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My left thumb has some arthritis so I am thinking about switching to an electric — thinking that playing an electric would be easier on the thumb joint. Any advice on the subject would be appreciated (including suggestions on instruments).

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  • Is your acoustic steel- or nylon-strung?
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 5, 2023 at 18:44
  • The instrument is a Martin with steel strings. Apr 5, 2023 at 19:53
  • Not an answer to your question, but an in-between solution might be to use lighter gauge strings. Go Ducks!
    – wabisabied
    May 6, 2023 at 22:24

4 Answers 4

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An electric guitar is definitely easier on the left hand, but it won’t be easier on your thumb joint because the problem with your thumb joint is your technique.

You should not squeeze the neck between your thumb and fingers. You should activate your left bicep to provide the static force through to your hand so your fingers can depress the strings. That can tend to pull the neck of the guitar towards you, which means you’ll have to apply some pressure to the body of the guitar with your right forearm to keep it from moving.

At the same time, you should not be getting a bicep workout while playing. You want to use the minimum amount of force to prevent string buzz. If you’re getting a slight buzz on some notes, then you know you’re right around the right amount of force.

You should be able to play fairly well with your thumb not even touching the neck. It’s mainly there to provide stability and awareness of position on the neck. Bending with the thumb over the top of the neck is fine because that’s still mostly the finger flexors doing the work, the thumb opponens and abductor muscles should still be relaxed when bending.

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Yes and no. Basically this is a question of the neck dimensions, and in terms of non-classical acoustic guitars there are many guitars that have necks quite similar to electric guitars.

The gist is: A guitar with a slim neck will make comfortable "lazy" playing much more viable, which is why players often feel like these are "easier" to play. Playing a slim neck will make it easier to play while not even placing your thumb on the neck (but rather holding the neck in the palm of your hand). Usually playing on a wider neck such as on a classical guitar is mostly a question of proper hand technique, as a well placed thumb will act as a pivot to allow your hand to go anywhere.

Now if you have problems with your thumb a slim neck and not placing your thumb on the neck could be a viable option as long as you keep to simple stuff. Once you want to play more complex stuff you really want to make use of your thumb.

That being said you might improve your technique somewhat. You want to make sure the thumb joint always curves inwards, you do not want the thumb to point outwards, as the joint is not made to take strain in that direction. Also you should not need to put a lot of pressure onto your thumb. You do not really need your thumb that much to compensate the pressure of your fingers, as your playing arm and your upper body is already stabilizing the guitar. This is by the way even easier on a big bodied acoustic guitar than on a small bodied electric.

Also you might want to make sure that your strings are not too high tension and that the action of the guitar is not too high. A badly setup guitar will require you to exert more force which will eventually also put strain on your thumb. So in this case I really think it is worth it to invest in a instrument with straight neck, level frets and get it setup really nicely.

And most importantly: When you feel playing is putting strain on you, stop and rest. Muscles will build up. Sinews to some extent too. But straining joints will only cause damage and not cause you to get stronger or anything. Instead you’ll risk permanent damage to your thumb.

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On a well set up guitar, acoustic or electric, there won't be much, if any discernible difference. The necks of a good acoustic (Martin's one) and a good electric will not be far different from each other, in width, depth or fretboard radius. Obviously, with a high action, or thicker strings, thus tighter, neither will be kind to anyone's hand.

That said, your thumb should not be acting as one half of a vice. Most players actually press too hard, believing that's the thing to do. On a well set up instrument, there's just no need. Press as hard as needed, so the notes don't rattle. Any harder is just a waste. In fact, even with barre chords, there should be no need to squeeze the life out of that neck, which won't have helped the arthritis at all.

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  • Is there a way for me to tell if my guitar is setup correctly? Apr 6, 2023 at 16:31
  • Other than taking it to a luthier, or gaining the experience over several years, probably not. These things take time!
    – Tim
    Apr 6, 2023 at 17:01
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It is my understanding (which may be incorrect) that an electric requires less string pressure than an acoustic

That is correct, at least in 99% of cases, maybe 100 (sorry, I don't have enough points to "Add a comment" on that part you wrote)

One person pointed out bringing it to a luthier, and not knowing your budget, if ever that's an issue, you could always go try an acoustic in a store as though you were shopping for one just to see if you feel less tension. Of course, some guitars have higher action (more strain in your case) but it'd still give you a sense if your Martin is way out of wack.

This may sound ridiculous, but have you thought about maybe wearing a thumb contraption of some sort? I don't have any problems and have played for 25+ years but when I was sometimes injured, I'd even put electric tape around my thumb (I don't advise it) but drugstores or whatnot probably have various forms of "thumb protectors". You can google it, they probably sell them online too. It's not meant for that specifically but could work out maybe in alleviating the stress on your thumb

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