I'm self-taught and I want to check that I'm not doing myself a disservice with my left hand positioning when I'm playing high up the neck (say, above fret 15). I play with my thumb behind the neck, fingers angled 'backwards' down the neck (from my perspective looking down, they point to my left - just a little). This has served me very well thus far I think, and means my pinky doesn't flail around and all fingers stay fairly close to the fretboard.

However, I've been working on a particular fiddly passage I wrote and it's proving very difficult to nail at the intended tempo. I was researching to check my technique and have actually been unable to find a single example article, video, photo, etc of anyone who didn't put their thumb over the top of the neck and angle fingers 'upwards' (to the right if looking down).

While I can see how in theory reach might be increased by this, it feels far less natural to me, breaks the wisdom I've read before that thumb should be behind the neck, and naturally positions the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers away from the fretboard some distance.

Basically, do I have anything to worry about? :)

EDIT: Now with video for your comment/critique/enjoyment/bemusement (first half - how I play currently; second half - initial attempts at what I see others do):

Also, this particular passage has been my nemesis for some time. Any tips for getting it cleaner, smoother, etc - do let me know. Or an analysis of why it's so difficult? :)

(At the same time, I have some specific questions around my technique and how I practise. Really looking for some like-minded (and more experienced than me!) folks how I can bounce some ideas off, get confirmation on some suspicions, that kind of thing! Is this site that place, or is there a forum, different site, youtube channel or something else that anyone knows of? I can find all of those things for beginners, maybe some lessons hinting on intermediate/advanced, but oddly the resources seem to cut off at about that point.)

  • I'm also learning guitar and struggling a bit with hand position. Adjusting the angle of the guitar helps a bit – a higher neck makes higher frets more accessible – but I haven't really worked it all out for myself. – Bradd Szonye Jun 1 '14 at 23:10
  • @all, Playing around I just found something really interesting! While using my current technique feels better usually, trying to trill with my pinky, even completely relaxed, gets difficult very quick. With the thumb-over-top method, the trill is easier! As such I think I will re-train.. I'm fairly sure this trill effort is what's causing my pain point at the moment! – Kieren Johnstone Jun 3 '14 at 18:14

It is, of course, possible to play the guitar with a variety of techniques and hand positions. Although some are generally accepted as being more orthodox than others, you can always find examples of good players who use less orthodox techniques.

Often, keeping the thumb behind the neck while playing is considered to be a more 'technically-correct' way of playing, certainly for classical guitar, but there are real benefits for quite a lot of electric technique too. It's interesting that you say you adopt this technique; from experience, it seems that self-taught guitarists often don't. (I certainly played with my thumb over the top of the neck until I took guitar lessons…) Having said this, once you get to the very high frets this can actually become more of a hindrance than a benefit. Let me suggest a few reasons for this:

  • Having the fingers point 'to-the-right' a little while playing at the top of the neck allows you to reach further up the neck than the position your hand and thumb are actually in.
  • If your guitar has quite an obstructive shape to the body, where it joins the neck (I play a Telecaster usually so it really gets in the way!), you need to be able to reach your fingers further than your hand and thumb can reach (as they have to stop at the point where the neck joins the body).
  • If you are performing techniques such as pull-offs, hammer-ons and bends on the top few strings on these high frets, having your thumb above the neck can help you to get more of a grip on the guitar, making these techniques easier to execute.

It is also worth noting that you are likely to be playing the top strings far more than the bottom strings when up this high on the neck (otherwise you would usually play on a higher string further down the neck!) For this reason, you don't need to be able to reach the bottom strings as easily. And, you probably won't be playing chords as much up there, so having flatter fingers is fine, too. (Ordinarily, these are problems when playing with the thumb above the neck.)

You certainly don't need to worry about your technique though. I would say that the technique you have developed is probably fairly sound. However, you might just want to adapt it slightly when playing very high up the neck. Incidentally, when you play with your fingers pointing slightly to the right, your 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers don't need to be further away from the neck. Instead, they are just bent differently, with the 1st more bent than the others, and the 4th quite straight - I think of this as being like a "flute-grip". It is also similar to how one positions the fingers when playing the violin.

EDIT: @Kieren Johnstone I just watched your video. I think your technique is pretty good and doesn't need to be changed drastically. To be honest, my advice above is what most guitarists would do when playing that high up the neck because it can be difficult to play with the more orthodox "thumb-behind-the-neck" technique. You manage to do that fine so stick with it! There are a couple of reasons that your first technique seems to work for you: you play with your guitar neck angled up quite a lot (see Bradd's comment…); the kind of guitar you are playing allows you good access to the high frets. Again, to be perfectly honest, you don't seem to be struggling with that passage that much - if you feel you are, you probably just need to keep practising it, especially below tempo and gradually increasing tempo. I can't see that your playing technique is stopping you playing that passage.

