fingers. The fleshy part of the thumb produces a softer attack, resulting in a more rounded sound that complements the smooth and soulful qualities often found in these genres. This tone is particularly well-suited for accompanying vocals or other instruments in ensemble settings, providing a rich and supportive foundation. Some famous players who used this technique include: Wes Montgomery, George Benson & Curtis Mayfield.


3.Percussive Guitar : Right Hand Drum Effects

Percussive guitar technique is a dynamic and engaging approach to playing the acoustic guitar, adding rhythmic depth and texture to traditional fingerstyle arrangements. One of the hallmark elements of this technique involves slapping the thumb against the 6th string, producing a crisp and percussive "snare drum-like" sound. This technique is often seamlessly integrated into fingerstyle guitar parts, creating the illusion of a full drum kit accompanying the guitar.


Furthermore, percussive guitar technique can be expanded upon by incorporating additional rhythmic elements. For instance, guitarists may utilize the body of the guitar as a percussion instrument, creating a bass drum-like thump by striking the thumb against the guitar's body. When combined with thumb slaps and traditional fingerstyle playing, these techniques coalesce to produce a rich and immersive sonic experience, akin to a one-man band.


Percussive guitar technique offers guitarists a versatile means of expression, allowing them to evoke the rhythmic complexity of a full ensemble with just their acoustic instrument. Whether used to embellish solo performances or accompany vocals and other instruments, the rhythmic dynamism of percussive guitar adds a captivating dimension to acoustic guitar playing.



Use Your Thumbs!

In the world of guitar playing, every finger contributes its own unique flair to the music, and the thumb is no exception. Often overlooked, the thumb plays a crucial role in shaping the sound and style of guitar music across various techniques and genres. From muting strings and facilitating chord inversions to adding percussive elements and driving rhythms, the thumb's versatility knows no bounds!


Playing guitar with all ten fingers, especially utilizing the thumbs, opens up a world of musical possibilities, enriching performances and elevating the artistry of guitar playing to new heights. So, whether you're strumming chords, picking melodies, or adding percussive flair, give those thumbs a well-deserved round of applause—they're the unsung heroes of the guitar world, delivering rhythm, melody, and soul with every pluck and thump.

-Ryan

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