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I’ve been revisiting an old chord book (Sal Salvador Chordal Enrichment & Chord Substitution ©1985) and on page 45 I found this:

enter image description here

It’s a nice chord but the first fingering is impossible. The second is fairly easy (especially higher up the fretboard) although I find it even better played TT1122 with TT1144 also OK. Playing about a bit I found a 6 string Gmaj11 sounds nice and it is quite playable on an electric. Also playing the bass note while muting the 5th string for the G power chord opens up things a bit because all four fretting fingers are available for ornaments etc.

enter image description here

So are these ‘double stops’ with the thumb a thing? Do people use them? I know many players use the thumb over neck position for bends and vibrato and single bass notes, but this needs the thumb to come over and press quite a bit more.

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  • Clearly some do. I cannot even though I’ve played guitar for 30 years. My hands are just not big enough to fret more than one note with my thumb. Commented Mar 13 at 23:05
  • at the end of the day it's down to hand shape & size as well as fretboard width personal preference. Jimi Hendrix revolutionised electrical guitar and commonly used his thumb to both fret and mute strings. You probably won't find it in many books though, especially not in books on acoustic / classical guitar
    – Neins
    Commented Mar 16 at 19:29

3 Answers 3

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This book is by Sal Salvador so it is all coming from bebop tradition and approach to playing guitar and in early bebop it was indeed a thing to fret a complex six-string chords with thumb covering 2 bass strings.

The most prominent examples are Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow. I can't find video "evidence" off hand but definitely saw them doing it. Look for the solo performances or intros as this is where they would use these 6-string chords the most

EDIT:

Actually found a good example by Barney Kessel:

and there should be more in that series of lessons

And then Tal Farlow. He had a massive hands and his thumb is constantly helping out here on 1 sometimes 2 strings:

EDIT 2:

Actually Tal Farlow clip above doesn't show examples of 5th and 6th string fretted at the same time with thumb. There is much better example of his intro to Autumn in New York that features many examples of 6-string chords that can be feasibly played only with the thumb covering 5th and 6th string

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    Tal was absolutely brilliant and a bit of a freak of nature to have such large hands but thin enough fingers to be able to play chords the way he did. I watched this very closely and of course he uses his thumb throughout (you might even call his thumb his “bass player”, lol!) but he does not play 6 string chords or the E and A simultaneously. Chords with E string roots omit the A string. If he plays the A string there is no E. At :55 he plays a C7#9 with an A root but does not play the E string. It isn’t unheard of but playing 6 string chords on guitar in jazz is extremely rare. Commented Mar 14 at 15:33
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    @JohnBelzaguy I think you're right there is no good example of fretting simultaneously 5th and 6th string with the thumb in the Tal Farlow clip. I've updated the answer with much better example of his playing that features multiple chords played that way along with transcription. It might also provide insight into whether 6 string chords and thumb fretting the 5th and 6th string were extremely rare. It certainly was much more of a thing in the 50s than it is now.
    – Jarek.D
    Commented Mar 14 at 16:51
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I suppose some may use thumb double stops but it certainly isn’t common. First, playing the low E with the thumb, although it’s widely done and many have figured out how to do it really well, is not an ideal thing to do from a technical standpoint. It requires bending the wrist in the opposite direction of what is considered to be good fingering hand technique. By playing 2 notes with the thumb you are putting your fingering hand into an even more awkward position.

Another issue is that with standard tuning, playing a double stop on the E and A strings gives you a fourth interval at the bottom of a voicing which is a heavy and borderline muddy sound. A chord with an E root will have a low 4th in it and and a chord with an A root will have the 5th in the bass, neither of which is ideal unless you want a thick and heavy sound to your chords.

With regard to the first chord, the fingering is not impossible but it is awkward and can also be tried with TT1133 or TT2244, the latter of which I find to be the easiest. Aside from that, adding a G at the bottom actually makes it a C69/G, which is an inversion with the 5th in the bass, not a root position chord.

If you were to use a drop D tuning you can play power chords or chords that have a low 5th in them with your thumb. I’m sure there are some that can figure out a way to do this creatively. The problem with this technique in general as I mentioned earlier is that hooking the thumb so far over the neck puts the rest of your hand and fingers in an awkward position and is not conducive to playing with good technique.

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  • Is this written from a classical guitar perspective? Some of the statements don’t make sense to me related to electric guitar. As in many many players successfully use thumb over the top and have a high wrist on electric. Commented Mar 13 at 23:07
  • @ToddWilcox Not at all. I’ve only ever seen people use thumb bass notes in various contemporary styles with steel string guitars, electric or acoustic. I said nothing about a “high wrist”. I was making the point that even though it is done a lot it is not a technically sound thing to do. What doesn’t make sense? Commented Mar 14 at 1:05
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    “bending the wrist in the opposite direction of what is considered to be good fingering hand technique” Classical technique calls for a low wrist with the hand bent upwards, but many, many rock, punk, pop, blues, and related guitarists and teachers use and teach a high wrist with the thumb over the top. If Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan both did something, then it’s hard to justify saying it’s wrong. Pretty sure Jimmy Page has used this technique a lot also. Therefore, it is technically sound in some playing styles. Commented Mar 14 at 1:43
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    @ToddWilcox I’m not saying that it’s wrong or people can’t and don’t play that way, or that they can’t do it really well, people have been playing that way for decades. I’m just staying that technically speaking it’s not ideal. It’s easy for soloing in the upper register but their thumbs all seem to drop if they have to play an open G chord, E shaped barres or lines on the low strings. Commented Mar 14 at 14:54
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    @ToddWilcox I agree. In reality the way the guitar is typically held in non classical styles, lower and more horizontally actually makes it more difficult to use the traditional curved wrist and thumb in the middle of the neck technique anyway. Players adapt and do what is comfortable and feels right. Commented Mar 14 at 15:59
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Yes, some guitarists do fret strings with the fretting hand thumb. Notably, Tommy Emmanuel mentions it in his lessons, see e.g.

That being said, it's certainly not a technique that works for everyone, and not in every situation. Factors to consider are: size of the (guitarist's) hand, width of the (guitar's) neck, and the context, as fretting with the thumb probably requires altering the hand position a bit.

For contrast, in the following video Jeff Water mentions that while keeping the thumb above the neck can aid bending, it limits the stretch of the fingers.

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  • The question is not about using the thumb for bass notes. The OP mentions he is aware of that technique. It is about playing double stops with the thumb. Commented Mar 13 at 14:50
  • @JohnBelzaguy if you watch Tommy Emmanuel's video, you'll see that certainly he could play two strings if he wanted. I don't know if he does. I'm sorry I cannot provide a better answer. Commented Mar 14 at 0:39

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