However, having had another couple of views of your vid, if I was to be super critical, you could try to keep your left-hand little finger a bit closer to the neck, and this would help you play more smoothly. Lots of scale practice can help with this; especially chromatic scales...

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    Excellent feedback, thank you. I will experiment some more tomorrow. Going to leave the question unanswered for a wee bit to see what others can come up with! – Kieren Johnstone Jun 1 '14 at 21:02
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    No probs! There are quite a few Music.SE users with good guitar knowledge, so you should get plenty of good advice. – Bob Broadley Jun 1 '14 at 21:10
  • If it makes a difference or inspires comment, I made a quick video just now - youtube.com/watch?v=4lQwR8POWlo ? The more typical method (second half) feels less natural, do I have it right and need to do slow, deliberate practise on that would you say? Thanks again – Kieren Johnstone Jun 2 '14 at 17:04
  • Thanks again! That's where I feel I need the most work too. To get really in the groove for playing the section well, I focus on super light touch etc, and the little finger behaves better. I came straight home and recorded that with no warm up, and that's usually what happens when I do that (any extra tension flails out of that little finger). Overall, I am reassured (thank you), although one niggle: I do need to angle the 'normal' way to reach, see 3sec in ... for one stretchy bit of the passage. Don't know if it's worse to be inconsistent like that. Note: I do obsess over this I know.. – Kieren Johnstone Jun 2 '14 at 19:38

While the 'correct' method historically is to have the thumb right in the back of the neck, it may not matter for the style of music you play. I think Bob's answer says almost everything I would write here.

For years I played with it there, and still do when playing classical or flamenco, but for most of my current gigging, I find myself moving more to using the thumb as an extra fretting point (I use a 7 string with my current band, and being able to fret the low A string is quite useful). I never have my fingers leaning to the left, or the nut end of the guitar though - always either straight up or towards the bridge.

At high frets though, I almost never wrap my thumb round, as despite having really deep cutaways on most of my guitars it would still get blocked somewhere between the 15th and 19th frets, so my thumb moves away from the neck the higher I get. Occasionally I will actually have my thumb on the block where the neck joins the body - with my fingers either straight up or slightly pointing bridge-wards.

If I am playing at the 23rd fret or higher my thumb is actually alongside my first finger and my entire hand is in front of the guitar with my fingers heavily angled towards the bridge, almost lying along the strings rather than across them. This allows me to play rapidly on most strings, but especially on my top 3, which are the important ones at the high frets.

  • Thank you, that makes sense - my hand does come around a bit and very high up, my thumb naturally comes around in the way you describe too. If it makes any difference, my fingers are pointing pretty much straight up vertically, it's just with the guitar angled 'up', it makes they are pointing headstockwards rather than bodywards, if you see what I mean! I'll experiment some more and see what I can work out – Kieren Johnstone Jun 2 '14 at 13:06

It looks like the tilt of your guitar is one of the factors here. That is : the head sits higher than the body.

It appears that you're able to play (well!) with your fingers pointing to the left and this looks like it's because the neck of your guitar is tilted upwards quite a lot.

My fingers (like many guitarist I guess?) point to the right when I'm playing higher up but generally my guitar is less tilted, almost horizontal. I'm not sure there's a "right" way but playing with your guitar more horizontally would probably mean your fingers would naturally end up pointing more to the right on the neck ?

There is an advantage to this stance (as others have said) in that it's probably easier to reach the higher frests, because you're kind of pointing at the fretted note rather than reaching across it, and of course your hand won't foul on the body of the guitar so much.

But then "Easier" is subjective and means "you might find it easy", which is a bit self defeating given you're clearly doing damn fine as you are :-)

Maybe it's worth experimenting with the tilt of your guitar? Might work, or maybe it's not worth the change. Sometimes when playing a solo I pick the guitar up so the strap goes loose and hold it quite close to my head. Seems to help somehow, probably a similar kind of thing.

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    Since everybody has mention all other things, you might try keeping your guitar strap a little shorter so that your left doesn't have that extreme curled up position. I'd keep it up to just below shoulder level, then it would benefit your left hand's awkward angle.. – user28834 May 24 '16 at 5:42
  • Yeah I agree - might feel really weird at first I guess but could help once you get used to it. – user2808054 May 25 '16 at 16:44

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