What are the Dos and Don'ts of thumb position in guitar playing? Are there bad habits or just alternative techniques?

  • Are we talking left hand or right?
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 17, 2017 at 5:46

6 Answers 6


If you consider the purpose of the thumb to be to counteract the pressure of the fingers, then the ideal placement (for playing a chord) would be directly opposite the "center of gravity" of the polygon formed by the fingertips.

But this ideal may be difficult to achieve depending on the length of the strap. I set my strap quite short so the guitar is positioned rather high against my chest; this (for me) seems to help the thumb to naturally rest in an appropriate place.

For a moving line, I try to keep my thumb opposite the middle finger. For a barre, it should be opposite the finger performing the barre.

All of the above is intended to put the least amount of stress possible on the delicate tendons in the wrist.

As KeithS mentions, there are of course exceptions, but I've tried to succinctly state "the rules" without droning on too long. If you need the thumb to mute or fret a lower string, do it; don't say I said don't. Thumbs are fingers too. ("They call 'em 'fingers' but I never seen 'em 'fing'.... Oh, there they go." --Jasper on the Simpsons)

With a low-slung, rock-n-roll setup, you may have no choice but to hang your thumb over the top, but at the extreme this really puts your wrist in a bad position and inhibits your dexterity, IMHO.

  • 2
    Not to disagree, because what you describe is good technique, but many chords are most easily formed using the thumb to dampen or even fret the low E; for instance, the open D major chord and its D/F# variant. It's simply natural to bring the thumb around in the "baseball bat grip" to form these chords.
    – KeithS
    Jan 17, 2013 at 19:29
  • Once you start bending, having the thumb over the top makes a lot of sense, because it enables the thumb to add to the squeezing force for higher bends. May 25, 2016 at 16:42

if it feels good and if it works than do it. it works for me. jimmy page and billy corgan both does this when both are playing traditionally and when jimmy does his cello bow solo



Lat month I had surgery on my left hand to rebuild my arthritic basal joint in my left thumb. My Doctor concluded did not cause arthritis, but my thumb position while playing guitar "may" have contributed to quick degeneration of the joint. Specifically, I would place my left thumb perpendicular along the neck when playing barre chords. I was taught to play about 45 years ago and I mimicked the person I learned from. According to my Surgeon, the best placement of your thumb is near the center of your hand. I apologize if that explanation is confusing.


Instead of using E shape bar chords I tend to use an F shape with all four fingers and then use my thumb to press the base E string. I was getting pains when performing your classic bar chords because I think I was pressing too hard and causing my thumb to bend back more than it should have. Now I use one or the other version of the chord. It all depends on what way my hand position is before the dreaded barchord. I go by the general rule "whatever's comfortable".


More of a singer-guitarist, and not much of a guitarist, but over many years, I have tried to figure out lots of issues regarding muscle tension.

Muscles can work for an extended period of time, provided one gives the muscles a chance to relax. That is, if one plays guitar with hands closed, and then doesn’t fully open the hands for an extended period of time, the muscles and tendons for the hand become overly stressed over time, resulting in diseases such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Another example, if one holds bend of left arm for an extended period of time, and later does not extend the left arm fully, then the left arm muscles and elbow tendons and ligaments can become overly taut, later causing injury.

How to stretch these bends or taut hands is a bit more complex. If one has held a bent elbow for 2 hours, the solution is not just to straight stretch the elbow for 5 minutes. If one’s hand is taut for 2 hours, the solution is not just to backstretch the fingers for 2 minutes.

I’ll later describe how to do these at my somewhat currently inactive (7/13/17) blog, VocalPosture.com. Please subscribe, if interested.

As for placement of thumb– my current view is that much depends on how one plays the guitar and the degree of one kinesiology memory. As a singer-guitarist, I’m having enough challenges trying to remember lyrics, finger-picking pattern, vocal methodology, audience engagement….. So, what I think works best is a consistent thumb position, because there is then far less thinking as to what to do in wrist when shifting from chord to chord. That is, whether playing an open A or a bar B, the wrist stays in the same position (not wrapping the wrist thumb on open A and then placing opposite bar on bar B.)


I've been playing guitar for 5 years (I'm 14) and I have found that because I had my thumb draped over the top of the neck that I have Tennis Elbow and am at a risk of my muscles detaching from my arm. So I asked ALOT of imformed people and they all told me that you have to hold you thumb at the middle of or beneath the middle of the guitar neck.or this will happen

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  • This is clearly false. I write "clearly" because there are many famous guitarists who play for long hours with their thumbs over the top, and I've been playing that way for 20 years. The rest of the geometry must be compatible though. In the case of the thumb over the top, the wrist should be high and the elbow low. The upper arm should be basically vertical and hanging straight down from the shoulder, which should be relaxed. See: music.stackexchange.com/questions/40845/… May 25, 2016 at 16:40
  • I've been playing like that for 5YRS and now my muscle is beginning to tear. keep in mind that since I'm only 14 , my muscles are still developing which could be the reason behind my condition. and also the same thing happened to my uncle exept his muscle did detach from his arm
    May 25, 2016 at 16:52
  • Moving your thumb alone and not paying attention to the entire ergonomics of your arm won't necessarily help. If I were in your shoes I'd look for a good guitar teacher or physical therapist who can help make sure you are using the correct positioning of all the parts of your arm. You might also back off on how much and how often you play until you sort this out. May 25, 2016 at 16:54
  • dude I can't, I play for my girlfriend and for a band, so I'll lay of alittle bit but i'm not going to stop. pero gracias por la imformation.( thanks for the info anyway)
    May 25, 2016 at 16:58
  • It's very, very likely there will be other girlfriends and other bands in your future. I'm not telling you what to do, I'm just suggesting you think about playing guitar when you're forty, fifty, sixty, etc. You might want to play for your wife and your kids, or your nieces and nephews, or your students or at the weddings of your friends or with coworkers. The sooner you sort this out, the more certain that future will be. May 25, 2016 at 17:01

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